Burma's Reforms: Window Dressing or Reality?
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Burma's Reforms: Window Dressing or Reality?

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The Burmese government has done itself another favor by releasing 514 prisoners, many of them political prisoners, in a move aimed at heading-off any embarrassment caused by their unwarranted incarceration during a visit to the United States by President Thein Sein next week.

Their release should be a cause for relief but hardly a celebration, even though the opposition National League for Democracy (NLD) thinks this could be the last of their ilk still languishing behind bars.

The powers that be in Naypyidaw have played a deft hand – with a combination of encouragement and brow beating from other Southeast Asian leaders – in leaving behind their banana republic status for an image slightly more befitting of the 21st century.

Designer suits have replaced the military uniforms, businessmen (including the carpet baggers) along with the tourists are lining-up, hoteliers in Rangoon are doing a roaring trade and governments are re-designing their foreign policies to maximize their relations with Burma and its strategic position.

But how much substance is behind the release of these prisoners and determining whether the junta really is making way for a fledgling democracy is much harder to determine.

Obviously the prisoners being freed should never have been locked up in the first place and their release was part of a tit-for-tat bargain with the West. The U.S. mandated their release in exchange for further economic incentives and Thein Sein is no doubt looking forward to the accolades that will now, probably, accompany his first trip to the United States.

He already knows such applause will pale when compared with NLD leader Aung San Suu Kyi, who will receive a Congressional medal for her efforts in dragging her country out of an abyss that once earned Burma deserved comparisons with Albania and later North Korea.

But it still has a long way to go, despite media pronouncements written in the past tense that Burma was once ruled by an authoritarian junta for 49-years.

Given the well documented issues with the 2010 elections and a guarantee that 25 percent of all seats in Parliament would be reserved for the military, the reality is that Burma is still a military-dominated government, albeit with a savvier dress sense.

There are more than 10 ethnic conflicts – depending on how and when you count them – going on inside the country. The national response to the latest bloodshed involving the Rohingya Muslims was straight out of the Dark-Ages and amid all this Thein Sein is expected to bring home economic breaks from the U.S. simply for clearing his jails of prisoners who should never have been there in the first place.

Thein Sein has proved himself a clever politician and surely he must rate among the smartest Southeast Asian leaders of his time.

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