Twelve months ago, the Burmese military allowed elections that resulted in the first civilian government coming to power since it took control in 1962. The poll was widely regarded as a sham, indeed it still is by many, but the change has pushed the country in a direction welcomed in much of the international community.
President Thein Sein has revised laws on political parties, freed 300 political prisoners, sought a conciliatory line with pro-democracy icon Aung San Suu Kyi and defied one of its few allies – China – by suspending construction of a mega-dam inside Burma that had generated enormous local resentment.
The government has also legalized trade unions and eased censorship laws. These are seen as encouraging signs.
Suu Kyi is again travelling in the countryside where she attracts thousands. A film depicting her life and starring Michelle Yeoh, and which was directed by Luc Besson, is about to be released. Thein Sein’s government, meanwhile, has left the door open for her to re-register her National League for Democracy (LDP).
It’s a tantalizing offer and “The Lady” as she is often known, has indicated the NLD could contest future elections if certain electoral laws are amended. Suu Kyi, who has spent 15 of the past 21 years under house arrest, also says Thein Sein’s desire for reform appears genuine and sincere.
Burma’s regular detractors in the West have taken note. Sanctions will be maintained, although the United States says it will respond in kind if Burma halts human rights abuses and proves it’s genuine about democratic reform.
The United Nations, aid organizations and human rights groups are also paying attention as the government and military would desperately like to see sanctions lifted and Naypyidaw take up the chair of the annual prestigious Association of Southeast Asian Nations summit in 2014.
But the changes are still far from overwhelming. Wholesale reforms aren’t in the offing, and some 1,700 political prisoners remain behind bars. Suu Kyi’s gripes about much needed amendments to electoral laws therefore appear justified.
Under the 2008 constitution, the military is mandated 25 percent of the seats in parliament, while at the November 7 election last year, the junta-backed Union of Solidarity and Development Party picked up 80 percent of the seats it competed for.
A direct result of the military’s interference in civilian life has seen Burma’s once vibrant economy reduced to the region’s poor house. Conflict among the country’s ethnic groups seems as bloody as ever, and reports of bullying and intimidation by the Army remain common.
A second movie on Burma is also about to get a screening that will test the government’s patience. Entitled Bringing Justice to Women, the documentary is a series of interviews in the state of Kachin about sexual violence perpetrated against women in conflict zones and the systematic use of rape as a weapon.
That production, along with Besson’s movie, aptly titled The Lady, is unlikely to get past the censors and make it onto screens in Burma anytime soon.
The new mood in Naypyidaw a year after the elections should be welcomed, but the military and the government of Thein Sein still have a long way to go in winning over the many cynics they have spawned over five decades of junta rule and who are still wondering: what’s really changed?