The Burma Spring?

Burma’s leadership is showing signs of change. It may be slow in coming, but it should also be welcomed.

As pro-democracy movements have swept across the globe, many have wondered if some regimes may attempt to get ahead of the curve and liberalize, instead of risking collapse.

If I was the leader of an autocratic nation, I might have begun to hedge my bets against my own domestic uprising, perhaps offering overtures, however small, as a means of placating this restless movement. Could the government of Burma be pursuing such a policy?

Over the past few weeks, the government of President Thein Sein has allowed the release of up to 100 political prisoners, and reportedly plans to release more. Media restrictions have been lifted, (the BBC broadcast a live segment recently, with the full knowledge of the Burmese government), and trade unions will be allowed to form, according to a new law passed in October.

Such conciliatory efforts have resulted in opposition leader and Burmese democracy icon Aung San Suu Kyi announcing that her political party, the National League for Democracy (NLD), will participate in upcoming elections. This comes on the heels of an announcement that U.S. Secretary of State Hillary Clinton will next month make a state visit, the first such visit in more than 50 years.

The Association of Southeast Asian Nations was impressed enough with the gradual changes in Burma to award the country the chair of the regional organization for 2014. Indonesian Foreign Minister Marty Natalegawa told the BBC that the move, decided unanimously by ASEAN members, will be a way to encourage Burma to continue its liberalization.

“We’re trying to ensure the process of change continues,” he said.

This appears yet another example of the “Asian Way,” that inimitable operational code that’s uniquely Asian and also serves as a diplomatic tool and conflict resolution mechanism for the region’s myriad actors. In other areas of the world, Burma’s checkered history may well have been used against it: its routine terrorizing its own citizens and violent quelling of protests has prompted a chorus of criticism outside of Asia.

But as Natalegawa said, “it’s not about the past.” Many human rights advocates have given their lives for their cause in Burma. Yet although some observers may quibble with the pace of change, if these advocates’ efforts served to make the current government not only think twice about sponsoring another crackdown, but to advance Burma’s own democracy movement, then their sacrifices were surely worth it.