Burma reform is a work in progress

Barack Obama spoke of ‘flickers of progress’ when he visited Rangoon.
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“Reforms launched from the top of society must meet the aspirations of citizens, who form its foundation,” Barack Obama told an audience at the University of Rangoon on his historic, though brief, visit to Burma. “The flickers of progress that we have seen must not be extinguished.”

Few would argue with the sentiments, but the hard question being asked by analysts, diplomats and policymakers is straightfoward: are the reforms that have changed Burma to such a degree in recent years going to continue, slow, stall or even be reversed?

One answer was given last week, in inimitable fashion, by Aung San Suu Kyi herself.

“Of course it is irreversible,” she snapped in an interview in India. “It is too facile to say if something is irreversible or reversible. We have to work hard to ensure things are going in the right direction.”

Western officials in Rangoon echo her words. Much has changed in the last year, they say. Some key moves, such as the weakening of a conservative vice-president, went largely unnoticed by all but the most committed Burma-watchers.

So rather than discuss catastrophic regression, they now list the possible outcomes of the reforms: a Russian-style oligarchy, a prosperous and stable pro-western democracy, a Chinese-type mixture of autocratic politics and free-market economics, or some entirely new, Burmese mix. The idea of a return to the status quo ante now appears fantastical.

So if reforms won’t stop, could they stall or slow? To answer this, local analysts are now dissecting the various tensions between reformist factions. Careful attention is being paid to the evident competition between the president, Thein Sein, and Shwe Mann, the apparently ambitious speaker of the lower house in parliament. The actions and attitudes of major regional players – and particularly of the US – also plays a big role here. So, to an extent, does public opinion. All are factors that will determine how rapidly or how slowly the military relinquishes its hold on power.

But if the real hardliners appear marginalised, in terms of the continuing political process, some external shock – another cyclone, for example, or a huge wave of violence internally – could potentially bring them back to centre stage. This is one reason why the evolution of the ethnic and religious strife in the west of the country is so important, as is the conclusion or maintenance of ceasefires with various armed movements, such as the Karen or the Kachin.

There is also a section of the army, the lower end of the upper ranks, that has long waited for the perks senior officers enjoy in a corrupt and brutal military dictatorship, and who are now looking at a rather less comfortable future. Could they risk a coup attempt? Unlikely, but not impossible.

Thi Ha Saw, a newspaper editor who still speaks excitedly of being called into a minister’s office earlier this year to be told that decades of censorship were now over, says he has seen a series of positive small signs that are perhaps more significant then the headline-grabbing big reforms. For example, a recent report by a government inspector accused ministries of graft and waste, the first ever such statement; a handful of low-level judges were fired, again for corruption; and small demonstrations have been held.

All of this has to be weighed against continuing problems elsewhere, but the developments are nonetheless cause for guarded hope. The phrase one hears frequently in Rangoon these days is “cautious optimism”.

“The reforms are gaining momentum but they have still not reached the point of no return. There are still plenty of conservatives … it will take a few more years,” Thi Ha Saw said.

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