At the end of March 2011 the military junta handed over the leadership of Burma to a “civilian” government; in reality this government was made up of former military officials, and it seemed unlikely that any significant change would occur in this famously repressive nation. However, while it is still far from being a Western-style democracy, Burma does appear to be on the path to reform, offering hope to those who have struggled under decades of military dictatorship.
Since the elections of 2010, the first since 1990, Burma has taken significant steps towards change. Aung San Suu Kyi, Burma’s iconic pro-democracy leader, was released from house arrest just days after the election, and the government has entered into a dialogue with her; she met with President Thein Sein in August. Approximately 200 political prisoners were released in October, and in the same month labour unions were legalised for the first time since 1962. Peaceful protests have also been legalised following the visit of Hilary Clinton. Internet controls have been relaxed and press censorship is less strict. However, Burma still has a long way to go; it is estimated that 2,000 political prisoners remain incarcerated, some serving sentences of 65 years or longer. Those prisoners often had little or no access to legal advice during their trial. Some labour activists remain in prison, casting doubts over whether labour unions will be able to operate in reality. Many of those who have been released say that they were tortured whilst in jail.
The international community appears to believe that Burma is genuinely on the path towards democracy; Hilary Clinton was the most senior US official to visit Burma in 50 years, and was quoted as saying that she was “very confident that if we work together… there will be no turning back from the road to democracy”. Burma has also been asked to chair the Association of South-East Asian Nations (Asean) in 2014, where previously Burma has been passed over due to its human rights record. Indonesian Foreign Minister Marty Natalegawa has said that this reflects the expectations of the regional bloc for Burma by 2014, and hopes it will encourage further reforms.
The world will continue to watch with interest as Burma’s dedication to reform is tested. Many of this new legislation remains untried at the time of writing, and while it is expected that more political prisoners may be released in time for the Spring by-elections, nothing definite has been promised. Aung San Suu Kyi’s party, the National League for Democracy (NLD) has recently reregistered as a political party, and will put forward candidates for all 48 by-elections. The NLD’s election victory was stolen in 1990; time will tell how far Burma has changed in the two decades since.