What Happened in Burma and Why it Matters for the Future

Some of you may have seen Burma featured prominently in the news as the U.S. government decided to restore full diplomatic ties with the country. And, yes, it is big news. We’d like to put these developments in context and share our thoughts on what we will be looking for in the coming months.

First, a bit of background. As we detailed in a recent blog post, the message following Secretary of State Clinton’s November visit was that Burma’s new quasi-civilian government needed to take concrete steps to show that its promises of political reform and national reconciliation are genuine. It’s not a coincidence that the government has started to deliver on some of these demands.

1) The Burmese government released 651 political prisoners, many of whom are incredibly important activists who have been held in terrible conditions for decades. For some incredibly moving photos click here.

Why is this significant? In the past, prisoner releases were small and rarely included the most important and well-known activists. (Often it wasn’t even clear if the prisoners released were actually political prisoners.) Friday’s release included prominent activists such as 88 Generation leaders Min Ko Naing (first imprisoned from 1989-2004 and then from 2007-2012) and Nilar Thein (who was imprisoned in 2008 following large scale protests), ethnic Shan leader U Khun Tun Oo, monk leader U Gambira and blogger Nay Phone Latt.

What’s next? Over 600 political prisoners are still in jail. Repressive laws are still on the books. We’ll look for these laws to be repealed and to see if released activists are able to organize and criticize their government without being thrown back into jail. According to the Irrawaddy magazine, prisoners were not given amnesty but rather had their sentences suspended so they could be re-arrested. For more thoughts on what needs to happen next, check out AJWS’s grantee Burma Partnership.

2) The Karen National Union (KNU) has entered into an initial agreement with the Burmese government.

Why is this significant? The KNU is the longest-fighting opposition army in Burma and has been at war with the regime for six decades. Read more about this historic agreement visit.

What’s next? The KNU and Burmese government have signed an initial agreement toward a cease-fire. We’ll see if a formal cease-fire agreement materializes. An end to armed conflict is essential but there is much more to be done to bring lasting peace, including addressing ethnic discrimination and the lack of representation for ethnic nationalities. We’ll also be watching to see if other opposition groups move towards cease-fires and which specific demands the government will make. In the past, the Burmese government demanded that arms be surrendered without providing any protection to civilians. Specifically, we will be looking for a halt to hostilities in Kachin areas where tens of thousands have been displaced from about eight months of fighting. It will be important to see how the rights of ethnic nationalities in Burma, not just Karen, are addressed in these negotiations. Read about national reconciliation from an ethnic leader’s perspective.

3) Daw Aung San Suu Kyi announced that she and other National League for Democracy candidates will run in the by-elections scheduled for April.

Why is this significant? The National League for Democracy (NLD) did not run in the 2010 parliamentary elections and has been restricted from registering in the past. In the 1990 elections the NLD won the vast majority of the vote but was not allowed to take power.

What’s next? We will be watching to see whether Daw Aung San Suu Kyi and other NLD candidates are given the freedom to campaign and whether the electoral processes are free and fair. While these elections will be a critical test, it’s important to note that the elections concern only a small number of the seats in parliament. The 48 seats that were vacated by cabinet appointments represent a minority of the 498 seats in the parliament, particularly given that the country’s 2008 constitution guaranteed the military 25 percent of the seats.

4) The Obama administration has restored diplomatic ties with Burma.

Why is this significant? The United States withdrew its ambassador after elections in 1990. The U.S. and other Western countries have had little political leverage with Burma as the country established very close political and economic ties with China and, secondarily, with Thailand and India. Recently, it seems that there is more interest from Burma’s leadership in re-establishing relations with the U.S.

What’s next? The U.S. has maintained trade and aid sanctions against the regime and so far seems to be standing behind these sanctions claiming that it’s too early to tell whether these reforms are genuine. We agree with this assessment and have concerns that these political reforms will open the floodgates for bilateral aid and investment from private companies without there being strong enough systems in place to monitor aid and regulate investment.

With all of these recent changes, there is a lot of excitement and anxiety. In conversations with our partners, people express concern about how the international community will interpret the story of these events. There are certainly things to celebrate and give us hope, but a handful of sudden events cannot change the social fabric of a country whose government has, for decades, oppressed, neglected, isolated and waged war on its own citizens. We hope we are seeing just the beginning of a long process of transformative change—change to which generations of activists inside and outside of Burma have dedicated their lives.