Myanmar's new rulers seem to be serious about change we can all believe in. So what can the West do now to end decades of isolation?
These are heady days for those long hoping for change in Myanmar. The government, which was installed on the back of a sham election that saw the ruling junta ditch their military uniforms for civilian garb, has set out an ambitious reform agenda and seems to be trying to stick to it. After 20 years without a parliament and democratic process, its new leaders are now showing a surprising impatience with the status quo and are changing the way this country is ruled. Western policymakers should sit up and take notice of these reforms -- and, most importantly, respond.
The new government's apparent decision this week to shift its stance toward the prisoners of conscience in Myanmar's jails is an important sign of its efforts to promote internal reconciliation in the divided country. On Oct. 12, it released more than 6,359 detainees as part of a general amnesty, first hinted at in a landmark parliamentary motion urging the president to consider such a move. While the exact number of political prisoners among those released is yet to be confirmed, Amnesty International has said that the government released at least 120 of some 2,000 incarcerated political detainees.
Although the actual figure may be debated, it is the quality as much as the quantity that is significant. While less well-known than Nobel Peace Prize laureate Aung San Suu Kyi, a number of leading dissidents appear to be among those released, such as Ashin Gambira from the All Burma Monks' Alliance, who led street protests in 2007; comedian and social activist Zarganar, who criticized the government's response to the devastating Cyclone Nargis; and a prominent ethnic figure, Hso Ten, who headed the Shan State Army-North armed group.
The fact that the release was channeled through the new institutions of the presidency, parliament, and the country's fledging human rights commission lends it an unprecedented institutional basis that makes it harder to reverse. The vote in favor of the parliamentary resolution on the amnesty included the military's faction, indicating the move is openly backed by the armed forces in a way that previous releases have not been. Opposition figures in Myanmar believe that this is the first stage of a phased release of political prisoners, possibly with two more tranches in coming weeks.
The release should not be interpreted as a stand-alone event. In recent months, President Thein Sein has reached out to prominent critics, including Aung San Suu Kyi. He has made overtures to armed ethnic groups, signing preliminary peace agreements with the Wa and Mongla, which like others are still fighting a 60-year civil war. Controls on freedom of expression and the right to organize have been loosened. Myanmar has set its sights on chairing the Association of Southeast Asian Nations in 2014, which will require even more dramatic steps to alter the old mindset and become more integrated with its neighbors.
Some critics doubt the government's commitment to the reforms. But since the International Crisis Group released its Sept. 22 report, "Myanmar: Major Reform Underway," which foreshadowed greater political, economic, and human rights changes in the country, some of the subsequent positive actions have exceeded our expectations. This includes the decision to suspend construction of the controversial Chinese-backed Myitsone hydroelectric dam, which would have flooded Kachin lands and created an environmental disaster for those living downstream on the Irrawaddy River. All these moves should be seen in the context of a country seemingly now determined to pull itself out of decades of isolation.
Many recent visitors have made similar observations, as visas are increasingly issued freely, even to exile media. "I almost left the country thinking they're moving a little too fast. I never thought I would say that about Myanmar," Norwegian Deputy Foreign Minister Espen Barth Eide told the Financial Times after a trip this week. He cited the lifting of bans on websites, the chief censor's proclamation that all forms of censorship should be reviewed, the broadcast of lively parliamentary debates, the toning down of propaganda, and the positive statements from Aung San Suu Kyi after she met with the president on Aug. 19.
These are real changes, not just words. And they can effect political activity inside the country, create a more open environment, and add momentum for further change. But they are just a start on a long road ahead and do not guarantee reform will succeed. There are still many challenges to be tackled, including the difficult tasks of healing deep ethnic divisions, overcoming the legacy of decades of armed conflict, taming the brutality of the armed forces, freeing all political prisoners, fully restoring basic civil liberties, and allowing a truly free media.
But there is finally reason for optimism in Myanmar. The message from the prisoner release is that key benchmarks many in the West have insisted on are being reached. The skeptics in the international community need to acknowledge and support such a dramatic policy shift by immediately allowing institutions such as the International Monetary Fund and World Bank to provide greater advice and by finding new ways to interact directly with the government, parliament, and nascent human rights commission. Simply noting the positive change but waiting to see more before reciprocating would be a mistake.
This prisoner release is a genuine move and must elicit a positive response in kind by the West -- showing the Myanmar government that it is serious about engagement. Restrictions on international aid and advice should be the first to go. Failure to do so or shifting the goal posts by replacing old demands with new ones would undermine the credibility of these policies and diminish what little leverage the West holds. It is time to support Myanmar's reformers rather than just give them another lecture.