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.