An hour after landing in Burma this January, I sat on the floor of a tiny bamboo house in a suburb of Rangoon, sharing lunch with a half dozen women who had just walked out of prison following an amnesty of political prisoners. There was much I wanted to ask them: about their treatment (it got better over time, thanks, they all insisted, to international pressure), about their plans (get a good night's sleep, and then right back to political work), and their fears (chiefly, that with dissidents streaming out of prisons and opposition leader Aung San Suu Kyi heading into parliament, the West would declare Burma a success and move on). But there was one question to which I kept coming back: "Why are you free?"
I posed a variation of that question to everyone I met in Burma -- dissidents, government officials, journalists and academics. Why is the Burmese government promising now rights and freedoms that, for decades, it sent people to prison for demanding? Why is it so eager now to draw Aung San Suu Kyi into the country's political life, after so many years of trying to blot her out? Not everyone agreed on the precise reasons. But there was a common theme to their answers: After years of serving a military that was shunned, hated, or ridiculed for running Burma into the ground, "they" -- Burma's president, Thein Sein, and those behind him -- want "legitimacy and respect." They want to be on better terms with their people, and for Burma to be on better terms with the world.
It is plain that the Burmese people deserve most of the credit for their rulers' change of heart. For years, they faced unrelenting brutality from above, yet sustained a political movement dedicated to non-violence and national reconciliation. Time and again, they organized themselves in sophisticated and principled ways, not just to demand political freedom, but to respond to natural disasters, to deliver to themselves the basic services their government neglected, and to remain connected to the outside world. In Aung San Suu Kyi, they also had something that dissident movements in most dictatorships lack -- a leader clearly capable of unifying their country and leading its government. The military may have held all the power in Burma. But she and her movement held all the legitimacy.
Even in the years when Burma's democracy movement seemed silenced and defeated, pressure from below manifested itself in conversations in marketplaces and monasteries, in acts of passive resistance, in the flight of talented people from the country. Then, every so often, it would burst into the open, as it did in the 2007 Saffron Revolution. With brute force, the military survived that challenge (a reminder that the road to change in Burma has been far from peaceful). But many Burmese believe that some army officers felt shame about the violence they inflicted on the revered Buddhist monks who led that uprising, and about their government's deadly incompetence the following year when a cyclone ravaged the country. When Burma's long-serving dictator Than Shwe retired in 2010, the generation of officers that succeeded him undoubtedly included some men affected by Burma's traumas who wanted a way out of the morass it was in.
The more controversial question is whether pressure from outside, including Western sanctions, also contributed to these changes. I've hesitated to weigh in strongly on this debate, partly because it is hard to set aside one's own bias (those, like me, who supported sanctions naturally want to believe that they helped -- and vice versa), and partly because it's premature to argue about what caused Burma's transition to democracy when that transition is not remotely complete. Perhaps in twenty years, when archives are studied and the key players have told their stories, a consensus will emerge. And then someone will come along to disprove it.
At the same time, I have found it disconcerting to hear diplomats and other observers assert with certainty that sanctions had nothing to do with Burma's political opening. After all, the United States and other countries imposed sanctions to promote a particular objective in Burma, and now that objective seems on the verge of being achieved. It's as if we had turned a hose on a raging fire and, after seeing the flames subside, said: "How did that happen? It couldn't have been the water we sprayed." In neither case does correlation prove causality - a sanctioned state can change course for reasons unrelated to sanctions, just as a doused fire can burn out on its own. But it is strange not to consider that one's efforts had their intended effect.