And then a strange thing happened. The members of parliament, who at first seemed like token former Army officers, began to act like, well, parliamentarians. They opened inquiries into state budgets, military spending, and other sacred cows. They held loud debates on the parliament floor and tried to explain their positions to the local media -- a first. Meanwhile, the new president, Thein Sein, who had come up in the military and, though less corrupt than some other officers, was still seen as a status quo figure, began making major changes. Burmese officials claimed that the former dictator, Senior General Than Shwe, and his longtime number two, Maung Aye, had truly retired after 2010 and were no longer providing direct input into policy-making.
In a move that seemed to confirm these claims, Thein Sein quickly sacked many hard-line ministers and opened up the media, essentially ending censorship in what had been one of the most repressive environments in the world for print and broadcast journalists. Today, Yangon, where news once consisted of the Pravda-like state paper The New Light of Myanmar, boasts at least ten new broadsheets and other publications that are springing up, as well as online outlets staffed with journalists, many of whom were trained in exile, focusing on investigative reporting and political analysis that would have incurred long jail sentences just two years ago. In recognition of the changes, monitoring organizations like Freedom House have dramatically raised Myanmar's scores on press and social freedoms. Today, the media is freer in Myanmar than it many other parts of Southeast Asia, such as Laos or Vietnam.
Thein Sein's government also lifted other civil society restrictions. As thousands of educated Burmese exiles returned home and set up new NGOs focusing on environmental protection, labor rights, and many other issues that it would have been unthinkable to promote in Myanmar just a few years ago, the government has tolerated their efforts, allowing protests over dams and other environmental issues, and giving interviews with exiled media organizations returning to the country.
Thein Sein also built bridges to Suu Kyi, holding regular talks with her and, over the course of the past two years, releasing nearly all political prisoners from jail, including many NLD members. Their discussions eventually paved the way for a free and fair parliamentary by-election last spring in which the NLD swept 41 of 44 seats, putting Suu Kyi in parliament for the first time in history -- though in a small minority in a lower house of over 400 seats. NLD supporters thronged Suu Kyi's house after the by-election triumph, celebrating ecstatically in scenes that reminded some observers of the end of white rule in South Africa. The NLD even took seats in constituencies around the capital of Naypyidaw, which is populated primarily by military men and their families.
Suu Kyi, who had been held under house arrest for nearly 20 years, suddenly was free to travel, and embarked upon victory tours of Europe and the United States this past fall, where she picked up award after award in Washington and New York. NLD parliamentarians began making plans for the next national election, in 2015, when all seats in parliament will be contested, and Suu Kyi's party and its allies hope to win control of the legislature and thus, they think, the country.
Thein Sein has also made progress toward reforming Myanmar's crippled and archaic economy. In an effort to make the country less dependent on China, which had become Myanmar's most important donor and investor during the sanctions era, he approved the cancellation of a controversial Chinese dam project -- ostensibly for environmental reasons -- and rolled out the red carpet for Western investors. The president, surrounded by a group of former exiles educated in the West and knowledgeable about the development paths of neighbors like Thailand and Indonesia, pushed to reform the foreign investment law, provide greater guarantees for investors, and shore up the country's notoriously fragile banking system.
Thein Sein has enjoyed the support of high profile economists like Nobel Prize laureate Joseph Stiglitz, who visited the country to assist with economic reforms, and international financial institutions, which barely knew who the president was two years ago. Even Suu Kyi has come to trust Thein Sein, allies of the democracy leader say in private. "The president is the key making all this change happen," said one former exile activist who now has returned to Myanmar, emboldened by the changes. Suu Kyi and Thein Sein have dined together on numerous occasions and she has told supporters she feels a rapport with the president that she never had with any previous military leader in the country.
* * *
Why should we doubt the hype? For one, comparing Myanmar to Vietnam in the late 1980s or to another Asian tiger cub about to open up is a stretch. Myanmar does have a large market (50 million people), cheap labor, enormous natural resources, and a strategic location between two of the fastest-growing economies in the world. But unlike Malaysia, Indonesia, Thailand, or even Vietnam by the late 1980s, Myanmar remains wrecked by civil wars, some of which are still going on and show little sign of ending. Many parts of the country bear a closer resemblance to an African country like Rwanda or Angola emerging from years of severe civil strife, with low-level insurgencies still flaring in outlying regions.