With much media attention focussed on the conflicts in Ukraine and the Arab world in recent months, Burma’s troubled reform process has taken up far less airtime and column inches.
But the Burmese government led by former General Thein Sein has been accused for more than a year by pro-democracy campaigners of backtracking, so asking where the military intend to take Burma is a pressing question.
Opposition leader Aung San Suu Kyi, now very much the politician rather than the democracy icon – and ever mindful of her ambition to be president – has said reforms stalled in 2013. She is still keen to see the government approve the constitutional change needed to allow her to stand in this year’s presidential election so, despite strong indications they are not going to do this, she has been quite restrained in her criticism.
Two events over the past ten days have highlighted where there has been little evidence of substantive change – the treatment of the Muslim Rohingya minority in western Burma and the army’s repressive approach to ethnic unrest that has beset the country since independence from Britain in 1948.
After having passed a measure that would have allowed the Rohingya to vote – even if it still refuses to give them full citizenship – the government did an immediate u-turn after protests by Buddhists. Then, earlier this week, President Thein Sein imposed martial law in Kokang region after fighting erupted between the army and Kokang fighters. The Kokang are a Han Chinese ethnic group and 30,000 have fled across the border into China to escape the fighting.
Western governments, including the US and the UK, rewarded the reforms started in 2011 by quickly relaxing their sanctions on Burma. President Obama has even visited the country twice and received Thein Sein at the White House.
These early reforms included legalising an independent press, releasing political prisoners and allowing Aung San Suu Kyi and others from the National League for Democracy to be voted into parliament in by-elections.
The motive for the reform process and opening to the West arose partly from the military’s realisation that isolation from the US and Europe had seen the country fall far behind its neighbours economically and technologically. There was also Rangoon’s desire to avoid becoming too dependent on its huge neighbour China which had become its main political and economic backer.
But even though there are now independent media in the country, journalists are still being jailed for what they write and say. Political prisoners have been released – but not all of them as was promised – and others arrested.
Criticism of Thein Sein is usually couched in language aimed at encouraging a reform process intended to turn the country into a free market, democratic state. During his visit to Burma last November, Mr Obama told local media “I’m determined that the United States will remain a partner with those who seek greater freedom, prosperity and dignity.”
But is the Burmese government really such a partner?
A well informed observer of the Burmese military told me the former dictator, Than Shwe, had mapped out a process of constitutional change twenty years ago and it is possible to see what has happened since as fulfilling that plan.
For instance, he points out, Burma’s Defence Services Academy has trained many more officers than the armed forces really need and after serving for a few years many of these graduates have now taken off their uniforms and gone into business or sit in parliament as MPs for the ruling Union Solidarity and Development Party.
So the objective may not be – as western governments seem to assume – to eventually turn Burma into a liberal democracy.
Rather the endgame may well be a country, balanced between Washington and Beijing, governed by an oligarchic authoritarian system legitimised by regular multi-party elections in which the military caste can continue to run things while benefitting from the economic modernisation and growth that flows from better relations with the West.
If this is indeed the case, western policy is supporting an outcome at odds with its stated aim of encouraging democracy to take hold in Burma, even if weakening Chinese influence may still be seen as win in the US and Europe.