Burma: A primer on recent political changes in the country also known as Myanmar

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The government of Burma (also known as Myanmar) is undergoing a transformation of sorts. As explained in this week's cover story, "A World Away," Burma has been a dangerous place for decades due to civil wars and the oppressive policies of the former ruling military junta. In the past year, a new nominally civilian government has begun to turn things around. Here, we offer a primer on recent events.

Nominally civilian government takes over, March 2011
From "President Replaces Junta in Myanmar Shadow Play," by Seth Mydans, New York Times, March 30, 2011:

A nominally civilian government took office in Myanmar on Wednesday but the change was mostly one of political structure as the military, which has ruled for a half-century, maintained its grip on power.

From "Burmese Wary of 'Democracy,' After Years of Oppression," New York Times, August 25, 2011:

"As far as I can see, there has been no change," said U San Shwe, a retired civil servant whose comments typify the skepticism heard frequently in Myanmar. "The new government consists of former generals who have habits that they can't break. They are accustomed to taking bribes, mistreating people and making a lot of money from their positions. They confiscate things, and no one can complain."

U.S. Secretary of State Hillary Clinton visits Burma, December 2011
From "Burma's New Hope: A Repressive Regime Loosens Its Grip (for Now)," by Hannah Beech, Time, November 30, 2011:

When Burma's generals announced they would hold elections in 2010 as part of a grand plan to turn the country into a "discipline-flourishing democracy," the world scoffed. Since seizing power in 1962, the country's military had ravaged one of Asia's brightest economies and turned its weapons on ethnic minorities, pro-democracy protesters and ordinary citizens alike. In the months leading up to the polls, loads of state-owned enterprises were auctioned off to regime cronies, whose ostentation -- Ferraris, mansions, jewel-encrusted weddings -- has shocked an impoverished populace. The election results were hardly promising. Many of the opposition candidates who didn't adhere to the NLD boycott complained of rampant voter fraud. When the new legislature convened in March, the military's proxy party dominated. One-quarter of seats were also reserved for men in uniform.

But a subdued Burmese spring blossomed into a surprising summer.... President Thein Sein met in August for a cordial chat with (Aung San) Suu Kyi. While much of the foreign investment flowing into Burma from Asian nations has landed in the pockets of military families or their cronies, an undeniable frisson of commerce exists in Rangoon. There are other quivers of activity. This fall, two small protests took place in Burma, one in Rangoon and the other in the city of Mandalay. Unlike in 2007, when the military massacred monks and jailed thousands of unarmed demonstrators, no one was arrested -- or shot. In November, the parliament passed a bill allowing some Burmese the right to protest, a privilege they previously did not enjoy. Such reforms - modest in a global context but revolutionary for Burma -- were the kind of "flickers of progress" that Obama said prompted Clinton's visit.

From "Clinton Says U.S. Will Relax Some Restrictions on Myanmar," by Steven Lee Myers, New York Times, December 1, 2011:

The steps Mrs. Clinton announced on Thursday were modest in scale but important symbolically. While the United States is not yet considering lifting the sweeping sanctions that ban most imports from Myanmar, she said, Washington will no longer block the World Bank and International Monetary Fund from carrying out assessment programs, and will support the expansion of United Nations development grants for health care and small businesses in Myanmar.

Aung San Suu Kyi announces a run for parliament, January 2012
From "Myanmar Opposition Leader Aun San Suu Kyi Confirms She Will Run For Parliament in April," Associated Press, January 9, 2012:

Suu Kyi's decision to personally contest the April polls is the latest vote of confidence for government reforms that include the legalization of labor unions, increasing press freedom and opening a dialogue with Suu Kyi herself.

Government signs cease-fire, releases prisoners, January 2012
From "Burmese Government and Ethnic Rebel Group Sign Cease-Fire," by Seth Mydans, New York Times, January 12, 2012:

The government of Myanmar signed a cease-fire agreement on Thursday with ethnic Karen rebels, whose fight for greater autonomy is one of the largest of the brutal civil wars that has bedeviled the country since it gained independence from Britain more than six decades ago.

From "Myanmar Begins Releasing Hundreds of Political Prisoners After Cease-Fire," by Daniel Ten Kate, Bloomberg News, January 13, 2012:

Prisoners including pro-democracy activists, ethnic minority leaders and an ex-prime minister who fell out of favor with the former ruling junta were set free today, according to the Democratic Voice of Burma, an Internet news service run by exiles. They are among 651 prisoners included in a presidential pardon, the Associated Press reported.

"This could be the big prisoner release that everyone has been waiting for," Thant Myint-U, a former United Nations official who has written two books on Myanmar, said in a telephone interview. "It's a number greater than the National League for Democracy's number of prisoners of conscience," he said, referring to top dissident Aung San Suu Kyi's party.

Freeing political prisoners has been a primary demand of U.S. and European policy makers who impose sanctions on Myanmar, one of Asia's poorest countries whose 62 million citizens earn an average of $2.20 per day. U.S. Secretary of State Hillary Clinton urged Myanmar President Thein Sein during a visit in December to free prisoners and improve ties with ethnic groups as a condition for easing restrictions.

U.S. announces it will send ambassador to Burma, January 2012
From "U.S. to Send Ambassador to Myanmar, Restoring Full Diplomatic Ties as Reward for Reforms," Associated Press, January 13, 2012:

The United States is restoring full diplomatic relations with Myanmar, a landmark in the Obama administration's drive to reward democratic reforms by a government the U.S. previously treated as a pariah.

The decision announced Friday to exchange ambassadors with Myanmar for the first time in two decades followed the release of hundreds of political prisoners, but Washington probably will be looking for fair conduct in coming elections and an end to ethnic violence before it lifts sanctions.

From "With U.S.-Burma Ties on the Mend, Will a Lifting of Sanctions Be Next?" by Hannah Beech, Time, January 16, 2012:

And practically speaking, the lifting of any American sanctions -- the reward that Thein Sein and his supporters seem to so desperately crave -- will not happen immediately, even if high-level American officials were to endorse such a move. Such decisions will have to make their way through U.S. Congress. Still, in a sign of just how much things have changed, another American delegation is slated to visit Burma, possibly next month. Who's going? U.S. businessmen.

More from our Follow That Story archives: "Video: Teenage refugees from Burma perform a traditional dance for the New Year."



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