Transition in Myanmar; A SIMMERING CAULDRON OF DEMOCRACY Buoyed by Visits from Hillary Clinton in 2011 and Barack Obama in 2012, Authoritarian Regime in Southeast Asia Tries to Reform Itself from Within

Article excerpt

Byline: Frank Denton

YANGON, MYANMAR | The new capital of Myanmar is like a grand, wondrous mirage - massive, sprawling complexes of beautiful Burmese-style buildings suddenly arisen on land that once was the jungle center of the old communist insurgency, later clear-cut by timber interests with contracts from the former military dictatorship. Across the front is a 20-lane freeway. Nearby is a zone of fancy hotels.

But few people. Or cars or other signs of human activity. One can stand in the middle of that freeway and not see anything in either direction. I did.

It's as if the sparkling new capital of Naypyidaw 200 miles north of Yangon is waiting, quietly and patiently, for the frantic nation of Myanmar to let its aspiring democracy come of age and bloom and need a glorious capital.

This country is a fascinating, frustrating, promising, tragic, amazing cauldron of history, exploitation, heroism, dictatorship, diplomacy, idealism and people - being oppressed and exploited and soon, everyone hopes and most think, liberated.

Myanmar, formerly known by the British colonial name of Burma, is worth some of your attention span because - with all the disabilities common in the Third World but also with the arc of history bending quickly toward democracy - it has become a true working laboratory for people struggling to build the freedom and life we enjoy and want for others.

I came here as one of 14 Jefferson Fellows of the East-West Center to study Challenges of Democratic Transition and, while we're here, to attend the International Media Conference on Challenges of a Free Press. The fact the conference was here is itself a dramatic sign of progress; it could not have been even a year or two ago.

Myanmar, The Economist wrote last year, is "a rare example of an authoritarian regime changing itself from within."

A bit of history is necessary to understand what is happening in Myanmar. As it borders India, Bangladesh, China, Laos and Thailand, bridging South Asia and Southeast Asia, the country is what has been called "a glorious mishmash" of people who immigrated from all directions to create a multi-ethnic society, or rather set of societies.

Britain conquered and colonized it in the 19th century, then the Union of Burma won independence in 1948. While the many ethnic groups were trying to learn how to live together in a democracy, the military staged a coup in 1962 then closed the county and ruled severely, sometimes brutally, for the next 50 years, as the resource-rich economy withered.

Hundreds of thousands of Burmese fled the oppression and persecution to other countries, including to Jacksonville. Our three refugee services resettled 305 Burmese last year, 328 in 2012 and more than 400 each of the previous three years. We have a Burmese community.

But now, finally, the power of the people is beginning to prevail in Myanmar. The transition to democracy began in early 2011, when parliamentary elections turned the government civilian (though the military retained substantial power in Parliament, the ministries and the courts).

You've heard of the symbol of the modern Burmese struggle for freedom, Aung San Suu Kyi, who won the Nobel Peace Prize in 1991 but was kept under house arrest most of the years between 1989 and 2010. She now is a member of Parliament.

But the real hero of democratization may be President Thein Sein, who responded to growing economic, social and political pressures by pushing substantial democratic reforms, including competitive parliamentary elections, releasing hundreds of political prisoners, making tentative peace agreements with most of the major armed ethnic groups, passing basic human rights laws and removing press censorship. This progress allowed some relaxation of tough U.S. and other Western economic sanctions.

The U.S. has been a powerful positive force. President Barack Obama's original overture to totalitarian regimes fell flat elsewhere but struck a chord in Myanmar, which welcomed then-Secretary of State Hillary Clinton on an official visit in 2011. …