Magazine article New Internationalist

Are Burma's Reforms for Real?

Magazine article New Internationalist

Are Burma's Reforms for Real?

Article excerpt

4 JANUARY

BURMA INDEPENDENCE DAY

Changes in Burma over the past year have been astounding, but as the country celebrates 64 years of independence, its people remain far from free.

Debate still rages over the sincerity of government reforms and the degree to which Aung San Suu Kyi, defacto leader of Burma's opposition, should engage with a reform process dictated by the military. Her release from house arrest last November, after spending 15 of the past 21 years in detention, gave cause for optimism, but previous glimmers of hope have proved premature. In 1995, and again in 2002, Suu Kyi was released and reform promised. Both times, the ruling regime reverted to repression.

Yet there are reasons to believe that the recent reforms represent real change. In November 2010, Burma held elections for the first time in 20 years and military rule was replaced by a civilian government. But, by banning from the election political parties with convicts in their ranks, the junta assured the exclusion of Suu Kyi's National League for Democracy (NLD). Their absence, and a substantial amount of vote rigging, guaranteed control of parliament for the military-backed United Solidarity and Development Party.

Confounding expectations, new president Thein Sein, himself a former soldier, has introduced a number of reforms, including laws allowing Burma's workers to form unions and strike. He also unconditionally freed over 200 political prisoners, including comedian Zarganar, jailed in 2008 for criticizing the government's response to Cyclone Nargis. Although this is a positive first step, more than 1,600 political prisoners continue to languish in Burma's prisons. …

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