TOKYO – Historic transformations often happen when least expected. Mikhail Gorbachev’s liberalizing policies of glasnost and perestroika in the Soviet Union emerged at one of the Cold War’s darkest hours, with US President Ronald Reagan pushing for strategic missile defense and the two sides fighting proxy wars in Afghanistan and elsewhere. Deng Xiaoping’s economic opening followed China’s bloody – and failed – invasion of Vietnam in 1978. And South Africa’s last apartheid leader, F. W. de Klerk, was initially perceived as just another apologist for the system – hardly the man to free Nelson Mandela and oversee the end of white minority rule.
Now the world is suddenly asking whether Burma (Myanmar), after six decades of military dictatorship, has embarked on a genuine political transition that could end the country’s pariah status. Is Burma, like South Africa under de Klerk, truly poised to emerge from a half-century of self-imposed isolation? And can Aung San Suu Kyi, the heroic opposition leader, and Thein Sein, Burma’s new president, engineer a political transition as skillfully and peacefully as Mandela and de Klerk did for South Africa in the early 1990’s?
Despite her two decades of house arrest and isolation, Suu Kyi possesses two of the gifts that enabled Mandela to carry out his great task: a reassuring serenity and an utter lack of vindictiveness. As Burma’s authorities test reform, these gifts, together with her negotiating skills and, most of all, her vast moral authority, will be tested as never before.
Moreover, unlike Mandela during his 27-year imprisonment, Suu Kyi has had her hopes raised – and dashed – before. In the mid-1990’s, and again in 2002-2003, reconciliation between Suu Kyi’s National League for Democracy (NLD) and the military junta seemed to be in the offing. On both occasions, however, the regime’s hardliners gained the upper hand, crushing prospects for reform.
Yet Suu Kyi, and much of the Burmese opposition, is beginning to admit that today’s political liberalization might be the real thing. Because Burma’s generals say almost nothing in public, it is difficult to fathom why they allowed elections that elevated Thein Sein to power, or to explain their willingness to embrace dialogue with the long-suppressed opposition.
Recent events suggest one possible explanation: Burma’s rulers have grown wary of China’s almost smothering embrace – a result of the country’s international isolation. Indeed, public protests against China’s commercial exploitation of Burma’s natural resources became so widespread that the government called a halt to construction by Chinese investors on the huge and environmentally damaging Myitsone Dam on the Irrawaddy River.
Thein Sein’s decision to halt the project is clearly an important policy shift. It is also a signal to the outside world that Burma’s new government may be much more willing than any of its predecessors to heed both public pressure and international opinion, both of which vehemently opposed the dam’s construction.
Almost simultaneously, Thein Sein offered even stronger signals that his was a very different Burmese administration: he freed political prisoners and invited Suu Kyi for direct talks with him. Indeed, Suu Kyi now enjoys far greater freedom of movement than she has at any time since she received the Nobel Peace Prize 20 years ago, and the NLD recently announced that it will field candidates in the forthcoming by-elections to the country’s newly established parliament. If Suu Kyi is permitted to campaign free of restraint, for both her own seat and to boost the electoral chances of her NLD colleagues, it will be clear that Thein Sein and his government are truly determined to bring their country in from the cold.
For both Suu Kyi and Thein Sein, every step from now on will be delicate, to be calibrated with the same care and deliberation that Mandela and de Klerk used in bridging their differences and leading their country out of isolation. But the international community, too, must act with great care.
While Thein Sein would undoubtedly wish to see the myriad economic and political sanctions imposed on Burma quickly lifted, it is too soon for a general easing of such measures. But the outside world should demonstrate that every clear move toward greater political openness will merit more international political and economic engagement.
The Japan Investment Bank’s decision to invest in port development in Burma – essential if the economy, too, is to be opened – is one positive sign that the world will keep pace with Thein Sein step for step. And US President Barack Obama’s decision to send Secretary of State Hillary Clinton to Burma to meet Thein Sein is another clear sign that the world is ready to end the country’s isolation.
Closer to home, ASEAN’s recent decision to give Burma a chance to chair the organization in 2014 underscores its neighbors’ desire for the country’s full participation in Asia’s growing prosperity.
No one should rush to judgment yet, but Thein Sein’s decisions, at least so far, are beginning to resemble those of South Africa’s de Klerk when he initiated his country’s reform process. Fortunately, Burma already has in Aung San Suu Kyi its very own Nelson Mandela.