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A Democratic Burma?

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.