Amongst a strange combination of developments there is one question on the minds of all Burma watchers and activists right now: what is the regime up to?
On the one hand is a seemingly historic shift: Aung San Suu Kyi, released last year, has held an unprecedented face-to-face meeting with President Thein Sein; she has stated that she is happy with the outcome and a senior official has reportedly surmised that “we see her as a potential partner, not an adversary." Meanwhile, bans have been lifted on websites such as BBC Burmese, Radio Free Asia and Democratic Voice of Burma; exiles have been promised leniency and invited to return home; and the military-controlled parliament has passed a motion calling for a mass release of political prisoners.
Yet at the same time journalists are being locked up and media outlets shut down, political prisoners are being denied adequate medical treatment; and brutal attacks against ethnic minority villages, most likely amounting to Crimes Against Humanity, are continuing unabated.
We could of course, be witnessing something a slow transformation from a low base. Indeed, democracy campaigners would be unwise to write off the apparent progress in some areas because of a failure to move on on in others. There are certainly changes to be welcomed and it should always be borne in mind that any transition will never occur overnight. The regime, following revolution in 2007 and huge international pressure in the wake of Cyclone Nargis in 2008, recognising that Aung San Suu Kyi remains enormously popular and watching dictators across the Arab World topple, may have genuinely decided that the time has come for gradual liberalisation.
Equally, it would be naive to view developments without scepticism and appreciation that we could instead be witnessing a cynical government ploy rather than a Burmese perestroika. There is just too much that does not add up: why would a liberalising government launch fresh attacks on ethnic minority groups? Why would a government seeking to engage Aung San Suu Kyi, ruthlessly evict patients from an HIV/AIDS hospital in response to her visit there? Why would a political elite with their eyes on transition go to such pains to rig an election? And why, if they were easing up on political prisoners, would they carry out a sham amnesty, branded a ‘sick joke’ by human rights organisations?
The regime certainly stands to gain from appearing to give ground: it has its sights set on the Chair of ASEAN in 2014 and holds out hope of weakening the international sanctions regime that it currently faces. There is also the ominous possibility that the apparent relaxation is designed to ‘lure out’ opponents: Reporters Without Borders noted surveillance in internet cafes was upped just before opposition sites were unblocked, whilst the call for exiles to return would leave them vulnerable to re-arrest or worse. It would not be the first time that a dictatorship has apparently relaxed its stance, only to crack down hard on those taking advantage of political breathing space.
The third possibility is that this is neither an opening up nor a calculated scheme but simply the latest in the regime’s long line of bizarre and irrational moves. General Then Shwe, who held power since 1992 and still pulls the strings behind the nominally civilian government, constructed a new capital city in the jungle surrounded by stone statues of worrier gods, apparently at the advice of fortune tellers or out of a paranoid fear that the USA would invade. His government transferred Suu Kyi from house arrest to Insein Jail-one of the most notorious in the world, just eighteen months before going on to release her from detention altogether. And they recklessly jeopardised relations with China, their patron and one of their only allies, by launching a sudden attack on the Kokang region and driving ten thousand refugees across the Chinese border.
These are not the acts of rational men, but rather of eccentric and somewhat unstable tyrants. It is perfectly conceivable therefore, that this latest round of apparent liberalisation may not fit into any kind of structured plan at all but simply be a continuation of the kind of political idiocy Burma has suffered under for decades.
Nevertheless, whatever the rationale (or lack of) behind these moves, Aung San Suu Kyi and the democracy movement will soon face a tough choice:
They could continue with dialogue and risk legitimising or easing the lot of a regime that may go on persecuting the Burmese people.
Or they could demand the release of all political prisoners and an end to attacks on ethnic minorities as a pre-requisite to talks continuing; but in doing so risk jeopardising, perhaps permanently, any chance of further conversation.
All the while, the duty of activists around the world should be to follow democracy campaigner Ben Roger’s advice of ‘work and see’ not ‘wait and see’. With so little certainty and so much at stake we must do what we can for the Burmese people right now: by financially and practically supporting the democracy movement, protecting refugees and encouraging international pressure against the regime.
This could be a historic time – it is up to campaigners inside and outside Burma to make it historic for all the right reasons.