Enjoying small victories in Burma without reading tea leaves

The recent decisions by the Burmese government to suspend development of the Myitsone dam [There is now some question as to whether work has completely stopped on the dam] and to release some political prisoners are the latest in a series of positive steps in the country.  Other such steps include meetings between Aung San Suu Kyi and senior government officials, including President Thein Sein, and the unblocking of several websites, including VOA and DVB.  The press is seeing greater freedom and there is talk, from the government, of censorship-free days ahead.  On the economic front, workers now have the right to unionize and strike and there is word that banks will soon start being able to offer currency exchange. Maybe one day we’ll be able to actually use currency that is not practically perfect in every way.

In addition to these reported developments, I am told by people inside the country that there is an overall relaxation of restrictions on civil society organizations.  For example, local groups are no longer obligated to report the names of volunteers to the government.

I, for one, would like to just take a minute to enjoy some of the good news coming out of the country.  Yes, there are still political prisoners, and yes, ethnic armies are still under attack, but life for many Burmese is now a little better than before.  In fact, the pace of change is such that Espen Barth Eide, Norway’s deputy foreign minister said, “I almost left the country thinking they’re moving a little too fast. I never thought I would say that about Myanmar.”

These kinds of sentiments are being echoed among many long time Burma-watchers.  And, honestly, right now, in this moment, I couldn’t care less whether the government is taking these actions in order to get support its bid for the ASEAN chairmanship or as a proactive measure to weaken the NLD.  I’m just going to be feel good about the fact that there are finally some things to feel good about.

Of course, for most, enjoying the new developments is not sufficient.  Advocacy groups and newspaper columnists feel the need to opine on “what it all means.”  Exile groups are quick to remind us about remaining political prisoners and human rights abuses and those with other agendas are ready to proclaim a new day in Burma.   I understand why groups try to add context to the news, but I think that trying to read the tea leaves is fruitless at best and misleading at worst.

The dynamic between and among various Burma-watching groups is fascinating complex and deserves its own post.  What is important to understand here is that each has its own agenda and it is impossible to tell how much of the analysis is either self-serving or colored by a natural organizational bias.  Each move by the regime can provide support for any and all positions.  Take the release of prisoners.  On one hand we read “Don’t be fooled by Burma’s meagre prisoner release” and, on the other, “This prisoner release is a genuine move and must elicit a positive response in kind by the West.”

The good news is that we have seen unprecedented newspaper coverage on Myanmar in recent weeks.  The bad news is that, for the most part, the coverage from those news outlets that do not usually cover Myanmar has merely echoed the rosy predictions from one side or the warnings from the other, without more independent analysis or recognition of the inherent biases of the observers these articles are quoting.

In my mind, any realistic analysis of recent developments looks something like this:

Some good things have happened in Burma recently.  A lot of very bad things are still happening.  We have no idea what will happen next.

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