Burma/Myanmar: What has been happening overall?

I am noting the election, Aung San Suu Kyi’s release and participation, etc.

But, please forgive (and help me fight) my ignorance - but what has changed that has led to all of this? Why has the military leadership (junta?) facilitated this transition?

It feels like a velvet revolution is taking place, a la the Czech Republic, but doesn’t appear to be presented as such in the media (??).

So - what is the best way to frame what is going on in simple terms? And, for that matter, what are the major forces that have precipitated the change? I assume mostly internal forces, but also external pressure?

Thank you in advance!

I’ve yet to see a good explanation of why the military junta is suddenly reforming the way it governs Burma either. Certainly one big factor is that General Than Shwe, who Chaired the junta from 1992 until 2011, stepped down and has been replaced by Thein Sein, who is seen as a moderate and a reformist and has supposedly developed a good relationship with Aung San Suu Kyi.

Burma stands to benefit a lot from the moderation: it has already been awarded the chairing of the ASEAN summit in 2014, and ASEAN has called for sanctions to be lifted on Burma. The reforms have been praised by the West, including by President Obama in his recent State of the Union speech, and Hillary Clinton has pledged improved ties if they continue: loosening sanctions and increased trade.

But why the regime suddenly decided to make this change in 2010 (here’s a timeline of the reforms) after decades of ruling with an iron fist is something I’ve never seen explained. One reason might be that the US is seeking to coax them as an ally in the region to combat the influence of China (it has done the same with other countries in the region; it recently announced new military bases in Australia for instance) and has offered them some sort of enormous benefit for doing so. China is almost certainly playing a large role behind the scenes in some way.

But what exactly is happening I’m not sure. Maybe someone else can explain.

Thanks isaiahrobinson.

Okay, so I’m not the only one who is trying to process through what is going on. Not to mention that at this point in the life of the thread, it’s been viewed over 300 times, so folks are checking out the OP - perhaps they’re hoping to get answers, too!

C’mon, Burma-knowledgeable Dopers - fight my ignorance!

It might seem that the 2010 reforms were sudden, but they are more correctly viewed as the culmination of some smart leadership decisions by the junta, combined with many years of work among the pro-democracy forces (internal and external to Burma). I think that the comparison with the Velvet Revolution is a bit off in terms of scope- these are very small, incremental changes that have been happening over the last 10 years. That being said, I worked with these groups for many years, and I am still surprised how far Burma has come, so fast. In addition to the leadership of Thein Sein, there are a few other relevant factors:

  1. SE Asia is booming. Even Cambodia, bastion of corruption that it is, is creating a lot of money and a lot of wealth for (at least some of) its people. Burmese leadership stepped up their engagement with the region and could see how far behind Burma had fallen. While the leadership has major problems, they are not as short-sited as the North Korean leadership to push toward isolationism. It’s hard to visit Vietnam or Thailand and then return to your country without feeling like you’re missing out on something.

  2. China overplayed its hand. China has been a long-time ally of Burma, hungry for its natural resources (of which Burma has many). Many SE Asian countries are uncomfortable with the way China takes over the areas it goes into for mineral wealth. I think a light went on with the Burmese leadership where they realized that they didn’t have to accept Chinese assistance if they could get funds from other countries.

  3. Burmese people want contact with the outside world. This might seem minor but the Burmese mindset is not one of isolationism and going their own way. There is a very strong sense of connection with other former British colonies and the English speaking world in general. The sanctions on from the US and the EU weakened the government and only made foreign contact more enticing.

  4. Burma is the darling of many USG leaders. Not to give the US any more credit than it is due (and I believe much credit lies in the negotiations and workings of the EU and other ASEAN countries), but Burma is a top priority for many US leaders. People who have been in power in the Senate and House for 15 years have been pushing in as many ways as possible to make sure that Burma always comes up in conversations with world leaders, that initiatives to work with the Burmese are funded and that Burmese refugees get political asylum. Again, these are not explicit undertakings, but a longstanding set of goals, with the knowledge that a slow approach is necessary.

New York Times article on U Thein Sein

It seems that the devastating cyclone in 2008 made it obvious to Myanmar’s leaders how poor the country is. Also, the military leaders who could have stopped the reforms have received a nice payout from the sale of national assets.

Myanmar is a shockingly undeveloped country. They are well behind Cambodia and even Laos. If you ever want to ride incredibly slow trains (while chewing betel nut), this is the place. But it is a beautiful country, and I was surprised to see so few tourists there.

This is helping. Thank you.


Other thoughts from geopolitical Dopers?

While it’s all interesting, I still find these explanations very unsatisfying. As recently as 2007 the Burmese junta removed fuel subsidies and caused the price of fuel for its people to skyrocket, then dealt with the ensuing Saffron Revolution by ordering the army to fire on Buddhist monks. Aung San Suu Kyi was almost consistently under house arrest from 1989 until 2010. So why the change since 2010?

Than Shwe being replaced by Thein Sein doesn’t explain it because apparently Than Shwe stepped down willingly and still wields significant influence over the junta. SE Asia was booming in the mid-90s as well, but the junta didn’t change its ways then. I’m sure the Burmese people have always wanted these reforms and contact with the outside world. You say yourself, Amasia, that the US has been pursuing its current strategy towards Burma for “15 years”. I find it hard to believe that until the 2008 cyclone the Burmese junta hadn’t realized how poor the country was, and that that realization suddenly changed their minds.

What changed between the draconian, iron-fisted response in 2007 and the moderation since 2010? The most plausible explanation so far, to me, sounds like the Obama Administration trying to pivot towards counteracting the growing influence of China in the Asia-Pacific region and coaxing Burma as an ally, perhaps offering the junta leaders large rewards for reforming. It would make sense that the junta’s “deal” before was with China, with Burma giving China access to its natural resources, and in return China protecting the military junta. Whereas now perhaps the junta has made a “deal” with the US, offering up domestic reforms in exchange for something major in return. The junta scrapped a large Chinese dam project last year, which would fit into this narrative. But it’s just speculation because I’m no expert on the region.

You may not be satisfied with the answers, but you are summarizing a lot of context that shows you are very familiar with the country - thanks! :slight_smile:

If Obama was indeed a key external influence, wouldn’t he be touting that more? His foreign policy successes in Libya, with bin Laden, etc. have pushed back at the Republican’s typical claim that they are the “foreign policy party.” Wouldn’t he want to poke at that again with any successes in Burma/Myanmar?

Really? Reading the history of Burma (from Wikipedia, but still) they were one of the more reluctant members of the Empire. Pre-British involvement they had pretensions of being a regional power and in the decolonising period were only to happy to gain independence. They never remotely entertained the possibility of becoming a member of the Commonwealth.

I think it comes down to money and pride.

Burma has to know they made the wrong choice. Their neighbors have gotten richer-- sometimes stunningly so-- while they’ve remained a backwater. In the meantime, they also have to realize that US development aid darlings get A LOT of money-- billions of dollars. And Burma is sitting in a perfect position to become such a darling. If you want a job in the next few years, I’d learn Burmese. There is about to be so much money flooding into there that it isn’t even funny. Organizations are just sitting on hold right now, waiting for the cash grab.

But it takes a lot of pride to admit that you were wrong, and countries can hang on to counterproductive policies for decades after their usefulness, especially if it becomes “a thing” (look at US policy towards Cuba, for an example.) Burma seems to be following China’s (astoundingly successful) model of quietly implementing massive changes and not making a big deal out of it. Of course, they are taking it farther than China with political reforms-- which would be necessary to capture the huge pile of money for foreign aid. And we are doing absolutely the right thing by not making too big of a production out of it, letting them do their thing, and letting them keep their pride.

He touted progress in Burma in his State of the Union this year: “We’ve made it clear that America is a Pacific power, and a new beginning in Burma has lit a new hope.” In fact Burma was the only country he mentioned by name in the foreign policy section which wasn’t a focal point of US counter-terrorism (Iraq/Afghanistan etc), an Arab Spring country, or Iran and Israel. Hillary Clinton has been touting progress in the region as well, and she recently visited it which was a first in a long time for a senior US politician. But the average person doesn’t know a lot about Burma and it’s probably not something they can turn into a major issue.

I’m sure there’s some truth to this, but I find it very hard to believe a dictator will obstinately refuse any foreign aid for 18 years and then suddenly have a change of heart for no reason. There must be something more to it than that. Why now?

Why not? Dictators are people. Some people decide to be merciless womanizers for decades, and then settle down and have a picture-perfect family. Some people are driven business people, and then suddenly decide to retire and join Peace Corps. Gaddafi was driven to wreak hell on the West, until he decided to try to make buddies with us. China was an ideologically driven Marxist state, until they decided to give ditch that and get rich.

Being a dictator is less and less attractive these days. Arab spring has reminded the dinosaur dictators that they can be deposed by their own people of they become irrelevant. US foreign policy has shifted away from supporting dictators for strategic reasons, and towards “democracy-building”, which may be achieved by offering handsome aid packages to budding democracies, or by bombing the shit out of people whose political system rubs us the wrong way. In the meantime, one gets the impression that China is only supporting it’s dictator friends out of habit, and their heart really isn’t in to it. And while this is happening, Asia keeps getting richer and richer, leaving Burma further and further behind.

It’s as good as any time to cut your losses, admit you were working off of a faulty premise, and step up to receive your accolades for being such a nice guy. Again, the profit on this will be unimaginable.

From what I’ve read (mostly in The Economist) is that the junta decided the risks and rewards favored loosening their grip.

Risks of not loosening:

  1. The Arab spring showed that oppressed people can still overthrow their government, with public humiliation or worse for the deposed powers.
  2. China has been expanding its regional economic hegemony recently. With no one else to work with, China was extracting a dear price and encroaching on their sovereignty.

Rewards for loosening:
3. A massive amount of aid directly from foreign governments.
4. A massive amount of economic growth, and the junta in an excellent position to directly profit from it.
5. A happier populace from opening the country and economic growth is less likely to pursue vengeance on the junta. And the opposition has made a devil’s pact by promising not to seek justice.

I think point 2 is the biggest one. The junta was being squeezed between internal dissent and an external threat. They’ve always managed the first, but they realized how backward economically and militarily they were with respect to China. Basically, they were falling into a position where China could dictate terms that they would not be able to refuse.

The junta is in power for the wealth, not for the power itself. They’re trading some power for a large amount of assured wealth.