Perhaps the strongest indication that change may at last be under way in Burma came on 19 August. It was not Aung San Suu Kyi’s meeting with President Thein Sein, though that was surprising enough. What made jaws drop was what followed: dinner for Aung San Suu Kyi, hosted by the president’s wife.
If anybody doubted that the power of the former dictator Than Shwe was on the wane, this was proof. Than Shwe was once notorious for bringing meetings with foreign envoys to a swift end if Suu Kyi’s name came up. However, his antipathy was nothing compared with that of his wife and the wives of the other top generals – it was said that they liked to get together and do the Burmese equivalent of sticking pins in a voodoo doll to hurt her. Now suddenly here she was, this pariah, “the west’s poster girl”, gracing the portals of preposterous Naypyidaw, Burma’s new capital.
Since then, the signs of change have come fast. The UN’s special rapporteur on human rights was given a visa, after a year of delay. Photos of and reports about Suu Kyi began to appear in the Burmese press for the first time since 1989, including an interview with her that had been awaiting the censor’s decision for ten months – all the political content had been filleted from it, but no matter. The government set up a human rights commission – composed, it is true, of military hacks from the previous regime. It also set up a commission to review and revise existing laws, taking advice from international bodies including the UN Office for the Co-ordination of Humanitarian Affairs.
Most impressive and unexpected was the action taken over the Myitsone Dam, a Chinese-financed project to dam the Irrawaddy River to generate electricity – 90 per cent of which for export to China. A protest movement swelled rapidly, combining patriotism – the Irrawaddy is a national symbol – with anti-Chinese sentiment and sympathy for the ethnic-minority Kachin, who would be severely affected, and whose insurgency against the Burmese army recently reignited. After Suu Kyi endorsed the protests, the president called a halt to construction, saying it was “against the will of the people” – a remarkable reason for a government in Burma to claim to do anything.
Now, the government has launched another striking initiative. More than 600 prisoners have been released, including some prominent political detainees. When Suu Kyi, as leader of the opposition National League for Democracy (NLD), was set free last November, the failure to release anybody else was what made it look like a gimmick. A partial amnesty a few months later looked equally cynical, as it affected very few prisoners found guilty of political crimes.
Almost a year has passed since Suu Kyi was freed from more than seven years of house arrest at her home in Rangoon, and her period of freedom since divides neatly into two parts. The first part was very slow. She addressed crowds after her release but there was no replay of the regular meetings across her garden wall that did so much to madden the junta after her release in 1995. Nor did she go back on the campaign trail as she did after being liberated in 2002 – journeys that ended abruptly in an attempt to assassinate her and in the massacre of dozens of her supporters at a place named Depayin, outside Mandalay.
Since her latest release, Suu Kyi has given many interviews to foreign journalists and been visited by many diplomats, but her domestic presence seemed worryingly thin. She cannot rest for ever on the laurels of her party’s huge election win in 1990: like anyone in political life anywhere, she has to prove that she still counts. When I visited the NLD headquarters in Rangoon again in March, she was busy meeting party activists who had been invited down for briefings; they came to her instead of her going to them, but it wasn’t the same thing. Her single foray outside Rangoon, to the town of Pegu, was just a day trip.
That all began to change ten days after my visit when the junta officially handed executive power to Thein Sein and legislative power to the assemblies elected the previous November. No substantive change was expected; it looked like one bunch of old soldiers handing over to their chums. The public level of despondency increased because hostilities had once again broken out on the border, notably against the Kachin in the north, after the collapse of a two-decade-old ceasefire.
But Thein Sein’s meeting with Suu Kyi on 17 August was the watershed. She was welcomed to his office, and was pleased to pose for a photograph with him under a portrait of her father, Aung San, whom the junta had spent so long airbrushing out of the nation’s memory.
It’s clear enough what the government wants in return for these gestures: the rotating chairmanship of the Association of South-East Asian Nations (Asean) in 2014, the lifting of sanctions, the return of the World Bank and International Monetary Fund, a significant boost to the struggling economy. True democratisation would entail releasing all political prisoners, brokering peace on the borders and rewriting a constitution – Thein Sein chaired the convention that produced it – which guarantees military domination in perpetuity. It remains a distant goal. But we are seeing some first steps.
Peter Popham’s new biography of Aung San Suu Kyi, “The Lady and the Peacock”, will be published by Rider on 3 November