In Burma, it's deja vu

RANGOON, Burma -- On the TV here in my hotel room, the soldiers are marching again. They're presenting each other awards of some kind, and doing worthy things for the people, and giving speeches from podiums -- and then they march some more. (They love to march.) Every now and then there's a cut to the newsreader, a middle-aged woman with a stony face who intones her text, North Korea-style, against a poorly painted background depicting some monumental cityscape. Then we're back to the news: The tractors are bringing in a record harvest, the ethnic minorities are dancing happily in their quaint costumes, and the president is solemnly greeting a visiting dignitary with state honors that never seem to end. I can't understand what anyone's saying, since I don't speak Burmese, but I sort of have the feeling that it doesn't really matter anyway. It's enough to read the English-language version of the government newspaper in my hotel. Yesterday's headline: "To possess high defense power, state, people, and the armed forces will have to join hands."

These things are the same as they were when I last visited Burma five years ago. They continue to exist. What's different now is that something else has been added. Today you can walk out of your hotel room and find newsstands filled with dozens of newspapers and magazines that weren't there a few months ago. Roughly half of them seem to feature cover pictures of Aung San Suu Kyi, the opposition leader who spent some 15 years of the past 21 under house arrest. For decades her name and image were anathema, ruthlessly airbrushed out of the public record by the military dictators who feared her mammoth popularity. Today the country's reformist president, an ex-general named Thein Sein has invited her and her National League for Democracy to run in a parliamentary by-election set for April 1, and now you can buy a T-shirt with her picture on every corner in town.

Burma today is a country of dueling realities. The government persists in touting a record that everyone else would rather forget, while the person who clearly enjoys the overwhelming loyalty of the population must content herself with running in a tightly constrained election that will give her party a handful of seats in a legislature still dominated by members of the old regime. There's an implicit bargain behind it all: The former generals, who are terrified of the opposition's popular clout, seem prepared to allow gradual change as long as Aung San Suu Kyi and her people are willing to content themselves with a decidedly modest role at first. (That's one view. Hardliners within ruling circles would rather keep the dissidents in jail, and some democrats fear that Aung San Suu Kyi is stepping into a government trap.)

All this makes Burma one of the most interesting places in the world to be right now. You've got Aung San Suu Kyi, the closest equivalent to a high-wattage Hollywood star that international politics has to offer. You've got the president, an unlikely reformer trying to nudge the country away from the system that created him. You've got an extraordinary cast of ex-political prisoners and dazzling intellectuals who are trying to persuade their former jailers that they have nothing to fear from a dose of democracy. And you've got a brutalized population desperate to see the long nightmare of despotism come to an end.

It's a situation ripe with ambiguity and messy compromise -- all of which feels eerily familiar. I started my journalistic career reporting on the collapse of the communist system in East Germany and the fall of the Berlin Wall, and spent the next few years after that covering the post-communist Soviet Union. I hadn't really thought about those experiences for a while until I finally made it back here to Burma a few days ago. Much about this weird transitional state -- the not-quite-there-yet of a place struggling to free itself from a burdensome past -- will make far more sense to anyone who has witnessed those earlier experiments in post-authoritarianism.

Burma is a unique and distinctive place, and I would never claim that everything here is seamlessly comparable with somewhere else. Yet it's striking how certain patterns recur. A former political prisoner describes the moment, a few months ago, when he realized that the government spy stationed in front of his house had packed up and left. A foreign journalist marvels at his ability to work openly in the same country where he had to conduct interviews covertly just a year ago. People with access to the government describe a pro-regime party in a crisis of confidence, as its members suddenly realize that the perks they used to enjoy are gradually draining away. "They still have a lot of power and money, but they're basically just going through the motions," one source told me -- an apt description of the Soviet Communist Party back in 1990 or so.

Then there are the activists who fret about whether the current course of liberalization is "irreversible." Perhaps renegade conservatives will work up the gumption to stage a counter-reformist putsch, and arrest Thein Sein at his villa on the Black Sea? (Oh, sorry, wrong country.)

Such fears may sound melodramatic, but the skeptics are right to worry. If recent history tells us anything, it's that there is nothing inevitable in politics. The victory of democracy in a place as scarred and benighted as this one can hardly be viewed as inevitable. But if there's any consolation to be sought from the experience of the countries that found their way out of communism, it's that change is possible even when the odds against it seem incredibly long. You just have to want it badly enough.



Democracy Lab Highlights, March 23, 2012

DemLab Weekly Highlights, March 23, 2012:

Nowruz (Persian New Year) was celebrated throughout many Asian countries this week. Above, Kyrgyz women wear traditional costumes at festivities. 

Tom Finn profiles Yemen's new leader and the challenges he faces in keeping the country united.

Christian Caryl explains why it's time for the U.S. to take pointers from the rest of the world in the fight against corruption.

Jackee Budesta Batanda reports on an initiative enabling Ugandans to tell their own stories to their compatriots and the world.

Peter Passell assesses the economic reasons for the failure of the war on drugs.

And Mohamed El Dahshan shows how Egyptian artists are challenging military rule in the streets of Cairo.

And here are this week's recommended reads:

A new study of transitional countries around the world by Germany's Bertelsmann Stiftung warns that "[p]olitical freedoms are increasingly being curtailed in many countries around the globe."

Writing on the Jadaliyya website, journalist Salah Al-Nasrawi argues that Arab journalists deserve more of a voice in Western media organizations.

A new Brookings Institution report suggests measures for resolving the oil dispute between Sudan and South Sudan that threatens to pour fuel on the fire of regional conflict.

The Institute for War and Peace Report offers an insightful report on a presidential election in South Ossetia, paving the way for a possible showdown between the breakaway republic's envoy to Moscow and a former KGB general.

A new study by the UK's Overseas Development Institute explores urban displacement in Jordan and the obstacles it poses to humanitarian assistance.