- Associated Press - Tuesday, November 8, 2011

BANGKOK — Myanmar’s elections last year seemed like just another self-serving maneuver by the country’s generals to keep their thumbs on the scales of power.

Then some surprising things began to happen.

The new government eased censorship, legalized labor unions, suspended an unpopular, China-backed dam project, and began talks with Nobel Peace laureate Aung San Suu Kyi and her pro-democracy movement.

A revolution it isn’t, however.

Political prisoners still languish in jails. The military still draws accusations of routine abuse against ethnic groups. And the country’s long-suffering citizens remain highly skeptical of their government, believing its reforms could be aimed at lifting Western sanctions or avoiding an Arab Spring.

“The government is never sincere, and they will backtrack any time once their wishes are fulfilled,” lawyer Myint Thein, 45, said in Yangon.

So far, most of the optimism appears to be outside the country as it emerges from a long reliance on China, with Myanmar and the West both eager to reconcile after decades of frosty relations.

U.S. envoy Derek Mitchell told reporters in Yangon on Friday that Myanmar’s new government has taken a series of positive steps and that Washington would like to support its reforms. “We would look to respond in kind,” he said.

The international community’s hopes were not high after Myanmar’s carefully orchestrated Nov. 7, 2010, election. As expected, the polls brought to power a proxy party for the military, which has run the country since a 1962 coup.

But that perception has changed in recent months, said David Steinberg, director of Asian Studies at Georgetown University.

“You have a whole set of new things happening,” Mr. Steinberg said. “I don’t know how far and how fast they can go on these things. But they are moving and … they are moving in a manner that we might not have predicted.”

In one of the most closely watched aspects, however, the administration so far has fallen short: Large-scale clemencies for convicts have included fewer than 300 of an estimated 2,000 political prisoners, with many of the more-prominent ones remaining behind bars.

“It is too early to know whether the government’s change of tone and talk of reform is cynical window-dressing or evidence that significant change will come to the country,” New York-based Human Rights Watch said in a statement.

In October, labor unions were legalized, along with the right to strike.

Last week, the government amended election regulations to encourage Mrs. Suu Kyi’s party to re-enter the political arena, after having barred her from politics with rules that prompted her party to boycott last year’s elections.

President Thein Sein reopened a long-stalled dialogue with Mrs. Suu Kyi, inviting her to the presidential mansion, where she was greeted by his wife and grandchild. The warm reception was a stark contrast to the cold loathing she reportedly received from Senior Gen. Than Shwe, head of the former ruling junta.

Mrs. Suu Kyi said she found Thein Sein genuine and sincere, with a desire for reform.

Mrs. Suu Kyi, who spent most of the past two decades detained by the ruling generals, has appeared more generous in her assessment of the new government than many of the people she represents.

“It may be that she feels this is the time when she could have a longer range impact, maybe not short range, but in the long run a buildup of democratic forces,” Mr. Steinberg said.

But Maung Zarni, a Myanmar exile who is a visiting fellow at the London School of Economics, doubts Mrs. Suu Kyi will be able to shake the military grip on institutional power.

“Maybe she is gambling here. But structurally the dice is in the military’s favor,” he said in an email interview.

Copyright © 2016 The Washington Times, LLC.

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