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Burma reforms merit skeptical optimism

Thein Sein

Not many dictators or military juntas willingly give up power. Will Burma’s regime prove the exception? That was the ever-present though mostly unspoken question as President Thein Sein toured Washington, D.C., this week.

The Burmese president’s visit to the White House Monday was the first since 1966. In the nearly half-century since, the Southeast Asian nation of 50 million or so people has been ground into poverty by the misrule of repressive, reclusive generals. But over the past two years, Thein Sein, a former general, and the rest of his regime have freed political prisoners, relaxed censorship laws and welcomed foreign investment. They have promised parliamentary elections for 2015.

“Over the last two years, we’ve seen a steady process in which political prisoners, including (democracy leader) Aung San Suu Kyi, have been conditionally released and have been incorporated into the political process,” President Obama said after Monday’s meeting. “But as President (Thein) Sein is the first to admit, this is a long journey and there is still much work to be done.”

In an interview with the Washington Post, the Burmese leader sounded less than fully committed to that work. He declined to say whether he would support changes to the constitution to allow Suu Kyi to run for president. He wavered on previous commitments to allow the U.N. High Commissioner for Human Rights to open an office. He supported the military’s playing a leading political role and said that, as president, he makes decisions “collectively” with the National Defense and Security Council, where the military chieftains sit. Asked about the Rohingya, a Muslim minority that has been the target of violence and ethnic cleansing, Thein Sein denied that they exist.

The question for Washington is how best to encourage further reform. The Obama administration has relied on carrots. Rep. Joseph Crowley, D-N.Y., a leader in shaping congressional policy toward Burma, also known as Myanmar, said he worries that “we’re getting away from the policy of action for action” – the idea, articulated in Obama’s first term, that sanctions would be eased incrementally and only in response to continuing progress on reform. Crowley said he believes Burma is moving in the right direction, but that major problems remain. “The big risk is that we’re going to lose leverage in terms of reform,” he said. Last week, with Rep. Peter King, R-N.Y., Crowley reintroduced the Burmese Freedom and Democracy Act, which would maintain some sanctions for another year.

A dose of congressional skepticism seems well-founded.