What I found were Burmese generals, some now out of uniform, taking incremental steps toward reform and a society left to figure out for itself how to take advantage of the recent easing of repression.
In today’s US Senate, bipartisanship is increasingly rare. On America’s policy toward Burma, however, both the Obama administration and my own Republican party broadly agree. Both support democratic reforms and increased investment in human rights and economic development, but both believe that the relaxation of sanctions should be matched by demonstrable progress on the treatment of ethnic minorities, the release of more political prisoners, and the expansion of traditional democratic rights.
That demand for real action is justified, because the limited reforms made on the ground thus far, while real, are not occurring out of a desire by all for democratic progress. Rather, the reforms must be divorced from a Western perspective that believes in the idea of selfless action and placed in the context of the environment in which they are occurring.
Burma’s “reformist” generals, including the President Thein Sein, who has taken the tentative first steps toward reform, have systematically controlled the economy and access to Burma’s wealth of natural resources for a generation. They have used the political process to enhance their control at the expense of their own people, especially certain ethnic minorities who are not even considered to be citizens.