What is pretty clear is that the sanctions, economic and diplomatic, that the West and some of Myanmar’s neighbors had brought to bear against the country had some effect. That’s not because the government cared about the impact of those sanctions on the welfare of the people. It’s because those who had made themselves rich with the government’s help (Transparency International rates Myanmar one of the most corrupt nations on earth) realized that, with the West closed off to them, they had few places to invest their ill-gotten gains.
Whatever the motivation of the powerful, the people are ever so cautiously beginning to exercise their newfound freedom. Transitional democracies are notoriously unstable – see Egypt – in part because no one knows exactly what the new rules are or who the ultimate decision-makers will be. The press is flexing its poorly toned muscles by covering some of the controversies like it never has before.
On the one hand, this means there is more civic space for organized dissent, at least at the local level. One village, for example, in Myanmar had been beleaguered for years by the military appropriating sand for its own uses that the villagers needed for theirs. With the new melody of “people power” playing in their ears, the villagers sent an anonymous protest letter to the military, which, astonishingly, stopped stealing the sand. This was not, of course, because the military had suddenly become enlightened. It was because it couldn’t know for sure that higher-ups might not heed the villagers’ wishes and punish the military’s excesses.