As has been more than amply evidenced in recent months and years, the final days of oppressive, regimes are very often ugly, uncertain, and deadly. An unwillingness to change with the times is characteristic of tyrannical regimes, whose leaders’ fondest fantasies seem to be the eternal prolongation of their final sweep into power. While their propaganda machines tell a tale of unending progress and incessant improvement, history narrates a story of fossilised societies, wherein genuine progress is only achieved in the mechanisms of repression. All of which helps to explain the violence of their final throes and the stubbornness preventing the acceptance of a changing world, a new order, or an enforced retirement. Burma, however, is something of a case apart. The half-century long epic of brutality and cruelty has, unusually, been presided over by a whole string of paranoid Generals. Yet in the last few months, a process of reforms has been embarked upon, the speed and seriousness of which is breathtaking.
For the last 50 years, the Burmese people have lived in a climate of well-founded fear. For much of that time, political conversations were outlawed. Groups of more than six people were prevented (by law) from assembling. Any discussion of politics was a risk; criticism of the junta, at least in public was the preserve of the very brave, or very foolhardy: there was a genuine and very real fear of who was listening. The man sweeping the street might be an informant, or the man at the next table in the cafe – indeed, tales of Burmese teashop informants are legion. Fear was instilled not by stories but by lived experience. People vanished from every community. Everyone knew what happened.
For years, Burma’s prisons and chain-gangs have been peopled by political prisoners. They build roads and railways in the old style – and that is if they are lucky. Huge numbers have disappeared without trace. Even the unconvicted – unsuspected even – are compelled to work at the government’s whim. Burma’s towns and cities are remarkable for their organisation and cleanliness. The reason is very simple: anyone at any time could get a letter from the government requesting (sic) their unpaid presence for an unspecified period to perform patriotic duties for the improvement of the city. Regular jobs would have to be dropped. Attendance was compulsory. Refusal would result in firmer persuasion – the compulsion to perform more back-breaking tasks, indefinitely, between nights spent starving in filthy and overcrowded prison cells.
The people of Burma have lived more or less continuously under this sort of permanent duress and fear since the military takeover in 1962. In the intervening years, there have been occasional glimmers of hope, but they have been immediately and brutally suppressed. In 1988, widespread student protests lead to a heavy-handed crackdown, with police and the military killing thousands of demonstrators. In 1990, General Elections were held in which the NLD, led then as now by Aung San Su Kyi, participated and won 392 of the 489 available seats. The results were summarily ignored, however, and the Junta continued its rule more-or-less uninterrupted.
Since 1988, Su Kyi has been under house-arrest for a total of about seventeen years. The elections, while mystifying in their purported purpose, had the effect of convincing the government of the need to further restrict the freedoms of its people, and the years since have seen the regime employ ever-harsher tactics of repression. In 2007 though, the first intimations of public dissent in nearly two decades were noticeable. An overnight doubling of fuel prices sparked protests led by the community of Buddhist monks. Despite a predictably unforgiving crackdown, the unpopularity of the regime was made explicit. In 2009, a miniature civil-war erupted in North-Eastern Burma, with the government again cracking down on displays of dissent within the Shan community of the region. Thousands of civilians fled the fighting into Southern China. Perhaps as a conciliatory gesture in an effort to temper the growing discontent, the following year the Junta staged national elections. The NLD refused to participate, on the seemingly well-founded assumption that they would be nothing more than a sham.
Nothing in these events, however, so much as hinted at what was to follow. In February 2011, having served three years as Prime Minister, Thein Sein was elected President following his resignation from the military. He was the first civilian president of the country in almost half a century. He immediately announced a series of political and economic reforms seemingly designed to overhaul the workings of Burmese society. The changes were significant and rapid, including the release of Su Kyi from house arrest and the release of hundreds of political prisoners. A visit from US Secretary of State Hillary Clinton (who met both the President and Su Kyi) followed in December 2011. Since then, the pace of change has only increased: by-elections were held on 1 April in which the NLD operating freely and under the leadership of Su Kyi participated and won 43 of the 45 seats contested. A fortnight later, David Cameron visited the country and is now amongst a host of voices call for the easing of UN sanctions. This week, the US has announced a relaxing of investment sanctions between the countries and has appointed an ambassador, the first for over twenty years.
It appears that the ruling generals in Burma have had some sort of collective realisation: that they, and their country, by continuing to follow a course first plotted in 1962 (the year of the Cuban Missile Crisis!), have been left behind by the world. Of course it might be that this apparent ideological shift is, in truth, only being pursued because of a recognition that self-interest is better served by so doing. History alone will throw light on that suspicion; what is sure, is that for the first time in the lives of the majority of Burmese people, lasting and meaningful change is on the horizon – and not the shimmering mirage that has ghosted into view in years past, only to drift away before any difference is made, but something more concrete in form, rushing at them, headlong.
It is impossible to overstate the speed at which change is occurring in Burma. It is like a light has been turned on or a blockage removed. This is not how history teaches us these processes occur. The apparent non-negotiability of an ideology takes years to erode, because it contradicts the dogma. It contradicts what is known, and hence requires fresh thinking, and almost always a new thinker: ideologue to democrat is not a transformation many tyrants undergo: it is a transformation of nation, perhaps of party, not of an individual. And hence tyrannical regimes have violent ends.
The pace of change in Burma is breathless, and as a consequence it is easy to forget there is yet an awful long way for the country to go. It is still amongst the poorest nations on earth, and human rights remain a fiction for a great many people. Nonetheless, what was unthinkable just a year or two ago – foreign correspondents reporting from the Shwedagon Pagoda, Aung San Su Kyi smiling after ‘a good meeting’ with President Thein Sein – is happening. A change has undoubtedly come to Burma – a change which will be hard to rescind.