Is Burma turning the corner? Andrew Mitchell, the International Development Secretary, does not rule out the possibility: there were "grounds for cautious optimism", he said yesterday, ahead of his trip to the country, the first by a British minister for decades. And the Association of South-East Asian Nations certainly thinks so: yesterday it let it be known that the Burmese regime's reforms of the past few months are to be rewarded with the organisation's rotating chair for 2014, a major diplomatic prize.
In the past four months, President Thein Sein, a retired general, has pushed through a number of measures designed to convince the outside world that his government is serious about bringing reform to Asia's most scandalously ill-ruled nation. He has held talks with Aung San Suu Kyi, eased censorship rules to allow her face and her words to appear on the newsstands for the first time in 20 years, set free more than 200 of the approximately 2,000 political prisoners and legalised trade unions. He pleased the masses and surprised the outside world by freezing work on a Chinese-sponsored dam on the Irrawaddy, declaring it "against the will of the people".
All these developments are welcome, but the President has been careful not to tread on the toes of his reactionary adversaries within the regime. The army continues to commit bloody aggression against the Karen, Shan and Kachin minorities on the borders, and it is reported that more people are being forcibly displaced in south-east Burma than at any time in the past 10 years. None of the privileges of the kleptocratic retired generals or their cronies have been infringed upon. Nothing has happened, in the way of increased government support for health and education, to persuade the ordinary people that last year's phoney election did them any good.
The changes, in other words, have been both stunning and cosmetic, which is a measure of the intensity of the repression that Burma's military rulers have clamped on the country for nearly 50 years. Suu Kyi said in a press conference on Monday that she believes the President is "genuine" in his desire for change – but the fact that she has yet to recommend the lifting of sanctions indicates that there is still much to do.