Myanmar to Chair ASEAN

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Marco Werman: Here's one place where people power isn't freely expressed -- Myanmar. Power in the country, also known as Burma, has long been held in a tight grip by the military. The generals allowed a shift to civilian government a year ago with the country's first elections in 20 years, but that civilian government is still backed by the military. Still, the ground seems to be shifting in Burma. To find out how much we've got Brian Joseph with us. He's with the National Endowment for Democracy in Washington. So, Brian, today in Bali, ASEAN, the Association for Southeast Asian Nations, agreed to give Burma a significant role in the organization, and they've been kind of a pariah member in the group for years. Burma will be the chair of ASEAN's next meeting in 2014. How significant is this for Burma and why now?

Brian Joseph: I mean it's a rather significant move. The last year Burma was up for the chairmanship it was denied the chairmanship and passed on to other countries. I think it sort of indicates a shift in ASEAN that they're willing to give the government the benefit of the doubt that the transition or the developments taking place in the country, if it's not a transition in fact, warrant recognition by ASEAN.

Werman: Well, let's get at the heart of what that change is in Burma. Also, we heard that Aung San Suu Kyi's political party, the National League for Democracy, is expected it'll return to the political scene in Burma. Is that move kind of an accurate litmus test for you on how democracy is progressing there?

Joseph: I don't really see it as sort of democracy progressing. I see it as an effort, and again, we really don't know what's driving the government to introduce these reforms. But yes, if the NLD decides to participate in these bi-elections, the decision is supposed to be this Friday, I believe, it does indicate at least that the NLD believes in Aung San Suu Kyi, that the government is engaged in some sort of reform effort and that it's better served by participating in this election than sitting out on the sidelines. That said, I think everybody, those of us who've been watching it for a long time, understand that what we see now is promising, it's hopeful, it's change that we have never seen before, yet we're nowhere near anything that looks like or feels like a transition to democracy. I would characterize it as a slight liberalization of one of the world's most authoritarian government.

Werman: So we don't know that much about what's motivating the government. Do you have some theories?

Joseph: Yeah, I think a number of things: one is we really don't know. I think if you looked at virtually anybody who'd written on or talked about Burma a year ago after these last elections, which were highly fraudulent, they would've expected the government to continue on the same path it had for the last 20 years, with civilian clothing, but with the same people running the show. So when it changed there's been a lot of speculation what's behind it. There's some people who believe it's an effort to move away from China. There are others who believe it's sort of reformers or people in the government, some of who have traditionally been very opposed to working with Aung San Suu Kyi leaving the scene, and others who are open to working with her coming forward. And personally I also believe that you need to remember that it was only three years ago that the regime let hundreds of thousands of people suffer following Cyclone Nargis, and the previous year in 2007 when they had hundreds of thousands of monks and people out on the street and responded brutally. There's no evidence behind this, but I really believe looking at sort of other transitions and movements in other countries, that how the government responded in those two situations probably introduced sort of tensions within the government. And then you had the tension following, sort of an effort to setup a civilian government after Than Shwe left the scene.

Werman: So does this moment, Brian, the series of the blips lately make you hopeful about change in Burma?

Joseph: Look, I've always been hopeful about change in Burma. For those of us who are interested in democracy and human rights in Burma, it has a credible opposition, it has an opposition dedicated to human rights and democracy. It's an extremely resource rich country and I think all of these changes, whether or not you're optimistic that they'll lead to democracy, we all hope that they do and they're certainly the most positive signs we've seen in a long, long time coming out of Burma. They should be encouraged to pursue these reforms. They should be pushed to pursue further reforms and they should continue to be held accountable for their continuing egregious human rights record. So I think we need to do both simultaneously.