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Family members of prisoners wait for their release outside the Insein central prison in Yangon on October 12, 2011. (Soe Than WIN/AFP/Getty Images)/Soe Than WIN/AFP/Getty Images))
Family members of prisoners wait for their release outside the Insein central prison in Yangon on October 12, 2011. (Soe Than WIN/AFP/Getty Images)/Soe Than WIN/AFP/Getty Images))

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Is Myanmar finally changing - or are we being fooled? Add to ...

What’s happening in Myanmar?

Is the country better known as Burma finally seeing real change, after almost four decades of military rule?

The signs that something genuine is happening are multiplying, although plenty of skeptics remain.

  • Some 220 political prisoners were among the more than 6,000 people released from jail this week under an amnesty. While that still leaves at least 1,700 people sitting in jail simply because they oppose the regime, it’s progress.
  • Bowing to pressure from opposition groups and environmentalists, the government ordered a halt to construction of a $3.6-billion Chinese-funded dam on the Irrawaddy River. Read that again.
  • The country’s top censor suggested this week that the country needs a free press and that his own office should be abolished. Again, read that over. Even more surprisingly, Tint Swe made his comment that “press restrictions should be abolished in the near future,” in an interview with the U.S.-government funded Radio Free Asia, previously derided by the regime as “lies from the skies.”
  • Nobel Peace Prize laureate Aung San Suu Kyi was released from house arrest last November and remains out. While she’s hardly free to do as she chooses, the government has held a series of meetings with her and allowed her limited travel inside and outside Rangoon to greet her supporters. Interestingly, a photograph of her father, independence hero General Aung San, has reappeared in the office of President Thein Sein.

So how significant is this change, really? Is Thein Sein, a former general installed as the country’s first “civilian” president this year following farcically rigged elections, the FW de Klerk of Myanmar? I put the question to two Burmese contacts of mine.

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“I think what we’re seeing now is by far the best opportunity we’ve had for positive change in half a century,” historian Thant Myint U, who was inside Myanmar this week, wrote to me via Facebook.

“Where it goes from here though is anyone’s guess. I’m convinced the president is well-intentioned, but he’s trying to do what’s nearly impossible – see through a political transition, the same time as overhauling an economy, at the same time as trying to end dozens of armed conflicts [with ethnic militias in the country’s borderlands] All without much help, especially from the international community. I think the next few weeks will be key.”

So that’s the glass-half-full take. Others, however, see a regime trying to bamboozle the international community in order to get economic sanctions against the country lifted.

“To me, the recent (prisoner) release showed that Burma’s regime continues an inhumane practice of holding activists as hostage to fulfill their political advantage – in this case, hoping to ease pressure from the international community particularly lifting sanctions,” pro-democracy activist Soe Aung wrote by instant messenger from his home in exile, Bangkok. “Thein Sein has to work much harder to prove if – and this is a very big IF – he’s for the reform or change in the country.”

My own take? After spending three weeks reporting undercover in Myanmar earlier this year, I’m unconvinced the sanctions are working that well anyway. Many of those I met on the ground were genuinely convinced that change was happening, though slowly. Few trusted the current powers-that-be to allow a real democracy to emerge in a country that has been the army’s ATM for so long.

“We are beginning to see the beginning of change,” Aung San Suu Kyi said in a recent interview with the BBC. “ I believe that the president wants to institute reforms, but how far these reforms will be able to go and how effective these will be, that still waits, still needs to be seen.”

Follow on Twitter: @markmackinnon

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