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Cautious Hope for Change in Burma

Eight weeks after the nominally civilian government of President Thein Sein took power in Burma, there are indications that one of the world’s most repressive and poorest states might be finally heading towards reform.

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Mr Thein Sein last week appointed U Myint, an economist who commands respect on both sides of the country’s deep political divide, to his presidential advisory board, a decision that followed public statements that spoke of economic and social reform and a new era of the rule of law.

The appointment of Mr Myint to such a high-profile position is particularly startling because he has personal ties to Aung San Suu Kyi, the Nobel laureate and opposition leader. That would previously have been sufficient to bar him from the corridors of power.

Burma analysts are cautiously optimistic but point out that all the changes so far have been symbolic rather than concrete, and say the country is no stranger to false dawns when it comes to reform.

In his inaugural speech, Mr Thein Sein laid out plans for an open market economy and citizens’ rights and asked his supporters to show goodwill towards those who did not agree with them; radical statements in the context of Burma’s history of military autocracy.

Diplomats said Ms Suu Kyi had indicated privately that she was encouraged by his words. But most analysts said that if there were going to be change, it would be a long, slow process.

The appointment of Mr Myint, 73, has been hailed as indicating that a significant shift in both government policy and professionalism could be under way.

“The fact that Thein Sein has appointed U Myint to the advisory board is a substantial effort rather than a superficial effort,” said one European diplomat.

“[U Myint] has been quite open about economic mismanagement being the root cause of many of the country’s problems and he has sensible ideas about fixing them,” said the diplomat. His appointment “indicates that Mr Thein Sein might be a genuine progressive, at least in the limited context of Burmese reform”.

But some observers voiced doubts on how far Mr Myint would be able to influence policy in an environment where much of the power remains concentrated in the hands of reactionaryformer generals.

“The big question is whether anyone is going to listen to him,” said Sean Turnell, an academic at Australia’s Macquarie University.

Diplomats and other international observers have been encouraged by the limited steps Mr Thein Sein has taken but caution that his achievements so far are little more than expressions of good intentions.