THE BLOG
12/03/2013 05:13 pm ET Updated Feb 02, 2014

Things Are Changing in Burma -- or Are They?

YANGON - Change is coming so rapidly to Burma -- the pariah state now known as Myanmar -- that you have to jot it down to keep track.

• The Burmese army, long known for its brutality, now says it is recruiting women.
• Rangoon street kids who used to sell trinkets to motorists stuck in traffic are tapping on car windows to sell real estate listings and investment rules.
• The BBC, an unflinching critic of the Burmese military regime in years past, has been granted permission to open a news bureau.

One of the most ballyhooed developments was the gathering last month of 17 ethnic groups to discuss an end to 65 years of bloodshed, the longest civil war in the world. As the delegates posed for photos, it looked like an uncomfortable family reunion where you have to sit next to your ill-mannered cousin whether you like him or not.

The peace talks are supposed to continue, but even while the meetings were going on, government soldiers were accused of raping ethnic women. One victim was a 15-year-old girl. Another was 8 years old. Rape is now the second most reported serious crime in the country, behind murder.

Though much progress has been made, the on-going violence is a reminder that some things have not changed:

• Security is still a concern because of recent bombings and sectarian violence that left more than 200 Muslims dead. Hotels in Rangoon now use hand-held metal detector wands to screen visitors.
• 69 political prisoners were recently released, but at least 60 political prisoners remain behind bars, perhaps as many as 200. That's better than the 2,500 who were in prison just a few years ago, but 265 people, mostly poor farmers who protested against the confiscation of their land, are awaiting trial.

And so it goes. Illegal heroin production is soaring. Villagers are still losing limbs to land mines. One third of children still work to help support their families, toiling long hours in fields, tea shops, furniture factories, and restaurants. Seventy-five percent of people still lack electricity. But you can rent a cellphone at the airport and there are now ATMS in the hotels. Burma has rejoined the Miss Universe competition for the first time in 50 years and is hosting the Southeast Asian Games this month.

The maddening zigzag in this tropical garden of good and evil makes it difficult to gauge progress day to day. But to paraphrase "Amazing Grace" hymn-writer John Newton, Burma is not the country it ought to be, but thank goodness, it is not the country it used to be.

The new freedom for media coverage often means the negative news trumps positive developments. Case in point: After months of coverage about the attacks on Muslims, a rare ecumenical dinner was organized to bring together 150 leaders from the Buddhist, Christian, and Muslim communities. The goal was to increase religious tolerance and decrease violence. But there was no press coverage.

The dinner was brave recognition by religious leaders that after a half-century of military rule, most people in Burma do not have a national sense of "We." They only know "us versus them."

The biggest possible step toward national unity could come by revising the constitution that was imposed by the military in 2008. Multiple changes are needed to provide more inclusion of ethnic groups and less domination by the military. Land rights of the rural poor must be protected.

In particular, the international community will be watching to see if Section 59 is revised. That section stipulates that a presidential candidate cannot have a spouse or children who are citizens of a foreign country -- a requirement aimed specifically at keeping Nobel Prize winner Aung San Suu Kyi, the opposition leader, from serving in high office. Both of her sons from her marriage to an Oxford professor are British citizens.

Making constitutional revisions is difficult because the membership of the 109-member committee is stacked. The dominant Union Solidarity and Development Party, a cat's paw for the military government, holds 52 seats and military representatives hold 25 seats, while only seven members of Suu Kyi's party have been included along with 25 members from small ethnic parties.

That math helps explain why Suu Kyi has been spending much of her time trying to build positive relationships with the military and members of Parliament. She understands that real change, transformative change, won't happen until the lop-sided constitution is revised.

Suu Kyi's task has become even more difficult as media criticism of her has increased. The photogenic democracy activist was once the darling of the press when she was a political prisoner. Now that she has been freed from house arrest and is an active Member of Parliament, she is lambasted regularly for what she says or doesn't say, what she does or doesn't do.

But Aung San Suu Kyi is still a uniquely talented person. As the daughter of independence leader General Aung San, she has a reservoir of respect that could help unify the country. Her voice is still needed. She has the clout to speak up for the poor and for responsible foreign investment.

Suu Kyi is showing her steel by asking the government to meet with her party to discuss the constitutional revision process, which so far has been rejected.

The constitutional recommendations, scheduled for January, are the development to watch. If serious reform proposals are presented, it will be a signal to the world that Burma really means business -- if not, business as usual.