Myanmar is still in pretty bad shape.
In fact, the State Peace and Development Council, as the military government renamed itself in 1997, is stronger now than a year ago, having profited from high global food and fuel prices. A few signs of conspicuous consumption by the small urban middle class — satellite TV dishes, hip-hop music and fashions — are seeping down from the much smaller class of multimillionaire businessmen directly tied to the junta’s chairman, Than Shwe.
Meanwhile, the broad mass of 50 million people remain among the poorest in the world. Myanmar ranks 132 out of 177 countries in the 2007 United Nations Development Program’s Human Development Index. Most experts, who doubt the government’s statistics, think the reality is worse.
Myanmar is also one of the only countries to be publicly denounced for human rights abuses by the otherwise confidential and neutral International Committee of the Red Cross. According to Amnesty International, more than 2,100 political prisoners languish in Myanmar’s jails, about 1,000 having been locked up in the past year.
But more than ever, satellite TV and the Internet are making people aware of their government’s glacial pace of progress. One young woman told me that during last year’s uprisings, she was on the streets one day, shouting antigovernment slogans, and the next day stayed in, fearing a stray bullet, as she watched the blood-soaked crackdown live on Al Jazeera television.
Additionally, China seems uninterested or unable in pushing Myanmar's government to make accommodations to democracy.
Democracy advocates in exile hold out hope that China, which is Myanmar’s largest trading partner and its ally on the United Nations Security Council, could become the linchpin for changes in the regime.
But most Burmese I spoke with on my two-week visit didn’t think China would ever yield to Western pleading for it to play such a role. Business with China is booming, in fact, partly because tighter Western sanctions have made the junta more dependent on China for diplomatic support, as well as arms and consumer goods.
The same can be said of the Association of Southeast Asian Nations, or ASEAN. Myanmar's government continues to export jade. Mainland Chinese and diaspora Chinese in Southeast Asia continue to use jade jewelry.
Prospects for improvement in Myanmar's political situation look dim. Admittedly, pressure from China and ASEAN might not do the trick. North Korea is known as the hermit kingdom, and Myanmar is basically similarly isolated. However, as long as the Chinese government and ASEAN continue to ignore the junta's continuing atrocities, Myanmar will remain a stain on their human rights record.