Nearly a year ago, Burma, one of the world's most oppressive military dictatorships, held elections that were widely regarded as a sham. Few observers figured that the new president, a former military man named Thein Sein, would be allowed or inclined to carry out substantial changes of any kind. The military, it was assumed, would continue to pull the strings. As one longtime diplomat with extensive experience in Burma told me, “I think we [outsiders] expected a few cosmetic changes from Thein Sein, but nothing that would commit the government to real reform.” She added, “I don't think anyone expected this.”
By “this” she meant the transformation that has taken place since Thein Sein took office—a series of reforms that has shocked even the most jaded Burma-watchers. Over the past six months, the government has announced plans to release some 6,000 prisoners, launched a dialogue with opposition leader Aung San Suu Kyi, and appointed one of her confidantes as an adviser to the president.