Myanmar's lessons for political change

As Myanmar recovers from civil war and inches towards a healthy functioning society, Syria could do a lot worse than learn from its example.

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Friday marked a major milestone in a long-running battle against tyranny as hundreds of political prisoners were freed. These were not activists of the recent revolts in our region, in Tunisia, Egypt or Syria, but of Myanmar. After 50 years of military rule, the Southeast Asian country is finally seeing a real chance for political reform.

The prisoner release three days ago was the latest positive step since elections were held in 2010. True, those elections saw the generals simply give up their uniforms to take office or be replaced by other regime loyalists.

But since then, the country has seen restrictions on the media ease, limited economic reforms and growing political participation. The symbol of the country's opposition, Aung San Suu Kyi, has announced that she will run in parliamentary by-elections.

Of equal importance, although reported much more quietly, was a ceasefire signed on Thursday between the government and ethnic Karen rebels. The Karen, concentrated in the east of the country, are one of the larger of many ethnic groups that have fielded rebel armies in the world's longest-running civil conflict since independence in 1948.

The former military junta's most prolific human-rights abuses were committed in the strife-torn ethnic states, from mass rape and enslavement to forced relocation and systematic murder. It was one of the most underreported atrocities of the 20th century. And while the Karen were considered the most implacable enemies of the regime, groups such as the Kachin are still in open armed rebellion, while the Chin, Shan and Wa still field militias, despite having also signed peace deals.

Prominent figures among the 650 political figures freed on Friday have expressed doubts about the intentions of the current government and the pace of reforms. Leaders of ethnic minorities remain sceptical. They have a right to be - the old guard in power may try to roll back reforms, or at the least carve out privileges for themselves in the new political order.

But once granted, political freedoms are difficult to rescind. After decades of repression and low-intensity war, negotiations, foreign pressure and snail-paced reforms seem to be gaining ground. As Syria slides towards further strife, Myanmar inches towards a healthy society.

For all of the evils of the junta, perhaps the best way to get rid of the generals was to engage them.