A New Year in Yangon

Greetings, and thanks for returning to this blog space.
And if you are a newcomer, thank for checking it out, and I hope you come back.
As we start 2015, I’m going to continue using this space to blog about current events, particularly in the Asia-Pacific region, and also about U.S. policy toward Asia, although sometimes I’ll deviate and opine about U.S. domestic politics, happenings in Europe or Africa, or whatever else seems interesting, topical or timely at the moment.  And I’ll also use this space to direct you to my freelance pieces that appear in The Edge Review and also my new outlet, Nikkei Asian Review, which is a new English-language weekly magazine on events happening in the region. I also invite you to follow me on Twitter at: keithrichburg.
I’ll be doing a lot of traveling this year, and I’ll be using this space to keep you abreast of what I see happening in the region.   And I start out right now in Yangon, formerly Rangoon, in Myanmar, the country once known as Burma.  I’ll be writing more about Myanmar at the end of my short trip.  But I can say at the outset, this an eye-opener for me, my first time back in 25 years, since I covered the country as the Southeast Asia correspondent for The Washington Post. My previous reporting earned me a spot on the military junta’s blacklist, which barred most foreign correspondents from the country.  But it is a measure of the dramatic changes underway that I’ve been allowed to come back in freely.  Political prisoners have been released, the press has been allowed to operate with unprecedented new freedoms, peace negotiations are underway with armed insurgent groups, and fresh national elections are planned by the end of this year.  The military, of course, retains a powerful influence over the transition, and it remains to be seen how much of their power the generals are willing to relinquish.  They will hold a considerable number of reserved seats in the new parliament.  And the constitution currently will bar the most popular opposition leader, Nobel Laureate Aung San Suu Kyi, from running for the presidency.
We also have to wait to see whether Suu Kyi’s National League for Democracy party (NLD) takes part in this year’s planned election.  Suu Kyi last month hinted the party might boycott the polls, worried about government restrictions that might make free and fair elections impossible.  “We don’t know what kind of rules and regulations may be in force.  We will wait and see,” Suu Kyi told a Dec. 30 press conference, according to the Myanmar Times.  Other parties are reportedly also considering their options.
This looks set to be a pivotal year for Myanmar.  And the U.S. and the Obama administration have a lot invested in making sure the reform and democratization process stays on track. Obama has visited here twice now, and Hillary Clinton has touted Myanmar as a success story.  But the administration has taken some criticism from those who say the U.S. has rewarded the Myanmar government too soon, and is giviing up precious leverage.  If the democratization process here stalls, the criticism may prove prescient.  On the other hand, others argue that the U.S. has a lot more leverage by engaging with Myanmar and its President Thein Sein.  Time will tell — and we should know in the next 12 months.
Meanwhile, check this space in a week, and I’ll have spent enough time on the ground here to be able to offer my own views on the reform process.  As they say, watch this space.