The economic and political reforms Myanmar's president Thein Sein is spearheading have won praise internationally, but have so far given the majority of the country's people little more than hope. They were able to get a taste of the changes last week, though, when they were for the first time allowed to openly observe the anniversary of the 1988 protests against the military dictatorship that sparked the pro-democracy movement. Police did not intervene, as in the past, when citizens gathered, and authorities even encouraged participation. Yet even as freedom of expression was being allowed on the streets, the spectre of media censorship remained after the closure days earlier of two private weekly newspapers for violating strict government rules.
Officials ordered the Voice Weekly and Envoy journals banned for publishing reports not approved by censors. The state-run media has been more open in its reporting and the small private sector has taken that as a sign of greater freedom. But media reforms promised in June have still not been implemented, and while a blind eye is often turned to what is being published, draconian regulations dictating that every printed word must get official approval are still in force. The closures show that Thein Sein is not yet dedicated to a fully democratic system.
Opposition leader Aung San Suu Kyi and dozens of members of her National League for Democracy party now sit in parliament and hundreds of political prisoners have been freed. There is widespread optimism in Myanmar's future. The lifting of sanctions by Western governments has prompted an ever-rising tide of overseas investment. It is what the nation needs to put 50 years of military misrule behind, but the tap can as easily be turned off if promises are not kept.
Much has still to be done. National reconciliation, particularly in ethnic conflict zones, and rural reforms, have to be priorities. The constitution vests excessive power in the military. Permitting elections and anniversary commemorations is only a small part of the equation.