Things Are Changing in Burma -- or Are They?

Rena Pederson, adjunct professor in the Master of Liberal Studies program at SMU's Annette Caldwell Simmons College of Education and Human Development, writes about the current state of Burma, now known as Myanmar.

YANGON - Change is coming so rapidly to Burma -- the pariah state now known as Myanmar -- that you have to jot it down to keep track.

• The Burmese army, long known for its brutality, now says it is recruiting women.
 • Rangoon street kids who used to sell trinkets to motorists stuck in traffic are tapping on car windows to sell real estate listings and investment rules.
 • The BBC, an unflinching critic of the Burmese military regime in years past, has been granted permission to open a news bureau.

One of the most ballyhooed developments was the gathering last month of 17 ethnic groups to discuss an end to 65 years of bloodshed, the longest civil war in the world. As the delegates posed for photos, it looked like an uncomfortable family reunion where you have to sit next to your ill-mannered cousin whether you like him or not.

The peace talks are supposed to continue, but even while the meetings were going on, government soldiers were accused of raping ethnic women. One victim was a 15-year-old girl. Another was 8 years old. Rape is now the second most reported serious crime in the country, behind murder.

Though much progress has been made, the on-going violence is a reminder that some things have not changed:

• Security is still a concern because of recent bombings and sectarian violence that left more than 200 Muslims dead. Hotels in Rangoon now use hand-held metal detector wands to screen visitors.
• 69 political prisoners were recently released, but at least 60 political prisoners remain behind bars, perhaps as many as 200. That's better than the 2,500 who were in prison just a few years ago, but 265 people, mostly poor farmers who protested against the confiscation of their land, are awaiting trial.

And so it goes....

Rena Pederson is a former speechwriter at the U.S. Department of State.