In a world beset by war, ethnic conflict and humanitarian disasters, Burma (aka Myanmar) seems one of those rare places where diplomats can say they are making a positive difference.

Maybe that’s precisely because this Southeast Asian land was until recently a pariah state, suffering from the self-inflicted wounds of a ruthless military regime, ethnic conflicts and reconstruction from a humanitarian crisis.

After returning from yet another visit to Burma, United Nations Special Envoy Vijay Nambiar described “dramatic positive changes in Myanmar.” One year after a new civilian government was formed, he said political and economic reforms, as well as the release of political prisoners, were “key components of change.” Still, the veteran diplomat cautioned that “Myanmar was only at the beginning of its transition.”

Normally such positive press briefings must be taken with a grain of salt, but it appears we may be on the cusp of Burma’s long-awaited move out of its self-imposed isolation and into the light of prosperous Southeast Asia.

From 1962 until 2011, Burma was ruled by a leftist military junta who combined socialism, hypernationalism and secrecy to cut this country off from the world. Periodic regime crackdowns on dissidents, the house arrest of leading human rights Nobel laureate Aung San Suu Kyi and massive human rights abuses prompted suffocating sanctions and isolation from the United States and European Union. And rightly so.

Burma forms the geopolitical nexus of competing regional power interests — bordering China to the north, India to the west, Thailand to the east and the Bay of Bengal to the south. Historically the country’s fortunes and fate have seesawed between former British India and China. During World War II, the Burma Road proved a vital backdoor supply link to embattled Nationalist China. Now there’s a new Chinese connection.

Today the People’s Republic of China remains the key political, military and economic player in this resource-rich land of 55 million people. Beijing has provided diplomatic cover for the Rangoon rulers by blocking human rights resolutions before the U.N. Security Council.

At the same time, China has been vacuuming up resources, including hardwoods, gems, oil and gas, and has looked to Burma’s southern coast as a maritime outlet to the Indian Ocean.

But Chinese efforts to construct a $3.6 billion dam project on the Irrawaddy River went a step too far. Burma’s quasi-civilian government flexed its muscles and put the Myitsone complex on hold. Observers cite Beijing’s “big brother” attitude as much as the new government’s desire to cautiously reintegrate with the West.

Burma’s new government, ruling from the glitzy and gaudy inland capital of Naypyidaw, has been courting the West as well as Japan. In December, U.S. Secretary of State Hillary Clinton made a politically significant visit to meet opposition National League for Democracy (NLD) leader Suu Kyi as well as to officially greet the new civilian rulers. She was the highest-ranking U.S. official in Burma since Secretary of State John Foster Dulles visited in 1955.

Japan is talking about resuming development loans and aid; Tokyo was a major donor before 2003, when Suu Kyi was detained. Naturally the Association of Southeast Asian Nations (ASEAN) plays a powerful political/economic role, too. Yet, so much hinges on the April elections for 48 parliamentary seats. The NLD is contesting the vote and Suu Kyi is running for a parliamentary seat.

U.N. envoy Nambiar realistically stressed that the upcoming elections will test the government’s ability to enhance the democratic process. Significantly he called for a lifting of sanctions. He added that the chances for continued progress means that “the international community must respond robustly to people’s needs by lifting current restrictions” on the country:

The people of Myanmar will expect the international community to step up, but it’s Myanmar’s grim military leaders who also must show their intentions and step out of the shadows. If Burma’s rulers really want to end their country’s disastrous isolation, they will have to begin by proving they can be trusted at their word.

“This will mean going beyond the current charm offensive and taking measures to rein in elements of the military that still regard themselves as laws onto themselves,” according to the pro-democracy website Irrawaddy.org.

While Western countries such as Britain and the U.S. offer strong symbolic support in bringing Burma back from the edge, by easing or lifting economic sanctions, regional ASEAN states are poised to play the most vital long-term role in easing Burma’s isolation.

John J. Metzler is a United Nations correspondent covering diplomatic and defense issues. He is the author of “Transatlantic Divide: USA/Euroland Gap?” (University Press, 2010).

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