The other day Burma observed an unhappy anniversary. On March 2, 1962, General Ne Win seized power in a coup d’état, beginning a reign of folly and cruelty that has brought ruin to a once rich, civilized country.

Fifty years is an eternity for any people living under an authoritarian regime, particularly one as terrible as Burma’s, and particularly in a world opening to democracy.

Yet while Thailand, Indonesia, Taiwan, South Korea, Singapore, the Philippines, Malaysia and others moved from dictatorship to a form of democracy, Burma did not.

Burma — lowly, misbegotten Burma — remained the dominion of a greedy elite that crushed dissent while enriching itself on the country’s abundant natural resources.

While Burma slept, though, the world moved on. The Berlin Wall fell. The Soviet Union fell apart. Eastern Europe joined the European Union and NATO. Apartheid collapsed in South Africa. Nation after nation embraced democracy in Latin America. The United States, seared by the struggle for civil rights in 1962, went on to enfranchise blacks, integrate schools and, astonishingly, elect a black president in 2008. Most recently, the Arab Spring has toppled regimes in Tunisia, Egypt and Libya. Syria may be next.
All this Burma resisted. It saw no advantage in joining the 20th century. Indeed, the swaggering generals found new, horrid ways to consolidate their power.

In 1988, the year before Tiananmen Square, they killed thousands of protesters in the streets. Then the soldiers went to the hospitals to finish off the rest.

The regime renamed the country Myanmar and built an empty capital in the interior.

To visit Burma, as a journalist, was to shred your business cards on landing in Rangoon (which they had christened Yangon) and bring your own food. In the glorious Strand Hotel, the cockroaches were the size of rats and an army of ants marched majestically across the starched creases of the white table cloths in the forlorn dining room.

The world imposed sanctions. It made Burma a pariah, and the country was content to be one. For company, it could turn to Cuba and North Korea.

Would this ever end? In 2007, when the claret-robed monks became restive, the soldiers went into the monasteries and killed them there.

And yet. The 50th anniversary of military rule this year comes in a Burma that is not the Burma that was.

The sea change there is the good news story of the decade, and like most good news, is the most under-reported.

Consider what has happened in Burma since last March, when the State Peace and Development Council (the military) handed over power to parliament.

After years in captivity, Aung San Suu Kyi is no longer under house arrest. She and other democrats are campaigning for seats in parliament in by-elections. Hundreds of political prisoners have been released.

There have been ceasefires with some of the warring minorities. There are new labour laws, legalizing unions. There is more freedom of the press and fewer restrictions on the Internet.

To show her support, U.S. Secretary of State Hillary Clinton visited Burma last autumn. The United States is now moving to restore full diplomatic relations. For it and for Canada, the way ahead is no longer sanctions, but limited, calibrated engagement to encourage and reward change.

So dizzying is that change, the New York Times reported recently that dissidents in exile — for decades the loyal standard-bearers of democracy — are becoming irrelevant.

Suddenly, the raison d’être of these valiant pro-democracy advocates (an estimated 200 organizations alone in Thailand) is in question. Prisoners they defended have been released and their money is drying up. With ostensibly less to protest, the Times notes wryly, they need “career counseling.”

The point is that the democracy movement is now at work in Burma, not outside it.

Is it real or a ruse? Is it sustainable?

There is reason for caution. Those elections are limited to less than 10 per cent of the country’s seats; many of the rest are controlled by the military. There are still dissidents in jail. Ethnic groups in the borderlands are still fighting.

Still, even modest reform is remarkable for a country that was an emblem of oppression for 50 years.

Why this is happening now is uncertain. Maybe the regime believes that political reform is the way to prosperity. Maybe it thinks it’s the ticket to legitimacy in the international community.

As things go in Burma, they could go in Iran (which has a divided leadership and a young population) and in Cuba, especially if a re-elected Barack Obama lifts the American trade embargo there. It could even happen in North Korea, which is under new management and making concessions on its nuclear program, however suspect they may be.

This isn’t to say that we have reached the New Jerusalem in Burma or anywhere else. Democracy takes time.

But the lesson here is that too often we think that nothing will change, as we did for so long in Burma. And then it does.

Andrew Cohen is a professor of journalism and international affairs at Carleton University. Email: andrewzcohen@yahoo.ca