Three years after power was handed over to a civilian government, made up of retired military who served under the dictatorship, the reform process in Burma seems to be petering out. President Thein Sein introduced a series of measures reflecting his determination to turn over a new leaf and move towards democracy. But now confusion and tension are gaining ground, blotting out the memory of the spectacular early progress.

The release of almost all the political prisoners, the end of censorship, the restoration of trade-union rights and a free press, and the opening of talks to find a solution to the interminable war with minority ethnic groups are all major advances, but they are not enough to establish a lasting era of freedom in Burma.

On a visit to Berlin this month, during which she met Angela Merkel, Aung San Suu Kyi cautioned all those who still entertain any illusions about recent political changes in her country. Burma, she said, “is not yet a democracy”, adding that she wondered whether the Burmese government really wanted “to go toward a truly democratic union or does it want to go towards an authoritarian state disguised in democratic garb?”

According to the entourage of Aung San Suu Kyi, who spent 15 years under house arrest before being released in 2010, relations with Thein Sein have deteriorated. After the astonishing dialogue engaged at the start of the liberalisation process between the military dictatorship’s head of government and Aung San Suu Kyi, the tension now is palpable.

One of the stumbling blocks is the question of amending the constitution. For the time being, the leader of the National League for Democracy (NLD) has no hope of becoming president after the general election set for late next year, on the grounds that her late husband was British. Article 59(f) of the 2008 constitution bans anyone married to a foreigner or having had children with a foreigner from running for president.

With crucial elections looming, which could see an outright victory by the NLD, it is hardly surprising that relations between the two parties should be increasingly tense. The president, who was purportedly suffering from heart problems, is looking well and may want to serve a second term. “Senior general” Min Aung Hlaing is also thought to be tempted by the job. He has certainly started snubbing Aung San Suu Kyi, despite their joint appearance at last year’s traditional military parade.

As for the speaker in parliament Thura Shwe Mann, a former general, he has formed an improbable alliance with Aung San Suu Kyi, on the assumption that she might help him thwart the plans of his former cronies.

“After dressing up as a reformer, President Thein Sein is adopting an increasingly nationalist stance,” says Myo Yan Naung Thein, a former political prisoner who now heads a Burmese thinktank tasked, among others, with reviewing possible constitutional amendments.

His remark should be seen in the context of the tension between Buddhists and Muslims after serious violence in south-western Rakhine (Arakan) state in 2012, and last year in Meiktila, a city in central Burma, which claimed more than 200 lives and drove tens of thousands from their homes.

For the recent census, the first in 30 years, the authorities banned members of the minority Muslim Rohingya community in Rakhine from registering as such. Many Burmese people think they are “only” Bengalis, lumped together with illegal immigrants from neighbouring Bangladesh. The government’s nationalist stance is not a good sign for the future of democracy in post-dictatorship Burma.

This article appeared in Guardian Weekly, which incorporates material from Le Monde