Since taking office in March 2011, Burmese president Thein Sein has captivated international attention by releasing political prisoners, loosening press restrictions and luring world-famous democracy icon Aung San Suu Kyi back into the political mainstream. Though the end-point of Burma’s democratic spring remains ambiguous, the imprimatur of “the Lady,” as she is known, has been enough to convince Western policymakers that the reforms are real.
Aung San Suu Kyi could be forgiven for looking at the revolutions sweeping the Middle East and wondering if she could spark the same sort of upheaval in her own homeland, a country dominated by a military regime for the past four decades. After all, the Burmese opposition leader and Nobel Peace laureate retains incomparable popular support, a point that all of her public appearances since her release from house arrest last November have served to underscore.
Chiang Mai, Thailand—Burma’s political isolation doesn’t make it immune from nature. Thursday’s major earthquake, of 6.8 magnitude, struck the northeast of the country, in Shan State. Preliminary reports put the death toll at more than 150, and there are reports of widespread destruction of buildings, bridges, and roads, including 250 houses and Buddhist monasteries destroyed. Given the rugged terrain and poor communication resources, it may be some time before the real human and material toll is known.