"When I was there last June, we could tell that something was happening. There was some sort of change coming. We just didn't know what shape it would be".
Having just returned from Burma, following the historic by-elections, European External Action Service Counsellor Robert Cooper outlined his impressions and observations.
His visit came ahead of EU foreign policy chief Catherine Ashton's visit to Burma/ Myanmar at the end of this month. European Union Foreign Ministers will also debate sanctions against Burma at their meeting on 23 April.
Since last June, Mr Cooper has travelled to Burma four times. Each time he has gone he has seen the gradual shift towards change.
"By the time I was there at Christmas, there had already been quite a large release of political prisoners".
These developments coincided with the Government agreeing to a change in the electoral law which allow Aung Sang Suu Kyi's National League for Democracy (NLD) to come in from the cold and to register as a political party. Having moved from an illegal underground operation to a fully fledged political movement, the NLD looked to the by-elections as an opportunity for the voices of the people of Burma to be heard. Although this by-election was only contested on 44 seats in the parliament (about 7% of the total), the fact that there were elections at all is extremely significant. While these elections would not dramatically change the shape of the government, they did give the opportunity for the will of the people to be clearly expressed.
Mr Cooper described the elections as Burma's "Berlin Wall moment – you just wanted to be there and see it". This led him to visit the country in the run up to the elections. In a fortunate twist of fate, the Burmese authorities allowed EU observers to be present to monitor the elections. This came as a surprise to Mr Cooper, but nonetheless, it showed that the Burmese were taking these elections seriously.
Many have wondered what has led to these remarkable changes taking place in Burma. For a country that has been in isolation since the 1960s, the rapid changes that have occurred beg the question of what has motivated the authorities to undertake this radical shift in policy.
"This is a government in a country that we don't know very well, so it is hard to pinpoint exactly what the reason is or how decisions are made. Often, in many different countries, decisions aren’t made by that many people."
Given this observation, Mr Cooper believes that much of what has happened can be put down to the measures taken by President Thein Sein. Mr Cooper said that having arrived in power, the president is someone who has thought that he has a chance to put the country on a different path.
"Much of what you hear of the President is that he is someone who wants to govern the country well".
According to Mr Cooper, there are signs that President Sein realises that Burma has fallen far behind other countries in the region and that it is in drastic need of development; both politically and economically. The first step in tackling the economic inequalities is to take on the political inequalities. The approach in Burma is two-fold: firstly making sure that the government and the parliament is representative of the people, and secondly to look to end the violence that has blighted the country, in some parts, for 45 years. With constant conflict, there is little opportunity for investment.
With encouraging signs that the change happening will remain in place, Mr Cooper noted how a number of other generals, along with President Sein, have left the military and have taken posts in the civilian government.
"While nothing is irreversible, and there is an element in all this that seems too good to be true, you have to see that every step that is taken forward makes it more difficult for one to be taken back. The next important step is for Aung Sang Suu Kyi and the other NLD winners to take up their seats in parliament and to start working within the parliamentary system. That again is another step: once you've done that it is more difficult to arrest them and put them in prison." Mr Cooper said.
Moving onto the elections, Mr Cooper highlighted again the unexpected request for the EU to send an election monitoring mission. The second surprise awaiting the mission was that the members were told that they could go where they wanted and observe the vote as they wished.
With this unprecedented access, it was possible for the observers to get a real sense of the jubilation felt by the Burmese people.
Mr Cooper spoke of how at the count centre in Yangon, every time a vote for the NLD was counted and held up, a cheer rippled through the crowd, still in awe at what they were witnessing.
"There was enthusiasm yes, but also satisfaction that they were finally being able to vote for the person they wanted to. The whole thing was taken very seriously."
Recounting one anecdote from the country, Mr Cooper said how he had heard the story of one women who said that she had been practising how to vote for four days; not just out of enthusiasm, but also due to the fact that she like many others, are illiterate and the notion of firstly writing and reading and then voting is simply alien.
In the election centres themselves, Mr Cooper saw how there was a good atmosphere and that everything was very orderly. What struck him most was the sense in which this election process was exactly like the one he would vote in himself at home. From the polling stations the observers saw on the whole, that it looked like a well run and well managed election.
That being said, there were a number of evident problems. Amongst others was the process of complaint that had been set under the electoral laws. If a complaint was made, there was a fee charged. Furthermore, if the complaint was rejected, then there was a prison sentence waiting for the individual.
Turning to the role that EU and other international organisations can play, Mr Cooper said that the first thing the international community has to recognise is the magnitude of the change and that this has to be reflected in the relations between Burma and the outside world.
"One way this can be done is in relation to sanctions. Circumstances have changed so much that I think it is inconceivable to retain the sort of sanctions that are there at the moment."
On the general issue of sanctions, Mr Cooper stressed that the approach the EU takes is one whereby the existence of sanctions "shows that we care".
"Burma is a country that, for different reasons, a number of European countries felt close to and cared about. That's the reason why we impose sanctions. The other side of that coin is to say that when a country starts down the right path, then we have to have an equally active policy of working with them, to reinforce the change. I think now is the moment to make that switch in Burma, from negative messages to positive engagement".
Mr Cooper believes that the best resource that Burma has is the people, who he maintains are incredible survivors. Despite abject poverty, they continue to show unprecedented resilience.
"I am always impressed by the decency, the commitment and patience of the people".
The lasting impression that he has taken away from his most recent visit is the desire of the Burmese people to move on and to look to the future, rather than dwelling on the past.
Robert Cooper is a Counsellor in the European External Action Service. He is a long standing EU diplomat having previously worked with British Foreign Office. He is also an internationally acclaimed author and academic.
Burma/Myanmar was debated by Catherine Ashton and the European Parliament on 17 April.
Speech Burma / Myanmar