Isolated from most of the western world by its behavior and by economic sanctions, Myanmar has been forced to rely more and more on its giant neighbor China. Beijing did its diplomatic best to support Myanmar in international fora and became Myanmar’s indispensable ally: the generals get all their weapons from China (which can set the price and the quality, in the absence of competition), do 35 percent of their trade with China, and have let Chinese firms build controversial dams in Myanmar to feed the Chinese appetite for hydroelectricity.
Chinese businessmen and traders have been flooding into northern Myanmar in recent years, and they are not popular with the local people. Indeed, the Burmese have long mistrusted China, and the military has not forgotten that it spent a lot of time, and lost a lot of lives, putting down a Communist rebellion supported by Beijing.
The Myanmar government appeared to decide that the only way to lessen its humiliating and debilitating dependence on China was to introduce a little competition from western nations. But to do that, they had to persuade Washington and the European Union to lift the economic sanctions imposed because of their human rights violations. The best way to do that was to launch a political opening, and persuade the world that Myanmar was on the road to democracy. Hence the elections.