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Looking Ahead From Burma’s November 7 Election

Americans and Europeans, the November 7 election in Burma is all about Aung San Suu Kyi. Or more precisely, why Aung San Suu Kyi and the party she led to victory in the 1990 elections have been stopped from participating in this one.

But for people in Burma’s ASEAN partner countries and in the other major Asian powers (China, India, Japan, South Korea), the election is about overcoming more than 50 years of lousy governance.

While the blame for Burma’s miserable performance rests squarely on the shoulders of its military rulers (who renamed the country Myanmar in 1989), a case can be made that the differing Western and Asian perspectives on and approaches to Burma/Myanmar have failed to change the junta’s policy course and so have failed to relieve the suffering of its 50 million people.

When the U.K. granted independence to Burma in 1948, it was governed by a parliamentary democracy and was considered the Southeast Asian country with the brightest future. Ethnic and ideological differences, however, resulted in a dysfunctional government that handed power to the military in 1958 to prepare for new elections. When these failed to produce a viable result, General Ne Win staged a coup in 1962 and then pursued an extreme policy of internal socialism and external isolationism. Burma was largely ignored by the rest of the world until 1988 when a popular uprising brought to power a group of generals eager to abandon socialism and isolationism.

In one of the most spectacular miscalculations in modern politics, these generals held a national election in 1990 in which Aung San Suu Kyi’s anti-military party (the National League for Democracy—NLD) won a landslide victory. The ruling generals put Aung San Suu Kyi under house arrest and disavowed the election results. These events inspired the decision to award her the Nobel Peace Prize in 1991 and made democracy in Myanmar a global cause led by movie stars and world-class politicians such as Nelson Mandela. The government headed by General Than Shwe since 1992 has kept Aung San Suu Kyi under house arrest for most of the past 20 years and has ruled whimsically and brutally, most visibly in suppressing the monk-led “Saffron Revolt” in September 2007.

Appalled by the military regime’s rejection of the 1990 election results and subsequent lamentable actions by the regime, the United States and other Western democracies imposed ever tighter economic sanctions against Myanmar and used their voice and vote in the United Nations and other international institutions to put pressure on the regime to respect international norms of governance.

From 1990 to 2009, the U.S. government took the position that the military rulers of Myanmar should transfer power to a civilian government led by the NLD. U.S. pressure for regime change was especially strong during the presidency of George W. Bush, one example being the labeling of Myanmar as one of six “outposts of tyranny” by Condoleezza Rice in January 2005 during her confirmation hearing to become Secretary of State. Last year, acknowledging that the U.S. emphasis on sanctions had not been effective, the Obama administration adopted a policy of “pragmatic engagement” designed to initiate a dialogue that could lead to greater respect for human rights and democratic principles by the Myanmar government in the near term and eventually the removal of sanctions.

While the headlines in the Western media—and the policies of Western governments—have focused on the confrontation between General Than Shwe and Aung San Suu Kyi, the policies of the military regime have created some serious problems for the region: an exodus of several million economic and political refugees, a flood of methamphetamines, and a scourge of HIV/AIDS. Moreover, Myamnar has been the major obstacle to strengthening the 10-country ASEAN community, and a major impediment to the economic integration of ASEAN with China and India.

Despite bearing the brunt of the impact of these problems, Myanmar’s Asian neighbors have opposed the use of sanctions and have tried to encourage better governance in Myanmar through dialogue and engagement. In particular, Myanmar was brought into ASEAN as a member in 1997; China vetoed a U.S.-led UN Security Council resolution condemning the Myanmar government for its human rights abuses in 2007; and India recently launched a substantial aid program in Myanmar.

Not surprisingly, neither the sanctions approach nor the engagement approach have yielded better governance because they tend to cancel out each other. Is there a chance that the Western democracies and Myanmar’s Asian neighbors will adopt a more common approach to Myanmar after the November 7 election? Almost certainly not. If not, is there a chance that governance will improve so that the Myanmar population will be measurably better off in the near term? Perhaps a small chance.

The November 7 election is based on a constitution drafted to ensure military rule in perpetuity and adopted in a referendum in May 2008 (in the wake of the devastation of Cyclone Nargis) that fell far short of global standards for freedom of choice. Furthermore, the rules governing the registration of parties and their campaign activities for the November 7 election favor two parties aligned with the military regime and sharply circumscribe—or prohibit—some two dozen opposition parties. While Than Shwe seems to want to have a number of opposition party candidates win seats in the upper and lower chambers of the national assembly and in the 14 state and region assemblies, it is inconceivable that he will allow the opposition parties as a group to hold the largest block of elected seats (25 percent of the seats are reserved for the military).

The Western democracies have called repeatedly for an election that is “free, fair, open, and transparent,” and these calls have been echoed in statements from the United Nations and even from ASEAN and other Asian institutions and governments. Because none of these criteria will be met, it must be assumed that the Western democracies will continue to impose sanctions against Myanmar or tighten them.

By contrast, Myanmar’s ASEAN partners and the other major Asian nations will certainly consider the new government to be formed after the November 7 election as a step forward that justifies deeper engagement.

Going forward, then, it looks as though the “sticks” of sanctions will continue to offset the “carrots” of engagement. The long-suffering population of Myanmar is probably expecting more of the same conflicting external pressures, and that is likely to be what they get.

It is hard to imagine any election outcome that would make life worse than it already is for most people in Myanmar, but several factors could make their lives better. One is that the impact of deeper engagement with Myanmar’s Asian neighbors is likely to greatly outweigh the impact of tighter sanctions by the United States and other faraway countries. A second factor is that the new government—required by the constitution to take office within 90 days of the elections—may decide that its shelf life depends on achieving some “performance legitimacy.” Such legitimacy could come most easily from a series of small, “piecemeal” policy changes that expand the scope for free enterprise and personal advancement across the country.

One reason to believe the new Myanmar government may move in this direction is that the regime has already taken a number of similar initiatives during the past year, including the privatization of a wide range of government enterprises and properties. Another reason is that Myanmar’s Asian neighbors are likely to attach more importance to economic progress in Myanmar than to political progress. After all, their own modern histories invariably began with economic liberalization not with political liberalization. Good governance during the early stages of their modernization has been more closely linked to achieving high rates of economic growth than to having a democratically elected governments.

Progress on the economic front could help to resolve, over time, the ethnic conflict that lies at the heart of Myanmar’s miserable post-independence experience and its fall during this period to the bottom rank of countries by most socioeconomic indicators. The ethnic Burman majority accounts for as much as 60 percent of the population and is primarily Buddhist. The military’s vision of a peaceful country has been one where the supremacy of the Burman culture is accepted by all. But the new government, which includes fourteen regional assemblies for the first time, may be more willing than its predecessors to share power and economic resources with the ethnic minorities (largely Christian) that live predominantly in the mountainous terrain along Myanmar’s borders with India, China, and Thailand.

Another major source of uncertainty going forward will be Myanmar’s evolving relationship with China. This year Chinese companies started building parallel natural gas and crude oil pipelines, and a railroad, diagonally across the middle of the country from the Indian Ocean, near the border with Bangladesh, to Yunnan Province. The billions of dollars that will begin flowing to the Myanmar government from these projects within three or four years will be a game changer for better or worse. They could finance a military procurement program with no social benefits or an infrastructure program that drives rapid economic growth as seen elsewhere in East Asia. There is also a significant risk of social turmoil if construction workers brought in from China add to the already considerable influx over the past decade of Chinese pursuing extractive and trading businesses, if land is acquired without fair compensation and whole villages are displaced by force, or if environmental impacts are ignored.

Finally, the position that Aung San Suu Kyi adopts after the November 7 election could have a measurable impact on the well being of the Myanmar population in the period ahead. The military regime has announced its intention to free her from house arrest a week or two after the election. If she finds a way of working with the new government to lay the groundwork for better governance in the future, a considerably more optimistic outcome is conceivable. Unfortunately, the weight of evidence at the moment suggests that Aung San Suu Kyi will take a hard line position and make demands of the new government that it will be disinclined to accept.

In short, the path Myanmar will follow after the November 7 election is highly uncertain. The political pressures in the United States, especially from the more Republican Congress elected this week, will most likely be in the direction of strengthening sanctions. But the response of Myanmar’s ASEAN partners and other major Asian powers—unless the military regime botches the election and resorts to force to maintain order—will almost certainly be to oppose sanctions and step up engagement substantially. The harder the United States tries to create a common front in dealing with the problem of Myanmar the less influence it will have in shaping Myanmar’s future.


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