FPI Bulletin: Burma’s Unfinished Democracy

November 10, 2015

The National League for Democracy (NLD) led by Aung San Suu Kyi has claimed a landslide victory in Burma’s November 8 parliamentary elections. The results are not yet final, yet it appears that the ruling Union Solidarity and Development Party (USDP), an offshoot of the military, has gone down to defeat in Burma’s freest election in 25 years. The challenge now for Ms. Suu Kyi and her party will be to transform their electoral mandate into democratic rule.

A huge win for the NLD should come as no surprise. Throughout decades of brutal military rule, the Burmese people have been staunch in their struggle for democracy and their desire that Ms. Suu Kyi and the NLD should lead them. If the early reports are confirmed, the NLD will have cleared the two-thirds threshold needed to pass legislation and to choose the next president when the parliament convenes early next year.

Nevertheless, Sunday’s poll does not mark democracy’s triumph in Burma. In addition to the many flaws in the polling process, Burma’s military still dominates both politics and the economy. Unelected military officers hold 25 percent of the seats in national and regional parliaments, giving them a veto over any change to the constitution. That military-drafted document also gives the military, not elected civilians, control over the security ministries and bars Ms. Suu Kyi from holding the presidency.

After the election, Secretary of State John Kerry rightly criticized these as “structural and systemic impediments to the realization of full democratic and civilian government.” Of course, these “impediments” existed before the White House lifted major sanctions, upgraded diplomatic ties, and President Obama made the first trip to Burma by a US president three years ago. Now, these impediments to democracy will constrain Ms. Suu Kyi and other NLD parliamentarians as they attempt to establish a government.

Over the past few years, it has become obvious that the military and its political proxy, the USDP, were not actually interested in a democratic transition that required them to relinquish their power. Burma’s leaders appear to have been motivated instead to get sanctions relief and offset the influence of neighboring China. Their vision was for “disciplined democracy” – a euphemism for military rule with the veneer of democracy. 

The Obama administration played into their strategy. The premature lifting of major sanctions alleviated any pressure to fully democratize. Burma’s leaders realized that neither democratization nor respect for human rights were necessary for improved relations.  They watched the Obama administration pursue “engagement” with dictatorships in Cuba and Iran while praising America’s earlier engagement with communist regimes in Vietnam and China that decades later remain in power.

Going forward, there is a danger that the Obama administration will deal with Burma as though a transition to democracy has actually been completed. That would help the administration claim Burma as a foreign policy success. But it would hurt, not help, the NLD and Ms. Suu Kyi in the ongoing transition toward democracy.

Neither the administration nor Congress should use the NLD victory to justify lifting sanctions on corrupt individuals or businesses, or expanding ties with Burma’s notoriously brutal and corrupt military. Working closely with an unreformed military would diminish Washington in the eyes of Burma’s people, who look to the United States and Europe as embodying the rule of law, respect for human rights, and civilian control of the military. An unreformed military would be a poor partner for the United States in the region, especially when it comes to countering China.

In the next phase of Burma’s democracy struggle, the NLD will have to meet voters’ expectations for improvements in their lives while struggling at the same time to advance political reforms.  In addition, the NLD and Ms. Suu Kyi ought now to use their position to confront a virulent strain of Buddhist nationalism that has unleashed violence and discrimination against the Rohingya and other Muslim minorities.  

“People want a happy ending,” Ms. Suu Kyi said recently. “They want Burma to be a success story. ... But I always say that you don't get something simply because you want it.” The Burmese people’s struggle has involved extreme personal sacrifice and hardship. The United States must pursue policies that reflect a sober understanding of the enduring obstacles to democracy in Burma.  Much more needs to be done before Sunday’s vote yields the democracy Burma’s people deserve.

Mission Statement

The Foreign Policy Initiative seeks to promote an active U.S. foreign policy committed to robust support for democratic allies, human rights, a strong American military equipped to meet the challenges of the 21st century, and strengthening America’s global economic competitiveness.
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