Burma’s By-Elections: Small Steps Towards Change

By Julia Hanne

The recent parliamentary by-elections in Burma, in which Aung San Suu Kyi and her party, the National League for Democracy, won 43 out of the 44 vacant parliamentary seats, has been heralded as a landmark for a state previously seen as an international pariah. Nobel Peace Prize laureate Aung San Suu Kyi, who has spent most of the past 20 years under house arrest, will now for the first time take public office and lead her party in parliament. Secretary of State Hillary Clinton declared the elections a “dramatic demonstration of popular will that brings a new generation of reformers into government.” A series of surprising reforms have swept across the country, raising calls for the lifting of international sanctions that have contributed to Burma's political isolation and economic decline. Many western nations that previously imposed sanctions, notably the U.S. and Great Britain, have already restored diplomatic relations. But before resource-rich Burma is fully re-integrated into the global economy and community, the regime still needs to prove its sincere interest in democratic reforms by giving the opposition an even greater opportunity to win political influence in the country. In this context, the gradual lifting of the many—previously ineffective—sanctions can play a crucial role in incentivizing political reforms.

While the motives for this series of political, economic, and administrative reforms that the military regime has embarked on are still unclear, not even the most cautious of observers can deny that the regime has taken steps toward real representative democracy. A Burmese constitutional referendum in 2008 promised a “discipline-flourishing democracy.” In 2010, the military officially ceded power to a civilian government, but it was the military-backed Union Solidarity and Development Party led by Thein Sein that won with 80 percent of the vote. Few observers considered democratic change even a remote possibility.

But since then, the government released 651 political prisoners, re-opened direct dialogue with Aung San Suu Kyi, established a National Human Rights Commission that has already called for the release of the remaining political prisoners from their own prisons, negotiated cease-fires with the ethnic Karen and Shan insurgents, passed labor laws allowing unions, relaxed press censorship, and abolished export taxes. To spur economic development and attract foreign investments, the IMF as well as other financial institutions and foreign banks have been invited back into the country. Meanwhile, the country's international profile is on the rise—ASEAN has approved Burma's bid for the chairmanship in 2014, and Hillary Clinton was the first U.S. secretary of state to visit the nation in more than 50 years.

Aung San Suu Kyi welcomes the partnership with Thein Sein who, according to her, has “genuine wishes for democratic reform.” But press commentators such as the German Süddeutsche Zeitung accuse her of having “entered a pragmatic coalition with those that have harassed her for years.”

Other critical voices such as the Guardian or the Washington Times remind Burma optimists that only one-quarter of the total of 664 parliamentary seats were up for grabs during these by-elections. So while the NLD might now be represented in Burmese parliament, this rather symbolic and small shift in seats does not really threaten the authority of the military, who have simply switched their military uniforms for civilian suits, and are still holding the nation's top posts with near-absolute power. Aung San Suu Kyi and her party now have greater leeway and a legitimate public stage from which they can demand further reforms, but their ability to do so is limited. In their current position, they will not be able to amend constitutional provisions that uphold the army's control of the government.

But even though the military had little to lose in the April 1st elections, there are still compelling reasons to view the recent vote as an important first step in the country's journey to democratic transition. The government invited dozens of Western and Asian election observers into the country to monitor the vote and granted visas to hundreds of foreign journalists. Even former military intelligence chief Khin Nyuny insinuated to the press that he had voted for the NLD and not for the government-backed USDP. Nay Zin Latt, adviser to President Thein Sein, even told the Associated Press that Aung San Suu Kyi could receive cabinet post. “Everything is possible,” Nay Zin Latt said. “She could be given any position of responsibility because of her capacity.”

 Most importantly, Burma’s new leader Thein Sein is widely seen as a reformist. The New York Times consider him to “be siding with a younger generation of military officers who believe that maintaining the junta’s oppressive policies” after more than 50 years of military rule have trapped the country's population in dire poverty. In Thein Sein's inaugural speech, he declared poverty alleviation and democratic transition to be his top priorities. During his speech he said that Burma “will open doors, make reforms, and invite investments as necessary for the development of the nation and the people” to “ensure a proper market economy designed to reduce the economic gap between the rich and the poor.”

Burma remains one of the world's most heavily sanctioned nations. The West has instituted arms and military equipment embargoes, trade sanctions on the extractive and logging industry, visa bans, and asset freezes of the top military leadership. In the past, these sanctions had little influence on the junta's policies, since it managed to extend its international relations to other Asian nations that gladly filled the gap left by western nations. China together with ASEAN member states accounted for more than 70 percent of Burma's trade value alone in 2008, compared to 5.5 percent with the European Union and 0.1 percent with the U.S.

But that was then. Now the carrots and sticks of aid and economic sanctions matter. In the past, these sanctions proved to be nothing but ineffective since the regime was neither reliant on nor interested in relations with the West—and thus only aided in keeping the country's population in poverty and isolation. But the regime's new drive for economic reform and its subsequent need of trade relations with the rest of the world have suddenly provided the sanctions with an influence they never had before. Their removal is crucial for the country's transformation, and they should be gradually lifted as the government continues its reform process. International players such as the U.S., Canada, Australia, and the EU have already used this new window of opportunity to call for the unconditional release of all political prisoners as a prerequisite for the lifting of sanctions, while western corporations are already planning to enter one of the world's largest untapped markets. Japan and several European nations have resumed aid to Burma. The Obama administration relaxed its restrictions on aid in November 2011 and lifted the travel ban on some of the country's senior leaders. Plans to ease sanctions on American investments and to name the first U.S. ambassador to the country since 1990 have also been announced.

It is clear that if Burma is really going to transform into a true democracy with a growing economy, it will need help from the international community. As Hla Maung Shew, the founder of the research consortium Myanmar Egress, says, “We need more experience in capacity-building and technical know-how. If we can achieve it, then our transition to democracy will go smoothly.”

For now, the by-elections are a small step forward, and states should encourage Burma's reform by adjusting their sanctions accordingly. Despite the many reasons to be hopeful, governments should wait to lift sanctions completely until the military is willing to accept an election outcome that could grant the NLD real power. The real test will be in 2015, when the next general election for all seats takes place. Change is underway, but Burma still has a long way to go.



Julia Hanne is an editorial assistant at World Policy Journal.

(Photo courtesy of Htoo Tay Zar)


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