Burma in the Twilight between Democracy and Dictatorship

A half century of military dictatorship has officially ended in Burma, or Myanmar. Yet taking the final steps toward democracy may be as difficult as making the transition so far.

It long seemed like this day would never come. But six years ago the military regime transformed itself into a nominally civilian administration. Suu Kyi, now a Nobel laureate, was released from house arrest. Free elections were held last November, in which the NLD won an overwhelming victory.

The new government has taken over. Suu Kyi was barred from the presidency by a constitutional provision drafted specifically against her. However, she chose classmate U Htin Kyaw as president, having previously explained that she would be “above the president.”

To formalize her authority the party’s first legislative act was to create the position of “state adviser,” which, explained MP Khin Maung Myint, would be “the president’s boss” who “can control the president and all the Cabinet members.” This step was necessary because the military refused to remove the clause disabling Suu Kyi.

Guaranteed one-quarter of the parliamentary seats by the constitution it drafted, the Tatmadaw, as the military is known, is able to block any amendment. The armed forces also retain control of the defense, home affairs, and border affairs ministries.

Despite the NLD’s overwhelming electoral triumph and Suu Kyi’s expansive moral authority, governing will remain a cooperative process. Myanmar’s future requires Suu Kyi and the NLD to push steadily for moderate reform while winning the military’s confidence if not trust.

The challenges facing the new government are enormous. Despite enormous potential, Burma remains a desperately poor land. However, reforms have barely begun. The latest Economic Freedom of the World index placed Burma at a dismal 146 of 157 nations.

The state remains authoritarian. Last year Human Rights Watch reported that “the reform process has stalled.” Freedom House rated Burma as “Not Free” and moving backwards. The new government must liberalize free speech and assembly, media freedom, online activism, judicial process, and criminal procedure.

Myanmar remains a land aflame. Although most ethnic groups have signed ceasefires with the government, conflict continues with some. Particularly contentious is the status of the stateless Rohingya in Rakhine State, who have been targeted by Buddhist nationalists.

Complicating all these tasks are the people’s high expectations. President Htin Kyaw called for patience, but that may end up in short supply. The Burmese people voted more for The Lady, as Suu Kyi is known, than the NLD or a particular political program. It isn’t likely to take long for disappointment to arrive amid practical politics, including difficult economic, ethnic, labor, and religious disputes.

Despite all this, however, what is happening in Naypyidaw is extraordinary. As I pointed out in Forbes: “civilians have taken over most of the positions of authority in Burma. The people of Myanmar do not yet rule themselves. But they are closer to doing so than at any previous point in more than a half century.”

The U.S. and other nations should encourage the democracy process. Some U.S. economic sanctions remain. As a result, American firms are having trouble finding capable local partners and at a disadvantage compared to firms from Europe. Indeed, Suu Kyi declared last November that “With a genuinely democratic government in power, I do not see why they would need to keep sanctions on.”

While much more remains necessary to create a liberal and free society, Washington should further relax sanctions to reward progress so far. If the military continues to cooperate in Myanmar’s transformation the rest of the restrictions should be lifted in the coming months.

Burma once vied for the title of worst governed nation on earth. Today Myanmar is not yet fully democratic, but it no longer is a dictatorship. The Burmese people deserve America’s support as they seek to complete their journey to a liberal and free society.