Tag: burma

Democracy Triumphs in Burma—If Military Will Yield Real Power

In 2010, Burma’s military junta–misnamed the State Peace and Development Council–began a controlled move toward limited democracy. The process was highly imperfect and there has been backsliding of late.

Nevertheless, national elections were held last week.

Nobel Laureate Aung San Suu Kyi’s National League for Democracy annihilated the regime’s Union Solidarity Development Party, winning 78 percent of the seats. Voters rejected many top military and USDP leaders.

The losers were surprised that the people gave them so little credit for the end of dictatorial rule. “All of our calculations were wrong,” said one. Yet this happened before.

After ruthlessly suppressing pro-democracy demonstrations, the military regime sought to improve its image with an election in 1990. The NLD similarly won about 80 percent of the legislative seats. The embarrassed junta promptly voided the results, suppressed protests, and kept Suu Kyi under house arrest for most of the last quarter century.

No one expects a similar response this time, however. The military made a far more calculated move toward democracy, writing the constitution to guarantee its influence. Moreover, after inviting in the West, the military could not easily return to isolation, the almost certain result of any electoral repudiation.

However, is the military prepared to allow reform to move forward?

Suu Kyi and the NLD face extraordinary challenges, made more difficult by people’s high expectations. People across Burma voted for The Lady, but she has never held office or participated in the give and take of politics.

She faces what remains an authoritarian state. Human Rights Watch recently warned that “the reform process has stalled.”

Much must be done. Civil and political freedoms must be further expanded. All members of parliament should be elected. Judges must be made independent and fair criminal procedures need to be established.

Moreover, power must be fully vested in civilians. Today, the Ministries of Defense, Border Affairs, and Home Affairs are formally under military control, while the army has seeded its personnel throughout the nominally civilian bureaucracy and judiciary.

Fundamental economic reform also is necessary. The Economic Freedom of the World index places Burma at a dismal 146 of 157 nations. Little progress has been made toward a market economy. The new government must make Burma attractive to domestic entrepreneurs and foreign investors alike.

Conflict continues among a number of ethnic groups. Peace requires allowing substantial self-government, creating trust after decades of military atrocities, and reintegrating ethnic and religious minorities in Burmese institutions.

Riots and massacres have continued in Rakhine State targeting the Muslim Rohingya, encouraged by radical Buddhist nationalists. The national government must protect vulnerable groups from organized violence.

Standing in the way of real change is the military-drafted constitution, which bars Suu Kyi from the presidency and requires a 75 percent vote in parliament to amend the constitution, while guaranteeing 25 percent of the seats to the military. Forging a relationship with the army while edging it aside will require extraordinary sensitivity.

Suu Kyi also must overcome her own limitations. Although a heroic figure who has suffered much for the cause of democracy, she has failed to delegate and develop a broad leadership within the NLD.

And her plan for governing sounds anything but inclusive: “The president will be told exactly what he can do. I make all the decisions, because I am the leader of the winning party.”

It has been more than a half century since the people of Burma have been able to rule themselves. They face tough questions of media freedom, political reform, economic liberalization, ethnic conflict, military accountability, and more.

As I argued on Forbes online: “For too long the Burmese people could only look to the future and hope for change. Today they have a chance to enjoy the opportunities that the rest of us take for granted. Hopefully now, after decades of conflict, the future finally has arrived for Burma.”

Could Che Guevara Inspire Peaceful Revolutionaries in Burma?

In a profile of Myat Thu, a Burmese dissident forced to flee the country after “the 1988 nationwide protests that were brutally crushed by the Burmese military,” who now runs a cafe across the border in Thailand, NPR blandly notes that he has portraits on his walls of Aung San Suu Kyi – and Che Guevara.

Does Myat Thu know that Che was a brutal murderer who helped establish a Stalinist, military-backed dictatorship in Cuba that has lasted longer than the junta in Burma? Maybe he doesn’t. But surely Jason Beaubien of NPR does.

Hillary Clinton Heads to Burma

On Wednesday, Secretary of State Hillary Clinton travels to the isolated nation of Burma, officially known as Myanmar, in an attempt to spur the reform process. “After years of darkness, we’ve seen flickers of progress,” said President Barack Obama of the troubled country. By visiting Burma Secretary Clinton can test the new government’s willingness to do more.

Of course, the Clinton initiative may fail. But the main argument for the policy change is not that it is certain to work, but that the alternative has failed. Isolating Burma has achieved nothing.

Burma long has been one of the most tragic of nations. The military regime brutally suppressed the democracy movement led by Nobel laureate Aung San Suu Kyi. Even more deadly has been the half-century long battle with ethnic groups like the Karen, which have sought autonomy in the east.

The United States and Europe responded with sanctions, but to no avail. China took advantage to secure a position of political influence and economic dominance. The military regime continued to live up to its reputation for brutality and corruption.

Now there are “flickers of progress,” as the president suggested. A badly flawed election last year; a new, nominally civilian government; the release of a few political prisoners; liberty for Ms. Suu Kyi, who also has been meeting with government ministers; and a slight break between Burma and its chief patron, Beijing.

Individually these are but small changes, and the Burmese military has previously offered tantalizing reforms only to reverse course, intensifying its brutal suppression of any opposition. However, the combination of many small steps offers hope that something more real may be happening this time. Even Suu Kyi has expressed optimism, and is preparing to reenter politics—legally.

Equally important is the increasing evidence that Burma wants to balance the influence of its imperious neighbor China. For all of the worries in America about Beijing’s growing clout around the world, the People’s Republic of China is finding out—just as the United States discovered years ago—that friends can be expensive to buy and often don’t stay bought.

Engaging Burma could encourage that state to continue on a more independent course—separate from China. The regime isn’t likely to dump its patron, but any distance between the two would be progress. The PRC’s churlish reaction to the Clinton initiative suggests that Beijing is concerned.

An adjustment in U.S. policy toward Burma was sorely needed. Isolation resulted in few positive outcomes. For the most part Asian nations, even America’s friends, ignored U.S. and European sanctions. The regime did not fall; Suu Kyi was not freed; democracy did not come; the ethnic groups did not enjoy peace. The generals simply tightened their grip.

Although this policy failure long has been obvious, no one wanted to “reward” the Burmese regime by dropping economic penalties. This left U.S. policy stuck in a political cul-de-sac. Sanctions were ineffective, doing nothing to advance human rights. But they could not be changed for the sake of appearance.

Nascent reform in Burma now offers Washington an opportunity to shift course. No one should get their hopes up. The regime may intend to only adopt a few reforms as window-dressing to win Western aid. Even if the commitment to change is real, the road to a better life for the Burmese people remains long and hard.

Nevertheless, for the first time in years there truly are “flickers of progress” in Burma. The administration is right to try to turn these flickers into something more. A desperately poor and oppressed people deserve a better life.

Cross-posted from the Skeptics at the National Interest.