Gen. Ne Win seized power in 1962. Nearly a half century later the country is ruled by a junta headed by Gen. Than Shwe. The military’s crimes are many. It has imposed a corrupt and brutal dictatorship; conducted a genocidal war against dissident ethnic groups; suppressed civil and political liberties; kept the country desperately poor; and enriched well‐connected allies at public expense. The government even impeded international assistance after devastating Cyclone Nargis in 2008.
The regime has repeatedly attempted to rebrand itself. For instance, the junta once called itself the State Law and Order Restoration Council, SLORC, but shifted to the State Peace and Development Council. Alas, the only peace the SPDC believes in is of the grave and the only development it supports is of junta members’ bank accounts. The generals occasionally ousted and imprisoned each other.
In 1990 the junta foolishly held an election. Like the Nicaraguan Sandinistas and Polish Communists, who also called free ballots, the Burmese military overestimated its popular support. The Burmese people decisively rejected the regime, overwhelmingly voting for Nobel Laureate Aung San Suu Kyi and the National League for Democracy. So the generals voided the result, suppressed the NLD, and quarantined Suu Kyi, subjecting her to house arrest for 15 of the last 21 years.
There has been no mellowing over the years. In 2003 the regime promised a “roadmap to discipline‐flourishing democracy,” which emphasized discipline over democracy. The SPDC ruthlessly suppressed protests led by Buddhist monks in 2007. The following year the junta stuffed ballot boxes in a referendum on its authoritarian constitution, drafted without popular input. The generals routinely harassed Suu Kyi and sentenced many of her supporters to long prison terms. The regime reached ceasefire agreements with a number of rebellious ethnic groups, but since then has begun demanding that the forces disarm, a nonstarter for people who have suffered from unlimited military barbarity for decades.
The junta’s latest strategy is another election, for a two‐house national parliament and 14 state and regional assemblies. However, this ballot was rigged from the start to prevent any chance of the opposition triumphing. First, there was no independent election commission and no foreign observers were allowed. No electioneering, let along criticism of the government was permitted. The media is largely controlled by the government; even nominally private publications are censored. So are sermons by monks. The cost of registering to run alone exceeded the per capita GDP. Elaine Pearson, deputy Asia director for Human Rights Watch, complained: the vote was “being conducted in a climate of fear, intimidation, and resignation.”
Second, some 2000 imprisoned democracy activists, including Suu Kyi and many other NLD members, were deemed ineligible to run. Political parties were required to expel members with “criminal” records, including for political offenses, to contest the ballot.
Thus, the NLD, the nation’s only legitimate governing force, refused to participate. The generals then dissolved the party (along with nine others). NLD activists responded by urging a boycott. The regime threatened to jail them while promising development projects to neighborhoods where residents marked their ballots ahead of time. The government also barred people from participating in many eastern ethnic areas, while in others rebellious groups refused to participate.
Third, the regime turned military apparatchiks into civilian candidates. Through the misnamed United Solidarity and Development Party the generals fielded candidates to contest all 1,163 offices at stake. The equally misnamed National Unity Party, representing Ne Win, the original dictator who was ousted in 1988, put up 999 candidates. Richard Horsey, a former UN official, contended that victories by some of the latter would demonstrate that the military is not monolithic, but the NUP no more represents the Burmese people does than the USDP. Both military factions are paranoid, xenophobic, and despotic.
In contrast, the National Democratic Force, a rump group of former NLD‐activists, only contested 163 seats. A number of other small parties, including several ethnic‐based organizations, ran a few candidates. A number of independents also stood for office. Still, Burma’s foreign minister, Nyan Win, claimed: “Such a large participation made it crystal clear that the elections become virtually inclusive.”
Fourth, parties were required to affirm support for the 2008 constitution imposed by the SPDC. That document reserves one‐fourth of the lower house and one‐third of the upper house to the military, allows the “civilian” president to turn power over to the military, creates a National Defense and Security Council, and permits the military‐controlled Union Election Commission to dismiss legislators for “misbehavior.”
Authority will not be transferred. The generals will remain in charge. The Burmese people are not fooled. Ashin Issariya, a founding member of the All Burma Monks Alliance, observed: “It will be the same faces and the same system that we have been living with for decades. The name ‘elections’ does not change anything for us.” Long‐time NLD activist Win Tin said the election “will just help the military get what they want — to rule for a century or more.” Dot Lay Mu of the Karen National Union warned: the generals are using the poll to “consolidate and prolong” their control.
The junta’s objective is another image makeover. Today the SPDC is widely reviled around the world and subject to U.S. and European sanctions. The generals hope to gain greater international acceptance.
The international response to the junta has been divided. The U.S. and Europe have campaigned against the regime, but Burma’s neighbors have refused to join in. China supports the generals irrespective of how many people they kill. India is economically active in Burma and, along with Malaysia and Singapore, trains SPDC military officers. Other countries, including Thailand, have refused to do more than apply limited pressure, valuing Burma’s natural resources more than Burmese human rights.
Now Asian governments are lauding the poll while Western governments are unsure how to respond. Some analysts argue that even a flawed election presages possible political liberalization.
Daron Acemoglu and James A. Robinson of MIT and Harvard, respectively, wrote: “History shows that gradual, half‐hearted reforms of this sort are exactly how many autocracies successfully transition to democracy.” However, the examples they cite are less than convincing. Great Britain and early America were republics which distrusted direct democracy, not dictatorships. Chile immunized participants in the military regime, but returned power to an elected civilian government. Taiwan allowed the established though previously outlawed opposition party to contest newly free elections. Burma matches none of these. Egypt may be closer, but that nation remains unfree a half century after Col. Abdul Nasser became a civilian.
Allowing a genuinely free vote for a civilian government with some independent powers even while the military maintains control over security agencies might permit a gradual evolution to a more liberal system. But allowing a few dissident civilians to assume powerless positions in a system controlled by the same authoritarian apparatchiks, only wearing suits rather than uniforms, is unlikely to yield any noticeable difference in governance.
Some analysts posit that the process may empower younger military men. Younger does not necessarily mean reformer, however. Observed journalist Bertil Lintner, “Lower and middle‐ranking army officers remain immensely loyal to the leadership, knowing full well that they can only rise to prominent and privileged positions by showing that they are even more hardline than their superiors.” Anyway, the aging process guarantees personnel turnover. The faux elections add nothing. So too when it comes to dreams of economic liberalization and government transparency: such policies will change only if the military wants them to change, not as a result of the vote.
If Suu Kyi is released after her house arrest formally expires on November 13 — and she is allowed to resume active political activities, along with other democratic activists — then there might be at least a little hope for a little change. But if most of those who have been fighting for liberty remain imprisoned, opposition political activity remains proscribed, and criticism of the government remains prohibited, then even Suu Kyi’s release, though welcome, would signal no change.
Still, Lex Rieffel and David I. Steinberg, of the Brookings Institution and Georgetown University respectively, argued that “With smart, nuanced policies, however, the U.S. and other Western countries could help to ensure that the November election is a major step toward a democratic and prosperous Burma.” What policies they do not say. Since the ballot changes nothing substantive, it is hard to imagine policies which could to turn the vote into a positive step forward.
The fact that the faux election offers no prospect of change doesn’t mean the West should maintain its policy of isolation and sanctions. This strategy has manifestly failed. Today’s only winner is China, which has achieved disproportionate influence in Rangoon.
Attempting to reinforce isolation and sanctions is a dead‐end. For instance, the administration is now pushing for a UN‐sponsored commission to investigate Burma for war crimes. It’s a fine idea, but one that will never get past Beijing in the Security Council. Given the prevalence of human rights abusers in the international body, General Assembly or Human Rights Council vote is no more likely.
It is time to move in the opposite direction.
Kurt Campbell, Assistant Secretary of State for East Asian and Pacific Affairs, said the ballot “will be without international legitimacy” but called for “dialogue” as “the best way forward” among difficult options. He hopes for the rise of new players and structures, but that’s more dream than reality. The poll alone is no reason by itself to reverse policy. The U.S. should not aid the junta’s attempt to disguise its malign character. Brutal authoritarians were in control on November 6, before the vote. Brutal authoritarians remain in control on November 8, after the vote.
After a decent interval, however, Washington should consult with Europeans and leading Asian states to forge a united strategy to press Burma for reform. The U.S. government needs to recognize that its ability to influence events in Rangoon is limited. Broader international support, especially in Southeast Asia, is required for any hope of progress.
No policy offers much likelihood of success. But promising to eschew attempts at coercive regime change while offering rewards for political liberalization may provide the best, if still not a good, strategy to promote real change. For instance, Jared Genser of Freedom Now argued: “It is only through a facilitated process of tripartite dialogue among the junta, Suu Kyi and the National League for Democracy and the country’s disparate ethnic groups that any real reconciliation and progress toward democracy will be made.”
Burma poses one of the world’s greatest humanitarian challenges. The latest “election” changes nothing. The Obama administration should treat the new “civilian” government no different than the old military regime. But Washington nevertheless should acknowledge the failure of its past democratization efforts, and look for a new way forward.