Generals Still Running Burma

November 19, 2010 • Commentary
This article appeared in the Orange County Register on November 19, 2010.

Burma’s agony continues. The military dictatorship held a rigged election Nov. 14 to cloak itself in civilian garb. The people of Burma will continue to suffer under one of the worst governments on Earth.

Nearly a half century after the military seized power, the country is ruled by a junta headed by Gen. Than Shwe. The military’s crimes are many: imposing a corrupt and brutal dictatorship, conducting a genocidal war against dissident ethnic groups, suppressing civil and political liberties, impoverishing the country, and enriching political elites.

In 1990 the junta foolishly held an election. The Burmese people overwhelmingly voted 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.

The junta decided to hold another election, but rigged this one from the start.

There was no independent election commission and/​or foreign observers. No electioneering, let alone criticism of the government, was permitted. Elaine Pearson, deputy Asia director for Human Rights Watch, complained that the vote was “conducted in a climate of fear, intimidation and resignation.”

Some 2000 imprisoned democracy activists, including Suu Kyi and many other NLD members, were deemed ineligible to run. The NLD, the nation’s only legitimate governing force, therefore refused to participate and was forcibly disbanded by the regime. In contrast, the generals fielded “civilian” candidates for every office through the misnamed United Solidarity and Development Party.

All parties were required to affirm support for the 2008 constitution imposed by the junta. 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.

The Burmese people understood that the generals would remain in charge. Ashin Issariya 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.”

Instead, the junta’s objective was an image makeover. Today the regime is reviled around the world and subject to U.S. and European sanctions.

The fact that the rigged 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.

It is time to move in the opposite direction.

The U.S. should not aid the junta’s attempt to disguise its malign character. After a decent interval, however, Washington should consult with European and leading Asian states to forge a united strategy to press Burma for reform.

The U.S. government’s 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 might provide the best, if still not a good, strategy to promote real change. It is the best of a bad set of options.

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