Burmese Take a Step Toward Spring

April 2, 2012

Yesterday longtime Burmese dissident Aung San Suu Kyi and her party allies won a resounding victory in parliamentary elections in Burma, also known as Myanmar. The future of the country’s move away from military rule and towards democracy remains uncertain. But as James Fallows of the Atlantic told NSN, Burma’s progress was “almost inconceivable even a year ago. My wife and I were in Burma around the time of the protests/massacres of 1988, which was genuinely frightening, and again a few times more recently. This is almost like hearing that reformers had gotten hold of North Korea.” Still, Burmese reformers have years of struggle ahead of them.

But Suu Kyi’s victory is a case study in how democracy promotion can succeed: led by decades of Burmese sacrifice, supported by outside incentives to reward reform, while still being clear-eyed about the fragility of gains. The Burmese case is also being watched closely by China, India and Burma’s southeast Asian neighbors, and it intertwines geostrategic and human rights concerns together.

Aung San Suu Kyi elected to parliament as Burma’s reforms take another step forward. The Washington Post reports, “Burmese democracy champion Aung San Suu Kyi all but completed her transformation from imprisoned icon to elected member of parliament Sunday as her party claimed it had won a resounding victory in a flawed election considered a key test of political reforms in Burma. The Nobel Peace Prize winner’s allies said she had soundly defeated her opponent from the ruling party, recording wins at all but one of 128 polling stations in her rural constituency near this Southeast Asian nation’s former capital, Rangoon. With results still coming in Sunday evening, Suu Kyi’s National League for Democracy party projected it would claim 40 of 45 seats across Burma. The country’s election commission is expected to confirm the much-anticipated results in the coming days.” The victories must be considered in context though. As the Post notes, “[T]he result leaves the NLD with only a small fraction of the 664 seats in the Burmese parliament.”

Sitting at the intersection of south and southeast Asia, ethnically-diverse and resource rich, Burma — and its tentative moves away from military rule — is of strategic interest to countries from India to China and the Pacific. As Joshua Kurlantzick of the Council on Foreign Relations notes, “Myanmar and its offshore regions reportedly contain among the ten largest deposits of petroleum in the world.” Robert Kaplan of Stratfor expands, saying, “Myanmar is also abundant in oil, natural gas, coal, zinc, copper, precious stones, timber and hydropower, with some uranium deposits as well.” [Washington Post, 4/1/12. Joshua Kurlantzick, 11/11. Robert Kaplan, 3/21/12]

The future will likely hold steps forward and steps back – big challenges still ahead. Tom Malinowski of Human Rights Watch notes, “As remarkable as the changes in Burma have been — with some political prisoners walking free, and real debate breaking out from the front pages of the country’s newspapers to the hearing rooms of its parliament — the big tests lie ahead. Laws that criminalize dissent are still on the books. Burma’s military continues to commit war crimes against ethnic minority populations on the country’s frontiers, and still does not answer to its president, parliament or judiciary. Burma’s Constitution gives the military unchecked authority over all matters of internal security, the power to veto constitutional changes and even to dismiss the president.” David Scott Mathieson, an expert on Burma for Human Rights Watch, expands, noting that “the real danger of the by-elections is the overblown expectations many in the West have cast on them… The hard work really does start afterward.” Mathieson notes that, “Constitutional reform, legal reform, tackling systemic corruption, sustainable economic development, continued human rights challenges… will take many years.” [Tom Malinowski, 3/31/12. David Mathieson via AP, 4/2/12]

Burmese progress shows how democracy promotion can work – slowly, on a timetable set in-country, with patient and pragmatic support from outside. As Michele Keleman of NPR reported last November, the Obama administration is “deeply realistic” about the challenges still facing reform in Burma, despite a series of positive steps. Keleman writes that U.S. strategy “wants to show support for those changes while still making clear that the world is watching to see if they last.” Secretary Clinton underscored that strategy yesterday in the wake of Burma’s elections, saying, “There are no guarantees about what lies ahead for the people of Burma… it is heartening to be reminded that even the most repressive regimes can reform and even the most closed societies can open.”

As Heather Hurlburt, executive director of the National Security Network, notes, “The changes going on in Burma show what effective democracy promotion looks like: It’s led from the inside and supported from the outside. It is based on firm principles implemented in creative, flexible ways designed to aid reformers on the ground.” [NPR, 11/30/11. Hillary Clinton via the Wall Street Journal, 4/1/12. Heather Hurlburt, 4/2/12]

What We’re Reading

Dozens of countries promised $100 million to pay opposition fighters in Syria and the Obama administration agreed to send communications equipment to help rebels.

The U.S. has stepped up the pace of drone attacks in Yemen and expanded targets.

A twin-engine plane carrying 43 people crashed soon after takeoff in Siberia, killing all but 12 people on board.

Violence in Iraq killed 112 people in March, the lowest monthly death toll since the U.S-led invasion in 2003.

A Pakistani judge ordered Osama bin Laden’s three widows and two daughters to spend 45 days in house detention for living illegally in Pakistan.

New satellite images of a North Korean rocket launch site show a mobile radar trailer and rows of what appear to be empty fuel and oxidizer tanks.

The leader of a military coup in Mali claimed that he had restored the country’s constitution and government institutions.

Spain has implemented drastic budget cuts in an attempt to reassure investors that the government would meet its deficit-reduction promises and not aggravate the European debt crisis.

The British government and intelligence services claim “a henchman” of President Ramzan A. Kadyrov of Chechnya sought to assassinate a well-known exiled Chechen politician in London.

Hungarian President Pal Schmitt is resigning after losing his doctorate in a plagiarism scandal.

Commentary of the Day

Steven Cook explains why fears that Iranian proliferation would set off a nuclear arms race in the Middle East are overblown.

Fred Kaplan clarifies American interests in missile defense plans and the national security considerations of US-Russia relations.

Agnes Poirier emphasizes the importance of France’s political candidates addressing citizens’ questions on critical issues in a timely manner as opposed to handling less pressing issues.

Bookmark and Share