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Elections and Opportunity in Myanmar

Author: Joshua Kurlantzick, Senior Fellow for Southeast Asia
August 3, 2010

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After taking office in 2009, U.S. President Barack Obama decided to use Myanmar (formerly known as Burma) as his Asian experiment in reversing Bush administration policy. As it did with Iran and Sudan, the Obama administration engaged with Myanmar's junta, although it did not push to end sanctions Congress passed in the late 1990s in response to massive human rights abuses. Assistant Secretary of State Kurt Campbell has made two trips to Myanmar over the past year to try to spur dialogue about critical issues like the upcoming national elections, which will probably take place in late fall. They would be Myanmar's first since the 1990 polls won by the party of opposition leader Aung San Suu Kyi, though the military never allowed that party, the National League for Democracy (NLD), to take its seats.

Engagement has delivered some results. A willingness to talk with the regime in Myanmar has signaled to the other members of the Association of Southeast Asian Nations (ASEAN) that Washington is committed to upgrading relations with Southeast Asia. The previous U.S. administration had allowed its poor relations with Myanmar to prevent it from meeting all ASEAN leaders.

And by attempting to engage with Myanmar, the White House at least demonstrates to its Asian allies that it is willing to listen to them, since many Southeast Asian nations have long advocated an engagement-oriented approach to the junta.

But just as sanctions delivered few results, engagement also seems to be delivering little, despite Campbell's good-faith efforts. The junta sent relatively low-ranking officials to meet with Campbell during his visit in May, a sign the regime is not taking the dialogue seriously. The junta also issued draconian regulations that essentially barred Suu Kyi from participating and forced the NLD into such a restricted position that it chose to boycott the poll. The junta then disbanded the party altogether.

Most worryingly, the regime appears to be pushing ahead with a reported nuclear program. The junta has in recent years built increasingly close military ties to North Korea, whose foreign minister just concluded a four-day visit to Myanmar. A report released in January by the respected Institute of Science and International Security revealed that the junta had been importing a range of items that had little civilian use in Myanmar, and could be used for nuclear or missile technology. Several months later, al-Jazeera and the Democratic Voice of Burma, working with defectors and nonproliferation experts, reported that the junta is mining uranium and amassing technology that could only be used to develop a nuclear program.

Though many U.S. officials doubt the junta has taken serious steps toward building or acquiring a nuclear weapon, the strategy makes sense, since actually building a nuclear weapon would inoculate the xenophobic junta from outside pressure. American officials who once dismissed any nuclear claims now admit there is enough suspicious evidence that other countries must press the junta far harder to reveal more about its cooperation with North Korea and about why it is purchasing and building--and seemingly hiding--dual-use nuclear technology, especially since it has signed the treaty declaring Southeast Asia to be a nuclear-free zone.

How Elections Could Matter

Despite the junta's intransigence with the United States, this year and next still promise a rare opportunity for the United States to play a larger role in Myanmar, and possibly gain some leverage over the regime.

[S]ome opposition politicians still believe the election offers the best real chance to change the direction of a country mired in political and economic stasis.

And Myanmar has become increasingly important, as rivalry between regional powers increases. Myanmar sits in a strategically vital location in Asia and possesses some of the region's largest reserves of oil and gas. As a result, its future path is critical to the region, and to vital U.S. partners like India and Thailand.

Though the national election will undoubtedly be tightly controlled by the junta, which wants to maneuver its handpicked parties into power so that senior military officers can still wield influence from behind the scenes, some opposition politicians believe the election offers the best chance to change the direction of a country mired in political and economic stasis. As the International Crisis Group notes in a report on the run-up to the election, on the actual election day, the regime in Myanmar may very well allow voting to be relatively free and fair, as it did in 1990.

The junta has said that it will allow all parties contesting the election to have observers watching the counting. And though the NLD has chosen to boycott the election, a reasonable decision given the constraints placed upon it and Suu Kyi, the party was divided internally, with some younger members believing that, despite the restrictions, the NLD should have competed and reminded voters--and the regime--of its popular strength. Even with the NLD not competing, some NLD members have broken off and will contest the poll, as will a range of other small parties.

Together, these parties may deliver a handful of relatively independent-minded legislators. Though their freedom to act in parliament will still be constrained by the military, these legislators could build the foundation for a civilianization of the country and, down the road, a greater opening of the political system. If Myanmar moves toward a greater role for civilians in governance, it may allow a wider range of interlocutors with the United States and other regional powers. This could lift some of the veil of secrecy and xenophobia surrounding the government, perhaps even opening the way for greater U.S. influence.

Even more important, a serious humanitarian crisis now looms in Myanmar's ethnic minority regions, mostly located in the north and east of the country. These areas are patrolled by a range of ethnic minority armies, the most powerful of which, the United Wa State Army, has over twenty thousand men under arms and has supported itself by building one of the largest narcotrafficking organizations in the world. The junta wants to essentially disarm the ethnic minority militias roaming many of these areas, to make them part of a regime-controlled border guard force; until now, the junta had maintained fragile ceasefires with many of these ethnic insurgents. Not surprisingly, many insurgent groups do not want to lay down their arms, and several are boosting their arsenals, getting the cash to buy new weapons by upping drug sales.

There is now a real possibility of an outbreak of armed conflict in [Myanmar's frontier] regions, a conflict that would spark massive refugee flows, and, most likely, higher rates of HIV/AIDS and narcotrafficking.

There is now a real possibility of an outbreak of armed conflict in these regions, a conflict that would spark massive refugee flows, and, most likely, higher rates of HIV/AIDS and narcotrafficking, both of which flourish amid the instability and chaos of Myanmar's frontiers. Renewed conflict could destabilize the whole region, including parts of China, India, and Thailand--reason enough for Washington to be concerned.

Most worryingly, if such instability spreads, any nuclear components, fuel, or products built or imported by the junta could easily fall into the hands of criminal networks, insurgents, or even terrorists operating in the lawless areas of Myanmar's north and east.

Policy Options

U.S. options toward the regime in capital city Naypyidaw remain limited given the junta's isolation; the United States' distance from Myanmar; and the relative importance of other regional actors like China, India, Singapore, and Thailand. The junta does seem to crave Washington's recognition, in part to use the United States to hedge against China's influence in Myanmar. These options remain limited despite (justifiable) congressional interest in Myanmar's ongoing human rights abuses. Congress has imposed tough sanctions, yet other than isolating the junta's bank accounts in places like Singapore and Dubai, which are viable options, there is little more Congress can do to punish the regime.

Beyond these types of financial measures, the United States can use the potential crisis in Myanmar's ethnic areas to work more closely with Beijing to stabilize its border regions with Myanmar. In contrast to the Korean peninsula, Myanmar offers a real opportunity for U.S.-China cooperation, since Washington and Beijing have fewer hard security conflicts in Myanmar. And the potential dangers Myanmar poses to China are high, in the form of drugs, HIV infections, and refugees flowing across Myanmar's borders. Already, China has shown more willingness to cooperate on Myanmar, helping facilitate U.S. meetings with the junta and more publicly rebuking Naypyidaw for fomenting instability than it would ever dare do with Pyongyang.

Together, Washington and Beijing could boost humanitarian aid into the ethnic minority areas. It could be delivered either across the borders from China or Thailand, where there is already a sophisticated infrastructure for moving aid into Myanmar, or from inside Myanmar itself. Washington and Beijing could also increase outside contacts to the ethnic minority armies to monitor nontraditional security threats and help broker a renewed truce that allows for greater aid, prevents renewed conflict, and keeps Myanmar's borders stable. Finally, the United States and China could monitor Myanmar's potential nuclear program and, eventually, increase the pressure on Naypyidaw to reveal far more about its intentions, since Beijing certainly does not want the junta building a nuclear infrastructure.

Beijing's concerns could open a window for cooperation at a time when the U.S.-China relationship seems increasingly strained, particularly over Southeast Asia. Washington should be ready to seize the chance.

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