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Myanmar's Elections Offer Glimmer of Change

Author: Joshua Kurlantzick, Senior Fellow for Southeast Asia
November 4, 2010

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Myanmar will hold its first national election in two decades on November 7. The poll is almost certainly not going to be free and fair: While there may be little outright fraud, the ruling military junta has so controlled the run-up to the election that it has made it nearly impossible for opposition pro-democracy parties to gain a fair say. Most major international human rights groups have condemned the polls in advance.

Yet the election will not be totally meaningless. Though the leading pro-democracy opposition party, Aung San Suu Kyi's National League for Democracy, is boycotting the vote, a number of other pro-democracy parties are contesting. Even the major challenger to the regime's favored party--composed of other former military men loyal to old strongman Ne Win but separate from the loyalists to current junta leader Than Shwe--appears willing to embrace some limited liberal reforms that the junta would never have considered.

No Election Day Surprises

The last time Myanmar held an election, in 1990, the pro-democracy parties organized around Suu Kyi and the NLD trounced the military-backed party that the junta had assumed would win. The NLD won 392 out of 492 seats, but the army, which has ruled Myanmar in various guises since 1962, never allowed Suu Kyi's party to take office, instead claiming that Myanmar had to draft a new constitution before any parliament could be seated--a process the junta dragged out for nearly two decades. In the interim, the armed forces more than doubled in size, gained a vast new source of revenue from petroleum sales to China and other neighbors, and tightened their already tough hold on the country, using vicious tactics to fight ethnic minority insurgent groups. They also brutally repressed any hint of public protest, including the 2007 "Saffron Revolution" in which tens of thousands of monks gathered in Yangon, the largest city.

The junta will not be caught by surprise this time. It has used every tool it has, including control of the media, harassments and arrests of opposition activists, and electoral laws that strongly favor the Union Solidarity and Development Party. Before the election, the junta placed so many restrictions on the opposition that, last spring, Suu Kyi and the NLD leadership chose to boycott the poll. Despite the almost universal devotion to Suu Kyi, that decision was controversial among activists. For many younger democracy activists, any opportunity presented by an election, no matter how slim, should be taken. But some older NLD members, who remembered the election of 1990 and how it was denied, are far less willing to just give up the moral high ground that came with triumph and contest a new, slanted poll.

Compared to 1990, too, the population in Myanmar is far more disengaged and apathetic about the polls this time. That apathy stems not only from the regime's manipulation of the pre-election process but also from Myanmar's grinding poverty. In addition, many Burmese really believed that, after that election, their country would set forth on the path to democracy. Few have such illusions this time.

An Inkling of Change

The junta will not be caught by surprise this time. It has used every tool it has, including control of the media, harassments and arrests of opposition activists, and electoral laws.

Still, there is some hope for change. The National Unity Party, led by acolytes of longtime former dictator Ne Win, who ultimately fell out with the current ruling regime (he is now deceased) may not seem like an ideal vehicle for change, given that many of its candidates backed or participated in past iterations of the brutal military regime. But as noted by the Irrawaddy, a leading Myanmar publication, the NUP is posing a challenge to the USDP and may ultimately ally with some of the small pro-democracy parties led by dissenters from Suu Kyi's decision to boycott. Some NUP candidates have promised that, if elected, they would liberalize the climate for speech, media, and organization, and unlike the small pro-democracy parties, the NUP is running nearly as many candidates in nearly as many districts as the regime's favored party.

On Election Day, the regime 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. The UDSP is not going to lose outright, and even if it loses some seats, Than Shwe and other senior military leaders are going to continue to pull the strings for the government from behind the scenes. In recent years they also have privatized some state assets to put them into the hands of their families and regime cronies, creating a local version of Russian oligarchs.

Still, the NUP and these smaller pro-democracy parties, as well as some more liberal parties representing Myanmar's ethnic minority groups, 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. At the very least, a greater civilianization of the government might allow some degree of real economic reform, long encouraged by Myanmar's neighbors, including its powerful patron China; such reform, at least, could prevent Myanmar's continuing slide down global development indicators. That is probably, for now, the most that could be hoped for from the elections.

The Outsiders' Role

The junta has rejected outside observers for its elections, and has thus far strictly controlled media coverage of the run-up to the poll. Still, even given limited leverage the regional response to the polls has been embarrassing. With a few exceptions, like the Philippines, most countries in the Association of Southeast Asian Nations have said almost nothing about the election. ASEAN itself, though it has made some rhetorical efforts to pressure the junta to allow a free poll, has sought to avoid the topic. Recently, too, the Thai government has aggressively courted Myanmar, with Thai Prime Minister Abhisit Vejjajiva recently traveling to the capital to meet with top junta leaders.

At the very least, a greater civilianization of the government might allow some degree of real economic reform, long encouraged by Myanmar's neighbors, including its powerful patron China.

The United States, too, has limited leverage over a regime which Washington has maintained sanctions on for over a decade and which seems to care little about its international image. After taking office in 2009, President Barack Obama decided to use Myanmar as his Asian experiment in reversing Bush administration policy. As it did with Iran and Sudan, the Obama administration decided to engage with the junta, accused of massive human rights abuses including forced labor, widespread rape, and summary executions--though the White House did not push Congress to jettison sanctions in place since the late 1990s.

Assistant Secretary of State Kurt Campbell has pursued vigorous efforts to get the two sides talking about critical issues, but he has mostly been rebuffed, and administration officials are beginning to believe that engagement will produce few results. Instead, the White House recently has supported an international inquiry into crimes against humanity committed in Myanmar, as well as other tougher measures. Still, other than isolating the junta's bank accounts in places like Dubai, which are viable options, there is relatively little more the Congress and the White House can do to punish the regime.

Given the United States' limited leverage, it will need to work with Myanmar's neighbors, including, potentially, China, to produce any change. While condemning the slanted and fraudulent operation of the election, U.S. officials could still try to highlight, and potentially work with, the small numbers of more independent and liberal candidates that emerge. In addition, if the election does produce greater civilianization of the government, it may make it easier for the United States and other outside actors to increase aid flows to Myanmar, focusing on relatively noncontroversial areas like building the banking sector, combating HIV/AIDS and other infectious disease, and primary education.

In addition, the United States will have to work with China and other regional actors to avoid a potential humanitarian emergency in the months after the election. In conjunction with the poll, the Myanmar junta has prodded ethnic insurgent groups operating in northern and eastern Myanmar to give up their arms and join a junta-controlled border guard force. The ethnic armies mostly have refused, creating the potential for large-scale renewed conflict in some areas. Along with China, Thailand, and other regional powers, Washington needs to boost its ties to the ethnic armies, to increase the region's capacity for handling refugees and delivering cross-border aid into Myanmar, without having to run the assistance by the junta.

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