from Asia Unbound

Myanmar’s Transition and the U.S. Role

myanmar-democratic transition

March 17, 2016

myanmar-democratic transition
Blog Post

Last November, Myanmar held its first truly free national elections in twenty-five years. In the months leading up to the vote, members of the opposition National League for Democracy (NLD), foreign diplomats, and many Myanmar voters worried that, no matter who actually received the most votes, the results would somehow be invalidated. After all, Myanmar’s military had ruled the country since 1962, when it first took power in a coup, and had only given way, in the early 2010s, to a civilian government that was led by a former top general, President Thein Sein. The military-installed government had written a constitution designed to bar the NLD’s leader, Aung San Suu Kyi, from ever winning the presidency, and the military had created a political party, the Union Solidarity and Development Party (USDP), that would hold power in a civilian parliament. (Myanmar’s president is not directly elected, but instead chosen by members of parliament, and the military wrote a clause in the constitution barring anyone who had a foreign spouse, like Suu Kyi, from running for president.) In the run-up to the November election, the government had used all the powers of the state---state media, state funds for local projects, arrests and detentions of opposition political activists---to help the USDP win control of parliament and the provincial parliaments across Myanmar.

The USDP did not even have to win a majority of seats to keep the army in power; the constitution reserved 25 percent of the seats in the lower house for military officers, so the USDP only had to win 25.1 percent of seats for the army and its allies to have de facto control. And in some respects, the civilian regime led by Thein Sein had taken strides toward effective governance, opening the country to foreign investment, restoring closer relations with leading democracies, opening up the local media environment, and freeing hundreds of political prisoners, including many members of the NLD. Just before Election Day, Thein Sein gave a speech in which he obliquely warned that if voters did not choose the USDP, Myanmar’s reforms could easily be endangered. Surely, most USDP officials felt, the Myanmar public, appreciative of Thein Sein’s reforms and scared of voting against the military’s favored party, would support the USDP.

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It didn’t happen. On Election Day, the NLD dominated contests for the national legislature and the provincial parliaments. The party won 86 percent of the seats contested in the national parliament, taking a majority of seats in the lower house of parliament, even with the military still being allotted 25 percent of seats. The NLD’s majority allowed it to choose Myanmar’s new president, Htin Kyaw. The NLD also won a majority of Myanmar’s provincial bodies. Many of the USDP’s most powerful politicians, who had been sitting in the lower house since the handover to civilian rule, were ousted. And unlike the last time Myanmar held free national elections, in 1990, the military appeared ready to respect the people’s wishes. In 1990, after the NLD had won 392 of the 492 parliamentary seats contested, the army refused to recognize the result, and simply continued running the country for another two decades. But this time around, Suu Kyi quickly met with the army leadership, and army chief pledged that the military would not intervene in the transition to a NLD-led government. Top leaders of the USDP echoed the army’s call for a calm transition, with USDP acting chairman U Htay Oo telling Burmese reporters, “USDP has lost to the NLD. We will accept this result.”

As the results trickled in from Myanmar’s election commission, Myanmar citizens held a raucous, nearly nonstop party in front of the NLD’s headquarters in downtown Yangon. The foreign reaction to Myanmar’s election was, in some ways, even more euphoric. Obama administration officials I met in the weeks after the Myanmar election seemed almost giddy that the Southeast Asian nations, so long a byword for thuggish army rule, could actually now be led by the NLD. Myanmar’s amazing election was even more remarkable given that, in the countries surrounding it, like Thailand, Bangladesh, and Malaysia, democracy seemed to be going into reverse.

Foreign media outlets, too, celebrated the election as a massive breakthrough. The Washington Post, whose editorial board had been known for its hard-nosed view on the Myanmar military regime, touted the elections as “a triumph of hope … a triumph for those who kept the flame [of freedom] alive.”

For the White House, such celebrations were not surprising. The United States had been the most forceful advocate of economic sanctions against the junta until Barack Obama’s presidency. Many who served in the Obama administration considered rapprochement with Myanmar one of the biggest successes of Obama’s presidency. Hillary Clinton, who visited Myanmar as Secretary of State in 2011, and developed a personal bond with the NLD leader, used a whole chapter of her recent memoir, Hard Choices, to highlight Myanmar’s transition, and the U.S. role in it. Myanmar’s democratization reflects “the unique role the United States can and should play in the world as a champion of dignity and democracy,” Clinton wrote. It is “America at our best.”

Now, the payoff of this revamped U.S. policy apparently had come. Myanmar would become a democracy, and perhaps in the future a rewritten constitution would allow Suu Kyi to become president. A democratic Myanmar would be peaceful and stable, an example to other countries in one of the most turbulent regions in the world. A NLD-led Myanmar would surely tilt toward the United States and American friends like India and Singapore, end Myanmar’s lingering civil conflicts, crack down on the trade in illegal narcotics, gems, and wildlife, and create an economic environment ripe for U.S. companies.

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This rosy narrative has more than a few holes in it. For more on my assessment of the administration’s Myanmar’s policy, see my new book review in the Washington Monthly.

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