March 15, 2012

TSG IntelBrief: Burma’s Political Transformation: Substance or Show?

  • The conduct of planned April 1st by-elections in Burma will be an important indicator for whether changes underway there are likely to be sufficient to end Western ? particularly U.S. ? sanctions on the country.
  • On the surface, the Burmese political process may appear to be moving toward democracy, but the army and hardliners in the government remain the final arbiters. Reform won’t happen without its unmitigated support. Regardless of what transpires next month, it is still too early to make a confident prediction about the future of much needed political, social, and economic reforms in the country.

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The upcoming April 1st elections in Burma (Myanmar) will be a critical indicator of whether changes underway in the country are likely to be sufficient to end Western economic sanctions. Regardless of how that election unfolds, however, the many factors at play below the surface render the geopolitical landscape far more complex.

Burma is a land filled with an abundance of natural resources. In spite of this endowment, the country's economic fortunes have languished under a military dictatorship that ruled the country for fifty years. The future began to brighten when a civilian government finally replaced the junta in the 2010 popular elections and dramatic reforms were quickly instituted. These included the release of many political prisoners, opening of political debate, increased worker rights, and expanded media freedom. Still, lingering doubts remain about the viability of these reforms, with many fearing they could be all too easily reversed. That fear is shared by opposition leader and Nobel Laureate Aung San Suu Kyi, a woman who spent years under house arrest. She has publicly stated that the reforms should be greeted with caution.


Bellwether Elections

Suu Kyi and others from her National League for Democracy (NLD) will contest 47 of the 48 open Parliament seats in April. The degree to which the elections are held in an atmosphere of freedom and fairness will be a bellwether for the future of the country and will in large measure determine whether sanctions can be relaxed. In particular, U.S. sanctions are unlikely to be lifted until it is clear that Burma has truly changed course from its previous oppressive policies.

At the same time, the fact that elections are being held cannot be construed as evidence that a liberal democracy has taken root in Burma. Twenty-five percent of seats in Parliament are reserved for the military. In addition, the Union Solidarity and Development Party (USDP), the regime's proxy, currently holds more than three-quarters of the elective seats. Suu Kyi and other NLD candidates are only running for a small fraction of the total parliamentary seats, and her party cannot hope to threaten the USDP majority or the military's effective parliamentary veto power.

Not unexpectedly, problems have already occurred with the election. For example, Suu Kyi has said her party has been unfairly restricted and that its billboards and signs had been vandalized. In a recent statement, she added, "We are just discovering there are many, many irregularities on the voters list, and we have applied to the Election Commission to do something about this." Further, it was reported on March 9th that the government had censored a key Suu Kyi election speech, removing a paragraph related to abuses by the previously ruling junta and the lack of rule of law. All of this appears consistent with the strategy set forth in a confidential USDP strategy paper outlining an effort to win the contested seats by any means necessary.


Army Retains Power

A key player is the army, traditionally the country's strongest institution, and its position on reforms is not yet clear. "I've always said that until we know that the army is solidly behind the reform movement, we cannot say the process is irreversible," Suu Kyi recently observed.

Beyond democratization, the continuing conflict between the government and ethnic groups across the country is a matter of concern to Western powers and could also delay the easing of sanctions. Burmese government forces are fighting Kachin insurgents who want autonomy, and there are tenuous cease-fire agreements with other rebel groups; these ceasefires, however, have not historically offered permanent solutions. With tens of thousands of armed ethnic resistance fighters around the country ? including more than 30,000 armed men and women of the United Wa State Army armed with weapons ranging from modern automatic rifles to portable surface-to-air missiles ? the rebel forces present a formidable challenge to the government .

There is also an overall question about the sincerity of the government's interest in introducing real reform. There may be an internal split between hardliners and reformers, but some analysts suggest this may be an illusion. The role of the military is equally uncertain; the possibility of a military coup (or even a coup within the military in which the ranks rise up against privileged officers) cannot be ruled out..

While the elections may provide a meaningful indication of how (or if) the political process is evolving in Burma, it remains far too early in the game to confidently discern the course of democratization or the resolution of the conflicts in the remote areas of the country. Clearly, substantial progress on both fronts will be necessary before an end to the sanctions can be expected.


The Forecast:

Near-term Forecast:

  • If the April 1st elections appear free and fair to outsiders, the Obama administration is likely to take further incremental steps to improve U.S. relations with Burma, steps that would almost invariably include the progressive removal of sanctions. In contrast, evidence of unfair election practices, voter fraud or intimidation has the potential to slow ? perhaps even reverse ? the recent trend of warming relations between the U.S. and Burma.

Long-term forecast:

  • The convergence of hope and reality is unlikely to occur soon. Given the small number of parliamentary seats being contested in the April elections, recent reforms remain too easily reversible. Don?t look for the army to readily yield its overarching influence on the political front, nor for an expeditious resolution of the ongoing conflict with rebel factions in the remote corners of the nation.



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