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Elections in Burma: Don't Rush to Judgment

The military junta that has ruled Burma since 1988 is publishing a set of five laws this week that aim to govern the elections at the national and regional levels—to take place most likely in the last quarter of this year.

The last nation-wide election in Burma was held in 1990 and was won by a landslide by the National League for Democracy led by Aung San Suu Kyi. The military junta refused to accept the results of the election, and Aung San Suu Kyi has spent most of the time since then under house arrest. Meanwhile, economic and political refugees from Burma have flooded into Thailand and other nearby countries, and the country has sunk to rank among the lowest in the world on most social and economic indicators.

In response to the repudiation of democracy by the military junta, and a long list of inhumane acts by its armed forces, the United States and other Western countries have ratcheted up political and economic sanctions against Burma—in an effort to persuade Burma to respect global standards of good governance or transfer power to a civilian regime.

But Burma’s partners in the Association of Southeast Asian Nations, and its major non-ASEAN neighbors (China and India), have adopted a different approach to promoting better governance in Burma: engagement with the military junta.

Neither Western sanctions nor Asian engagement have yielded any meaningful improvement in Burma’s governance over the past 20 years, yet they were presumably a factor in the junta’s decision in 2003 to announce a seven-step “Roadmap to Discipline Flourishing Democracy.” The most recent, or fourth, step was taken in May 2008 when a new constitution was approved overwhelmingly in a “managed” national referendum. The elections to be held this year are the fifth step, and the final two steps will come with the establishment of the civilian government emerging from the elections.

In a critical demonstration of the Obama administration’s commitment to “smart” foreign policy, it launched a review of U.S. policy toward Burma less than a month after Obama’s inauguration. In September 2009, they announced a new policy of “pragmatic engagement”. Significantly, the new policy includes a commitment to maintain sanctions until the Burmese authorities take meaningful steps to become better global citizens, such as freeing Aung San Suu Kyi.

The U.S. government’s response to the elections in Burma this year, and the response by other countries maintaining sanctions, are matters of great importance not only for the long-suffering citizens of Burma but also for its neighbors who are adversely impacted by the internal conflict that has festered since shortly after the country gained its independence in 1948.

The State Department’s first reaction to the election laws was worrisome. The departmental spokesperson said on Tuesday: “We remain skeptical that the elections planned for this year will be credible and we urge the authorities to begin a genuine political dialogue with all stakeholders as a first step toward credible elections.”

No respected Burmese scholar in the world expects the elections later this year to be credible by U.S. or Western standards. However, it could be a blunder of the first order to ignore the potential of these elections to be a meaningful step toward better governance in this strategically-located country of 50 million people.

Before rushing to judgment, Americans should pay close attention to what the Burmese inside the country say and do. Americans should also give considerable weight to the views of Burma’s ASEAN partners plus China, India, and Japan. After all, those most impacted by Burma’s actions are its Asian neighbors, not the United States.