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The Election in Burma: What Is America’s Stake?

The military junta that has ruled Burma with an iron fist since 1988—and renamed it Myanmar—will hold a national election on November 7. The last election, in 1990, was won in a landslide by the opposition National League for Democracy (NLD) led by Nobel-laureate Aung San Suu Kyi. The junta, however, disavowed the result and has kept Aung San Suu Kyi under house arrest for most of the past 20 years.

At the same time, the junta has failed to resolve the ethnic conflict that lies at the heart of what is now the world’s longest continuing civil war, dating back to the country’s formal independence from British colonial rule in 1948. Moreover, unlike other authoritarian regimes in Asia in the past 50 years, the generals who have run the country since the first coup in 1962 have totally botched the job of economic development. From being the Southeast Asian country with the brightest economic prospects at the end of World War II, Burma has steadily moved down to the bottom rank of countries on most socio-economic indicators.

The U.S government has been intensely interested in Burma since 1990 despite its distance and its marginal importance globally by conventional measures. The U.S. government has led the world in imposing economic and political sanctions against Burma, and sponsored a U.N. Security Council resolution condemning the regime’s human rights abuses that was vetoed in 2007 by China and Russia.

The political heat reflected in the U.S. government’s policies toward Burma since 1990 has come from American human rights and democracy advocates rallied by the charisma of Aung San Suu Kyi and energized by the unconscionable treatment of her by the military junta. But sanctions and “megaphone diplomacy” have not alleviated the suffering of the 50 million people who live within Burma’s borders. Indeed, it may have made it easier for the junta to maintain control and continue to exploit the country’s resources for its own benefit.

To its credit, one year ago the Obama administration announced a more nuanced policy of “pragmatic engagement.” The new policy, however, has almost no visible domestic support in the U.S. and has yet to yield any tangible results. Indeed, the Obama administration appeared to back away from the policy after the junta issued five laws in March for implementing the November 7 election. The laws stack the deck in favor of government-supported parties and against opposition parties. The whole election process lacks credibility because it is bringing into force a constitution, approved in a patently-rigged referendum in 2008, which lacks certain fundamental democratic features.

The U.S. government, Burma’s Association of Southeast Asian Nations (ASEAN) partners, and the United Nations have all called on the regime to ensure that the elections will be “free, fair, open, and transparent” to no avail. The only imaginable outcome is an upper and lower chamber of the national assembly, and 14 sub-national state and region assemblies, dominated by elected representatives from the government-supported parties and appointed members from the military. While the next government will be civilian in form, it will be thoroughly military in reality.

Americans have an interest in Burma’s election because of our strong belief in and commitment to democracy, not just at home but around the world. Yet Americans are still learning how hard it is to export democracy to foreign countries, and we are still surprised when countries that have embraced democracy—like Thailand, Burma’s neighbor—revert to authoritarian rule in the face of domestic turmoil.

Americans also have a strong humanitarian impulse and a geo-political interest that have a bearing on U.S. policy. We would like to see the population of Burma reaping the benefits of economic progress that are being enjoyed by non-democratic countries in Asia such as Vietnam as well as by fledgling democracies such as Indonesia. We would like to see China and India working together to help Burma resolve its internal conflicts and modernize, instead of competing with each other to gain access to Burma’s abundant natural resources (especially natural gas).

Given these multiple interests, a case can be made for focusing less on the November 7 election and more on the government that will emerge in the first quarter of 2011. Most academic experts see the elections as the first step in a transfer of power to a new generation of military officers wielding power in a quasi-democratic framework. If the U.S. government plays its cards smartly, the outcome could be a regime that gives greater respect to human rights and provides more economic freedom to the long-suffering population, and a country that moves steadily from being an Asian problem to another Asian engine of economic growth.