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Why Burma’s Free Election Wasn’t All It Was Cracked Up To Be

For a country that has experienced almost nothing but misery, abuses, and economic mismanagement since the army first took power in 1962, the scenes from Sunday’s by-elections in the new, civilian Burmese parliament seemed nothing short of miraculous. The military’s favored party, the Union Solidarity and Development Party (USDP), took a paltry handful of seats. Opposition leader Aung San Suu Kyi, who had been under arrest just two years ago, won a parliamentary seat. And her party, the National League for Democracy (NLD), swept to an overwhelming triumph, apparently taking 43 out of the 44 seats it contested. As the election results began to trickle out Sunday, thousands of supporters of the NLD gathered at the party headquarters in Rangoon to dance, sing all night long, share sweets, and await a speech by their leader. As one man watching the street celebrations told the Irrawaddy, an exile publication focusing on Burma, “Now the world will know who is who, and what is what”—meaning that now the world will know that the Burmese people still support Suu Kyi and the NLD, even after so many years of repression.

With the by-election having gone so well—international monitors had been allowed in, and despite harassment of NLD candidates before the poll, Election Day was overall judged free and fair—many developed democracies now seem ready to end their sanctions of Burma, resume significant aid programs to the needy country, and encourage sizable foreign investment. But while the by-elections were exciting, Sunday’s vote was not the nail that ended military rule in Burma and solidified democracy. Instead, it can be seen more like the day when Nelson Mandela was released from Robben Island: an important step on the path to democratic change, but hardly a sign that the military has stepped out of politics for good.

BURMA’S PROCESS of reform began about a year a half ago, when the long-ruling military junta suddenly held elections and then passed over power, at least technically, to a civilian parliament. At that time, the NLD boycotted the vote, since the election rules were tilted so heavily in favor of military parties; as a result, those parties vastly dominated the new parliament. The new president, Thein Sein, was himself a former military man, but he soon demonstrated what seemed to be a very genuine commitment to reform—or at least a realization that without reform, Burma’s development will sink even farther behind its high-powered neighbors. The former top military leaders formally retired from politics. Thein Sein reached out to Suu Kyi, launching a dialogue with the opposition leader, who says privately that she believes Thein Sein is serious about creating a free-market democracy.

Thein Sein also released hundreds of political prisoners, began to open up the economy and the banking system to outsiders, launched efforts to obtain long-term peace deals with the many ethnic minority armies fighting the Burmese military on the perimeters of the country, and established a national human rights commission. The Burmese media, once a Southeast Asian version of Pravda, started to come to life, publishing interviews with Suu Kyi, criticisms of the government, and far more international news than ever before. New social media and cheaper, less blocked Internet connections also helped bring young Burmese in better touch with the world, and with activists in places like Thailand, China, and the Arab world. 

In response to these initial changes, the Obama administration sent Secretary of State Hillary Clinton to Burma last fall on a goodwill mission, relaxed some minor restrictions on assistance, and increased humanitarian aid to the country. If Burma held successful by-elections, many Obama administration and European officials promised that the West would be prepared to do much more—possibly to normalize all relations with Burma. Some in the Obama administration expect the U.S. to remove nearly all sanctions by next winter.

That would be a mistake. Though Election Day itself was relatively free and fair, the military’s harassment and intimidation in the run-up to the polls—soldiers, bureaucrats, and other people connected to the government experienced pressure by the military to vote for the USDP—suggests that Burma remains a long way from a truly democratic culture of elections. More important, the by-elections were only to fill a small percentage of seats in parliament; the NLD, despite all the celebrating, will control less than one-tenth of the seats. The military’s favored party controls most of the rest, and the constitution still favors that party and allows the armed forces to return to politics at any time. Several Burmese officials have told me that by allowing the NLD to win a few seats—while ensuring that the military’s favored party still controls parliament—the government is betting that it has done just enough to normalize relations with the West, get aid and investment, and still remain essentially in control.

Even some NLD members close to Suu Kyi worry about the same thing—that the NLD will offer legitimacy to the parliament even as it will have little real power to pass legislation. The party will be able to criticize government, and to try and bring greater transparency, something Burma sorely needs. But it will be almost impossible for it to pass any bills, or demand any real justice and accountability for former military leaders like Than Shwe and Maung Aye, who oversaw vast looting of the state coffers, as well as abuses by the army ranging from forced labor to rape as a weapon of war to summary execution. Many Burmese officials and analysts believe that Than Shwe and Maung Aye still wield great power from their “retirement,” through hard-line proxies sitting in the current parliament.

Instead of getting caught up in the jubilation around these by-elections, foreign countries, including the U.S., need to take a harder look, and keep some of their ammunition. They should provide some humanitarian assistance and slowly open up investment, but not abandon sanctions entirely until Burma’s reforms appear irreversible—which, thus far, they do not.

The true test of whether the army is really ready to step back for good will come in three years, when Burma is supposed to hold national elections for all seats, potentially allowing the NLD or other opposition parties to actually control parliament. Before that time, the government will have to make good on other difficult promises, including further opening up the media landscape after years of harsh press laws, creating a more level playing field for all political parties, and dealing with the many simmering ethnic insurgencies. Indeed, despite the military’s claims that it is retiring to the background and trying to promote peace nationwide, according to a recent report by Human Rights Watch, fighting between the military and the Kachin Independence Army (one of the largest and most powerful ethnic armies) has escalated over the past two years. These battles have led to widespread refugee displacements in northern Burma and serious abuses on both sides, including forced labor, torture, use of child soldiers, and summary executions, according to Human Rights Watch.

Amid the jubilation after Sunday’s victory, it is understandable that these tragedies would be overlooked. In a country that has had so little to celebrate for years, it makes perfect sense that people want to invest hope in the NLD and Suu Kyi. But Burma still has far to go, and its past history of periods of opening followed by crackdowns should still give even the greatest optimist reason for pause.

Joshua Kurlantzick is a Fellow for Southeast Asia at the Council on Foreign Relations.