The view from the ground.

Rumble in the Junta

This year's elections in Myanmar won't be free and fair -- but they will be more significant than you think.


Walking through the streets of Yangon this January, I saw the futility of U.S. sanctions on every corner. Commerce thrives on steamy streets and markets, and billboards advertising Japanese, South Korean, and European brands are everywhere. Meanwhile, junta leaders targeted by sanctions that prevent their families’ travel have contented themselves with retirement in splendid homes, while their grandchildren, denied visas to visit the United States, simply go to college in Europe and Australia. Sanctions have only served to isolate the United States. This is especially unfortunate at a time when the United States should be carefully watching, and even influencing, what might be the most important political year in Myanmar’s recent history.

The date is not set, but the tiny handful of generals who have a monopoly on political power have declared elections will take place in 2010, and no one doubts they will happen before the year’s end. Most Burmese citizens are nonplussed, and no one can blame them for assuming that the military junta that runs the country from the isolated capital of Naypyidaw has rigged the process.

But the truth is that the elections will bring change: perhaps not a sudden end to the military junta, but important and underappreciated change nonetheless. And the United States should be fully engaged.

This year’s elections will be hotly contested by opposition politicians eager to gain a parliamentary seat. Although far from being a free and fair process, they might represent the start of a long and possibly tortuous road toward a relatively more democratic system. A new government is certain to emerge in Myanmar once the voting is over, one that is expected to include directly elected politicians representing a broader cross section of society than ever before. Rather than dismissing these elections out of hand and calling them a sham, the United States should carefully consider its options and assess this potentially historic opportunity to shape Myanmar’s future.

The reason elections are expected soon is the ill health of the detested general known as "Number One," Than Shwe. A leader of the 1988 coup, Than Shwe became the chairman of the State Law and Order Restoration Council (SLORC) in 1992 (in 1997, the SLORC changed its name to the State Peace and Development Council) and has maintained a firm grip on power to this day. He and his family have amassed a fortune, and at nearly age 77 his health is failing and he is ready to retire. Like many dictators before him, however, he realizes that retiring in safety can be more complicated than maintaining an iron grip on power. As the saying goes, "Riding a tiger is easy; getting off is more difficult."

To ensure that he and his family do not face trial or a firing squad once he relinquishes power, Than Shwe has crafted an elaborate retirement plan that replaces his junta with a new government, made up of military personnel and civilians, that will not be powerful enough to exact retribution from him, his family, or his cronies. The only outcome that preserves his wealth and freedom is a relatively weak, inclusive civil-military government that self-balances and checks the power of any one faction or branch. Establishing a durable civil-military government requires elections that confer enough legitimacy to sustain it and bolster the authority of civilians vis-à-vis the more powerful military. Learning from the experiences of many other military dictators, Than Shwe fears an authoritarian successor might bend to populist sentiment and obliterate him.

This plan was expedited following the 1990 elections, in which Nobel laureate Aung San Suu Kyi and her National League for Democracy (NLD) won in a landslide victory, prompting the army to ignore the elections’ results and throw her in jail. Than Shwe has since then clawed his way back to the top, eliminating rivals and successors alike, all the while plotting to enact a "road map" to democracy that has been broadly dismissed by all but his closest followers.

At the center of Than Shwe’s plan is the 2008 Constitution. Superficially, Myanmar’s Constitution is broadly based on the U.S. Constitution, with three branches of government forming a system of checks and balances. But the Constitution is flawed, just as the parliamentary elections and selection of the next head of state will be. The military is guaranteed 25 percent of seats in the legislature, and the president will be selected from three candidates picked by the government, with the two other candidates becoming vice presidents.

Although this might sound bleak, the optimist would recognize that 75 percent of the parliamentary seats will be chosen by popular vote, and it is quite likely that many of those seats will be won by opposition candidates. The government is already working hard to recruit candidates who are well regarded in their communities and not antagonistic to the military — such as teachers and successful farmers — ensuring that parliament includes independent MPs who are respected by the population. With the military guaranteed 25 percent of seats and the rest shared between pro-government, independent, and opposition parliamentarians, it is unlikely that an outright majority will control the legislature, necessitating the need for compromise and coalition-forming.

However, there are two things that might stand in the way of this grand plan — the next generation of military leaders and "the lady." There is no guarantee that the next generation of officers will be willing to share power with civilians, especially elected ones. They might not respect the limits on power as they have been set out on flimsy paper.

Aung San Suu Kyi presents the other potential problem for the generals. Should she be released from detention and allowed to campaign freely for her NLD candidates, they would easily win a majority of seats, just as they did in the 1990 elections when they won 392 of 485 seats, even with Aung San Suu Kyi under house arrest. An overwhelming NLD victory in 2010 will be almost certainly unacceptable to the retiring generals who do not want to find themselves at the mercy of the long-persecuted and exiled NLD. Another coup would likely result, ending any hope for representational government in Myanmar emerging for decades to come.

To prevent this, the generals will likely seek to prevent Aung San Suu Kyi from campaigning, keeping her under house arrest until the elections are concluded. Although the election law and polling dates have not been announced yet, some analysts are guessing that the election law will be issued in early spring and the elections possibly held on the numerologically auspicious October 10 (10-10-10). However, Aung San Suu Kyi has indicated that she is pragmatic, expressing to the government that she is willing to compromise and discuss anything, though up to now she has not committed the NLD to either participate or boycott the process. There is a pervasive air of uncertainty. But should an accommodation be reached between the generals and Aung San Suu Kyi and elections held, it potentially represents the first step in Myanmar’s evolution from a military dictatorship to a form of representational government familiar to many of Myanmar’s Asian neighbors.

Consider one historical precedent. South Korea’s presidential and National Assembly elections in the 1970s and particularly in 1987 and 1988, though hardly considered free and fair, gave opposition parties and candidates, including Nobel laureate and future president Kim Dae-jung (who ran for president three times before being elected in 1997), a legitimate platform from which to develop their voices, attract supporters, learn the political process, and oppose the ruling party. Few might have predicted it at the time of South Korea’s first elections, but today the country has an entrenched and mature democratic process, with conservative and liberal parties exchanging power peacefully.

Despite the stacked deck, some political candidates in Myanmar are optimistic about the prospects for this year’s elections. One opposition leader who has spent years in jail said the government had encouraged him to field candidates to contest the elections. Admitting that they were a small step, he said, "One thing I like about the Constitution is that we can get elected to parliament; I can speak freely in parliament and not on the side of the road on a soapbox. Why don’t we as a people take this opportunity to help [Than Shwe] make a graceful exit and gain democracy in the process?"

In addition to enthusiastic political candidates, civil society is growing and provides a tenuous base to support democracy. Grassroots organizations pepper the countryside, and Yangon-based NGOs look increasingly like their counterparts in Bangkok and Seoul implementing social and environmental programs supported by international funding, particularly in the aftermath of Cyclone Nargis. The official media is still a ham-fisted propaganda arm of the government, but small publications are emerging and the Internet is an increasingly important source of balanced information. The Voice of America’s Burmese service’s three hours of daily shortwave broadcasts will be particularly important during election campaigning as one of the few nongovernment-controlled sources of information available nationwide.

Of course, the government still has many tools at its disposal to fight the opposition, such as the election law and outright intimidation. For instance, officials and their families will be told who to vote for, while watchful cadres will likely maintain a highly visible presence at polling stations. The election law will also possibly exclude particular candidates — such as former political prisoners or members of ethnic groups that remain in armed opposition to the government — in addition to giving very little time for opposition candidates to raise support, publish materials, and campaign. In addition to ballot box-stuffing, the government is also reportedly planning elaborate dirty tricks, such as creating new political parties that sound like the opposition parties in an effort to confuse voters.

Nonetheless, opposition leaders are optimistic that this year’s elections will give them a foot in the political door, a few seats in parliament, and a platform from which to gain valuable experience and contest the next elections in 2015. That year, the president will likely start a second term, setting the stage for a really experienced cadre of politicians to campaign their hearts out in 2020.

As part of its new engagement formula, the United States should consider supporting a peaceful political process in Myanmar that provides an opportunity for the opposition to participate in government. Continued support for human rights is essential, as is relentless pressure on the Burmese government to release political prisoners and reach a peaceful détente with the opposition and ethnic groups. Although it might seem like a choice of pragmatism over human rights policy, engaging in the Burmese elections is actually a decision that benefits both.

Drew Thompson is a former US Defence Department official responsible for managing bilateral relations with China, Taiwan and Mongolia. He is currently a visiting senior research fellow at the Lee Kuan Yew School of Public Policy, National University of Singapore.

Read More On Economics

More from Foreign Policy

Children are hooked up to IV drips on the stairs at a children's hospital in Beijing.
Children are hooked up to IV drips on the stairs at a children's hospital in Beijing.

Chinese Hospitals Are Housing Another Deadly Outbreak

Authorities are covering up the spread of antibiotic-resistant pneumonia.

Henry Kissinger during an interview in Washington in August 1980.
Henry Kissinger during an interview in Washington in August 1980.

Henry Kissinger, Colossus on the World Stage

The late statesman was a master of realpolitik—whom some regarded as a war criminal.

A Ukrainian soldier in helmet and fatigues holds a cell phone and looks up at the night sky as an explosion lights up the horizon behind him.
A Ukrainian soldier in helmet and fatigues holds a cell phone and looks up at the night sky as an explosion lights up the horizon behind him.

The West’s False Choice in Ukraine

The crossroads is not between war and compromise, but between victory and defeat.

Illustrated portraits of Reps. MIke Gallagher, right, and Raja Krishnamoorthi
Illustrated portraits of Reps. MIke Gallagher, right, and Raja Krishnamoorthi

The Masterminds

Washington wants to get tough on China, and the leaders of the House China Committee are in the driver’s seat.