The Long Burmese Road
Drew Thompson is too optimistic about the upcoming elections in Myanmar -- but right to focus our attention on a rethink.
Drew Thompson's essay, "Rumble in the Junta," is fatally flawed by its logic, unsubstantiated generalizations, superficial assessments, and, most importantly, weak grasp of the nature of authoritarian military regimes. I do, however, think there is a degree of truth in the subheading: "This year's elections in Myanmar won't be free and fair -- but they will be more significant than you think." In short, don't expect the 2010 elections to look like elections in a competitive authoritarian environment where they may lead to a political opening, but also don't expect them to look like elections in a country like North Korea where they are truly meaningless. Despite the regime's efforts to control the entire political process, there are simply too many actors, from the National League for Democracy to the ethnic nationalities to the forces that emerged during the Saffron Revolution, to assume the regime can carry out its plan to civilianize its rule unchallenged.
Drew Thompson’s essay, "Rumble in the Junta," is fatally flawed by its logic, unsubstantiated generalizations, superficial assessments, and, most importantly, weak grasp of the nature of authoritarian military regimes. I do, however, think there is a degree of truth in the subheading: "This year’s elections in Myanmar won’t be free and fair — but they will be more significant than you think." In short, don’t expect the 2010 elections to look like elections in a competitive authoritarian environment where they may lead to a political opening, but also don’t expect them to look like elections in a country like North Korea where they are truly meaningless. Despite the regime’s efforts to control the entire political process, there are simply too many actors, from the National League for Democracy to the ethnic nationalities to the forces that emerged during the Saffron Revolution, to assume the regime can carry out its plan to civilianize its rule unchallenged.
Let’s begin with the basics. The 2010 elections are not about reducing the military’s grip on power, but an effort to cover the regime with a thin veneer of democratic legitimacy. As leading constitutional law expert David Williams noted in recent U.S. Senate testimony, "Even if the 2010 elections are free and fair, which they won’t be, they won’t bring about civilian rule because the Constitution does not provide for it. A partially civilian government, yes, but that government won’t rule." Much as when one yells, "Heads up!" when the intention is actually to get someone to duck down, the Burmese Constitution, unlike the U.S. Constitution to which Thompson compares it, is not designed to limit the power of government.
Second, even if one accepted parts of Thompson’s argument that the net effect of a partially elected government (75 percent of seats are theoretically up for contestation by civilians) would be the introduction of institutional checks and balances, this would depend on the existence of a truly independent political party. However, the government is encouraging individuals to run for office instead of joining real political parties and running for office on a party platform. Thompson even goes as far as to suggest that the regime itself might play a role in determining who’s respectable and well-regarded enough to run, writing: "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."
Thompson dives directly into the sea of unsubstantiated generalizations and poorly supported conclusions that trouble much commentary about Burma. Let’s begin with his criticism of sanctions. I’ve been to a great many countries in Asia, including Burma, and I’ve yet to develop the ability to discern the effectiveness of U.S. policy by personal observation alone. U.S. sanctions on Burma principally target financial transactions and other forms of investment. They do not limit the ability of traders and other small merchants to buy and sell goods. The sanctions debate is complicated and to reduce it to a cliché about steamy bazaars in Asia contributes little.
The article also makes another simple mistake, this time assuming that all NGOs are created equal. Thompson is correct to note that there are many good international and local NGOs working in Burma to address the humanitarian crisis, a great many of which emerged following Cyclone Nargis. Yet, unlike NGOs in countries across Asia, in Burma few, if any, are permitted to take part in efforts to hold the government accountable, whether through reporting, advocacy, or organizing. Praise them for their efforts to alleviate suffering, but don’t extrapolate to that which they themselves do not even claim credit.
Thompson also misrepresents the nature of the Burmese regime. With the sad exception of North Korea, there are no Asian states that have done less to advance their citizens’ interests. For a while, the international community praised Burma for its open and forward-thinking response to avian influenza. But that is only a small bright spot. This is a regime that has jailed, tortured, and exiled its political opposition; waged a vicious and unrelenting campaign against ethnic minorities; systematically destroyed (as compared with benignly neglected) its once-proud public health and education systems; and actively obstructed international offers of assistance following Cyclone Nargis. Millions of ordinary Burmese suffered, so as not to threaten the regime. For comparison’s sake, the Pakistanis, Chinese, Sri Lankans, Thais, and Indonesians welcomed international assistance after the devastating earthquakes and tsunamis that struck their countries. They are not all democracies either, by the way.
But, I leave the best for last. Thompson suggests that he is the pragmatist, offering a sensible, reasonable, realist way forward. But what he’s really arguing is naive, historically shortsighted, and contrary to longstanding U.S. ideals and goals. To suggest that if Nobel Peace Prize winner and National League for Democracy leader Aung San Suu Kyi fails to capitulate to the regime’s demands, for instance, and instead decides to actually participate in the elections with the intent of winning, then she will be responsible for the perpetuation of military rule, is not only logically challenged, but obscene. If the regime rejects the elections’ results, then it, not Aung San Suu Kyi, will be responsible for its actions.
Last year, the United States embarked on a carefully considered review of its Burma policy and then introduced a new strategy, one that tries to balance U.S. interests in promoting democracy and human rights with one that recognizes the need to seek out new opportunities, including engaging the regime. This is the correct path forward. The United States should be flexible in its approach and steadfast in its principles. But there’s no need to let the Burmese junta dictate the agenda.
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