Waiting for the Myanmar Miracle
Did the Obama administration facilitate the country's democratic groundswell?
Myanmar’s election is a good reminder that authoritarian elites underestimate their political opponents at their peril. “We had a much bigger loss in this election than we expected,” said Htay Oo, the chairman of the former ruling party, after the vote. The active and retired generals who have guided the country’s managed opening over the past five years seem shocked at the fact that the National League for Democracy (NLD) won nearly three-quarters of the votes cast in last Sunday’s elections. The NLD’s success rights a historical wrong; the party won the 1990 elections in similarly decisive fashion, only for the then-ruling military junta to annul the results and place party leader Aung San Suu Kyi under house arrest, where she remained for the better part of two decades. If the generals thought their absolute control of the country and its economy since that time would neuter the public’s opposition to their rule, they were mistaken. The question now is whether the generals recognize that they are on a course towards democratic transition that must not be blocked again.
Unfortunately, it is too soon to assume the NLD’s landslide victory will produce a “Myanmar miracle.” Although senior figures from the army-linked Union Solidarity and Development Party, including Speaker of Parliament Shwe Mann and Htay Oo, lost their parliamentary seats, allegations of voting irregularities abound, and many citizens in conflict zones in the north, as well as the ethnic-minority Rohingyas, were not able to vote at all.
More fundamentally, despite its electoral supermajority, the NLD will need to navigate a governing structure still controlled by current and former military officers. Under the terms of a flawed constitution the former junta jammed through in 2008, the military reserves 25 percent of the seats in parliament for itself. This means that the composition of the new government of Myanmar will not reflect the outcome of the elections, because candidates were competing for only 75 percent of parliamentary seats.
In any political system that meets international standards, Aung San Suu Kyi would become president, given the NLD’s dominance at the polls. In Myanmar, however, she is constitutionally barred from assuming executive power on account of her sons’ and deceased husband’s British citizenship. Amending the generals’ constitution requires a 75 percent-plus-one majority, which gives the military a veto over changing it — even if every elected member of parliament supports doing so. Furthermore, the military retains control of the powerful home, defense, and border ministries. Even after a new president and parliament are sworn in, the army, police, and key parts of the bureaucracy will remain in the hands of the armed forces and its allies. Ominously, the constitution also gives the commander-in-chief of defense forces the right to impose martial law at his own discretion in the event of national emergency.
We should therefore celebrate people power in Burma under the aegis of its own Iron Lady, Aung San Suu Kyi — even as we must be concerned that the country’s transition to democracy is by no means complete, and may remain handicapped by the military’s continuing ability to steer the nation’s political development. Political uncertainty could further deter new waves of foreign investment in a country that desperately needs it. This raises the question of how U.S. policy can help.
President Barack Obama and former-Secretary of State Hillary Clinton deserve credit for supporting Myanmar’s opening from 2011. Although the Obama administration did not support Iran’s Green Revolution in 2009, and although Clinton said in that same year that human rights concerns should not stand in the way of U.S. cooperation with China, she and the president made a bet that the country’s generals were under pressure, at home and abroad, and were ready to change their approach. One reason they were under this pressure was steady support from the U.S. Congress — including by senior figures such as Senators Mitch McConnell, John McCain, and Diane Feinstein — for tough sanctions on the military regime.
Proponents of engagement with the former junta argued for years that Western sanctions on Myanmar were misguided. In fact, by squeezing the regime, they influenced the generals’ calculation of the costs and benefits of a graduated opening. To secure economic investment, they were nudged along the path of political reform by the West and Japan, in a way that helped lead to the country’s historic elections last week.
Foreign pressure of a different sort also helped lead to Myanmar’s opening. The generals launched the reform process in part because China’s influence in their then-isolated country had grown overweening. Their release of Suu Kyi and other political opponents from imprisonment, and other moves to liberalize freedom of expression and association, were tied to the generals’ understanding that Myanmar could not pivot away from China as long as Western and democratic Asian partners were turned off by political oppression at home. The need for new international partners to balance Chinese influence led the regime to pursue not only economic but political reform.
Fundamentally, Myanmar’s process of reform and opening up was driven by its people’s demand for change, the discipline and staying power of its political opposition parties led by the NLD, and the economic and strategic pressure on the former military junta. Ironically, after investing heavily in Myanmar’s opening early on, the Obama administration surrendered leverage necessary to see the democratic transition through. Washington lifted economic sanctions as well as the U.S. investment ban, and President Obama visited the country twice. The administration might have used these and other elements of its policy toolkit more wisely — reserving the opening of investment in the junta-controlled Myanmar Oil and Gas Enterprise (MOGE), for example, until securing a commitment for constitutional change that would allow the election’s winners to assume the presidency.
It would be a mistake for U.S. politicians to say that Myanmar’s new chapter was somehow “Made in America,” as Clinton has come close to doing. The United States must retain the leverage of targeted sanctions if the generals do not cede power, as occurred under similar circumstances in 1990. But to the extent the Obama administration wants to claim a policy victory, the many self-proclaimed “realists” within its ranks might consider how democracy promotion in Myanmar has advanced hard U.S. strategic and economic interests – and how such a combination of values-based diplomacy and realpolitik could benefit the U.S. national interest elsewhere too.
NICOLAS ASFOURI/AFP/Getty Images
Daniel Twining is the president of the International Republican Institute. Prior to joining IRI, Twining was Counselor at the German Marshall Fund of the United States. The views expressed in his articles for FP are those of the author and do not necessarily reflect the position of the International Republican Institute.