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What now for democracy in Myanmar?

What now for democracy in Myanmar?


So the National League for Democracy (NLD) of Myanmar achieved a dramatic victory in recent parliamentary elections. Its polarizing leader, Aung San Suu Kyi (she’s the one on the cell phone in the picture above), will now be part of the government that kept her under house arrest for about 15 years. Reforms introduced by Myanmar’s President U Thein Sein seem to be letting democracy into a country that has been ruled by a military regime for the last half-century.

But where does democracy in Myanmar go from here? How big of an impact can Aung San Suu Kyi and NLD really have? Is Myanmar really on the road to true democracy, or will the milestone election of April 1 be quickly forgotten? As things stand now, I have to say: it’s hard to tell. NLD may have won a critical battle, but the war is far from over.

Let’s look at the parliament itself, which many are hoping NLD’s presence in will spark real democratic reform. While the pro-democracy party may have won almost all the races it took part in, they are still a minority in parliament: the military-controlled Union and Solidarity Development Party hold about 80% of seats overall. As the BBC recognizes, NLD’s election victories give it only “a toe-hold in a parliament still dominated by the military’s proxy party and the block of seats reserved for unelected members of the armed forces.” What’s more, Christian Caryl points out in Foreign Policy’s Democracy Lab blog that Aung San Suu Kyi and company “are about to enter a parliament that has been carefully designed to prevent people like them from gaining much influence.” The military regime instituted the Union and Solidarity Development Party in the early 1990s to secure its control of government in wake of the burgeoning pro-democracy movement.

So Aung San Suu Kyi is not joining a brand new government by any means. She will have to work alongside the same organization that actively suppressed her movement in the past. How well the two groups will get along, and if real democratic change will result, remains to be seen (going by Caryl’s interviews with Union and Solidarity officials, they don’t seem too thrilled with the arrangement).

Despite any governmental reforms, how democratic can Myanmar really be if its military continues to be involved in ethnic conflicts? In mid-March Human Rights Watch’s Matthew F. Smith drew attention to armed clashes between the state armed forces and rebel Kachin Independence Army in Myanmar’s northern region. Smith reported, “the army has attacked ethnic Kachin civilians and villages, pillaged properties, and committed severe abuses” (several of which he describes in gruesome, graphic detail). About 75,000 Kachin have been displaced by the conflict, with many fleeing to refugee camps that are cut off from international humanitarian aid. According to Smith, “[President] Thein Sein’s government is not only failing to protect their rights, it is actively violating them.” This certainly does not seem like the policy of a government committed to promoting democracy and protecting rights of its citizens.

NLD’s election victories certainly present an opportunity for the United States and other entities (EU, UN) to support democracy advancement in Myanmar. Indeed the U.S. took steps in that direction just a few days after the elections. Secretary of State Hillary Clinton announced that a USAID office will be set up in Myanmar, an ambassador will be appointed (first time since 1988), and some sanctions will be scaled back. Yet this opening up to Myanmar has its complications: Congress must authorize the lifting of major sanctions, which it will likely be reticent to do; and there is a strategic motivation, as the country happens to lie between China and the Indian Ocean. Thus Myanmar could get caught up in the U.S.-China power struggle in the region.

Whether in countries that have had it for a long time or those new to it, democracy is hardly ever easy or simple. Myanmar is no exception. The election of Aung San Suu Kyi and the National League of Democracy to parliament is certainly an indication that democracy in Myanmar is a real possibility, which is a welcome change from the past. Now the question is whether or not they–possibly with the help of the U.S. and others–can make democracy the rule, rather than the exception.



Scott Bleiweis

Scott Bleiweis writes on international relations topics for FPA. He has a M.A. in democracy studies and conflict resolution from the University of Denver, and a B.A. in Politics/International Studies from Brandeis University. Scott was formerly a Fulbright education scholar in Bulgaria (views in this blog are his own, and do not represent those of the Fulbright organization or U.S. government).

Scott supports Winston Churchill's characterization of the complex form of government known as democracy: “Many forms of Government have been tried and will be tried in this world of sin and woe. No one pretends that democracy is perfect or all-wise. Indeed, it has been said that democracy is the worst form of government except all those other forms that have been tried from time to time.”