Extending a Hand in Myanmar

Extending a Hand in Myanmar

After decades of harsh and unyielding military dictatorship, the political landscape in Myanmar (Burma) shifted in the closing months of 2010 as the first general election in twenty years approached. Key figures in a ruling cabal seldom known to curry favor with the population at large roused themselves to plot campaign strategy. In hitherto-beaten opposition groups, leading individuals dusted themselves off and debated how to respond to the generals’ election. In cities, towns, and villages throughout the land, rudimentary features of the democratic process began to surface. On November 7, citizens cast ballots for a bicameral national parliament and fourteen provincial assemblies. Once votes had been tallied, a huge victory for the military leaders’ chosen party was proclaimed.

From start to finish, this exercise in popular sovereignty was controversial and divisive. Inside Myanmar, many followed 1991 Nobel Peace laureate Aung San Suu Kyi’s rejectionist stance, adopted after the national army trashed a general election that her party won by a landslide in 1990. Outside the country, the United States and its major allies pledged full support. Others within and without argued that the 2010 election, though run by a garrison state, might constitute the best chance in a generation to open up a closed and distant polity. Indeed, among Myanmar’s Asian neighbors the consensus was that paramount leader Senior General Than Shwe was taking an important political step and should be given space and encouragement to press ahead. His decision, less than a week after polls had closed, to release Aung San Suu Kyi from a long period of house arrest was widely viewed as confirmation.

Some fifty years on from a 1962 coup against a fragile and fractious democracy created during postwar independence from Britain and nearly twenty-five years on from cataclysmic events in 1988 that saw an apparent third-wave democratization repulsed by a brutal military machine, how might international society handle the challenges posed by such a difficult regime?

Chronicle of an Election Foretold

This being a police state governed by an entrenched military directorate, the outcome of the election was never in doubt. In 2003, Than Shwe gave his blessing to a roadmap for political development articulated around the core concept of “discipline-flourishing” democracy. In a referendum held in the immediate aftermath of devastation wrought by Cyclone Nargis in May 2008, a draft constitution for this polity was supported by 92 percent of voters on a 98 percent turnout—figures rarely seen since the collapse of communism in East-Central Europe. Long on discipline and short on democracy, the core institutions of Myanmar’s reformed state were calibrated to provide abundant safeguards for ongoing military rule and no more than a veneer of democracy for critics. Stringent electoral laws made it hard for opposition parties to mobilize and...

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