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Wednesday, April 4, 2012

A Myanmar Spring?

The party of dissident leader Aung San Suu Kyi, the National League for Democracy, won a decisive victory in by-elections on April 1, 2012. The party 40 of the 45 seats reported as of April 3rd, with the results of five more seats not yet in. The news of the victory reached the outside world, which reacted with optimism. Catherine Ashton, the E.U.’s foreign minister, said “I congratulate the government and people of Myanmar on the conduct of the by-elections.” Meanwhile, the White House indicated that the vote marked “an important step in Burma’s democratic transformation.” Both the E.U. and U.S. approached the outcome as necessary but not sufficient for democracy in the country that had had five decades of harsh military rule.

                                     Aung San Suu Kyi on the day of the by-election.          Agence France/Getty

Indeed, the impact of the by-election must be put into perspective in terms of governing. At the time, the Wall Street Journal noted that the NLD party “will have only a small presence in Myanmar’s parliament, where most of the more than 600 seats are held by current or former soldiers linked to the old military regime.” From this perspective, the by-election itself can be viewed as a public relations coup by the soldiers. Such a dramatic victory of the NLD would give the appearance of a new democracy when in fact nothing would change in who controls the government. At best, the by-election’s results would mean that the governing party would have to accommodate some dissent within the legislative chamber. In terms of removing sanctions, the U.S. and E.U. officials would be wise to wait until a majority within the parliament is up for grabs under a free and fair (and monitored) election.

Like the military in Egypt, that in Myanmar might have known that it could retain control even after the apparent shift to democracy. Indeed, all the optimism that comes with an apparent switch to democracy could operate as cover, enabling the real power to continue much as before. Becoming a true democracy in which power transfers between parties is likely a long process where a military dictatorship has been the rule. People don’t give up power easily, and they can be quite crafty in how they retain it.

Source:

Patrick Barta, “Suu Kyi’s Victory Leads to Rethink AboutSanctions,The Wall Street Journal, April 3, 2012.