Reversals in Burma's Democratic Reform

Burma’s president, Thein Sein, once said he could imagine Aung San Suu Kyi, the pro-democracy leader, as president of Burma. “If the people accept her, I will have to accept her,” he told an interviewer in September 2012. It was a remarkable statement from a former general whose military persecuted Aung San Suu Kyi for decades after her National League for Democracy party was prevented from taking office after its landslide 1990 electoral victory. At the time of his comments, Thein Sein was leading Burma in what appeared to be an exciting, if tentative political opening. Aung San Suu Kyi had been released from house arrest. In 2012, she and her party swept by-elections, giving them a toehold in the Parliament. 

Three years on, Thein Sein is no longer credible as a reformer. Burma’s government is re-engaged in repression—against religious and ethnic minorities, journalists and activists. It’s also moving on dissenters within its own ranks. On August 13th, Thein Sein used force to remove Shwe Mann, also a former general, as head of their ruling Union Solidarity and Development Party in a midnight operation at the party’s headquarters.  Shwe Mann is not an entirely sympathetic figure. He’s a former general, associated with military abuses and questionably wealthy besides. However, in recent years, he has forged a cooperative relationship with Aung San Suu Kyi in the Parliament, where she has tried to amend the military-drafted constitution that bars her from the presidency and entrenches military power.

Burma’s military-dominated government is reverting to type, but so far the Obama administration has been quiet. Of the party putsch, a State Department spokeswoman blandly observed, “It is important that authorities act in a way that reinforces—not decreases—the Burmese public’s confidence in their government’s commitment to democratic processes.”

The administration has also laid out a mushy standard for the upcoming parliamentary elections, saying they must be “credible, transparent, and inclusive.” It’s hard to know exactly what that means, which is probably the point. Those November 8th parliamentary elections are likely to bring in a large contingent of Aung San Suu Kyi’s popular NLD to the Parliament, but the military’s quota of one quarter of the seats makes it unlikely they’ll win a majority or get much done. Anyway, after the resurgence of hard-line tactics by the ruling party shows, it’s hard to see Thein Sein and his party tolerating, let alone leading, democratization.

At the outset of Burma’s political opening, Thein Sein was perceived as motivated to break down Burma’s international isolation, and get it out from under the influence of China, its next-door neighbor. The Obama administration bet heavily on him. President Obama made an historic visit to Burma and lifted sanctions on Thein Sein so he could come to Washington. A top treasury official said then that Thein Sein “had taken concrete steps to promote political reforms and human rights, and to move Burma away from repression and dictatorship toward democracy and freedom, warranting today’s de-listing action.” The administration made the same decision with regard to Shwe Mann. 

Thein Sein has now taken concrete steps in the wrong direction. Now is the time to tell Thein Sein there is a choice to be made between good relations with the US and continued autocratic rule. The administration can bring that choice into starker relief by restoring sanctions on Thein Sein as a first step.

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