Myanmar: Parliamentary By-Elections and Easing of Sanctions

Results from Myanmar’s free and fair parliamentary elections resulted in a sweeping victory of Myanmar opposition leader Auung San Suu Kyi’s party, the National League for Democracy, challenging the military-backed Union Solidarity and Development Party which has brutally suppressed pro-democratic ideas and populism for years.

Suu Kyi's NLD Party Defeats USDP in By-Elections

Although only 7% of the legislative seats were up for grabs in the by-elections, the NLD’s win illustrated a hunger for democracy and rejection of the military’s stake in politics after 5 decades of misrule.  Suu Kyi’s NLD party took 43 of the 45 available seats, raising troubling questions for the reuling party and its former generals who had kept Suu Kyi under house arrest until November 2010.  Suu Kyi’s top priorities are to amend a 2008 constitution drafted under the supervision of the then ruling military junta that reserves a quarter of parliamentary seats for the military, and allows the president to hand power to the armed forces chief in an ill-defined emergency.  The country, formerly a British colony known as Burma, has been under 49 years of direct military rule until a rigged election in November 2012 swept into dominance the USDP.  The USDP is merely a front for the military junta and has perpetuated that cult of personality through repression and militarism ever since.  The recent round of by-elections, the USDP had much in its favor: bid spending power, control of 76% of the legislature and powerful allies in the judiciary, civil service, business and military.  Nevertheless, they did not have Suu Kyi, the widely popular pro-democracy champion and daughter of the country’s independence hero.

“Some in the army may see Aung San Suu Kyi and the NLD as a threat to the nation and want to take matters into their own hands.  But they can also now see quite clearly that the people will not accept a return to military rule and that a peaceful or stage-managed coup by the army is not really feasibly politically any longer” – Trevor Wilson, former Australian ambassador to Myanmar

The round of elections represent an important political transition period that could prove vital to the stability of the region.  Since the establishment of army rule in 1962, after a coup d’etat by New Win, Myanmar has been come to social instability, fiscal poverty and political repression.  Formerly known as Burma until 1989, the socialist state has played a strategic role in the geopolitical situation of the region, mainly due to its firm alliance with China.  Though popular movement existed before, as in 1988, the junta has been able to violently repress and incarcerate any leaders.  Myanmar’s military crushed demonstrations led by Buddhist monks in September 2007, jailing hundreds and killing dozens.  Now it seems, however, that democracy has a chance of firmly rooting itself in Myanmar.  Suu Kyi is expected to avoid direct confrontation with the military and to prioritize socio-economic improvement to consolidate support inside and outside of parliament.  As Myanmar pushed for sanctions to be lifted to open a wave of foreign investment, a coalition government after the 2015 election is seen as the best hope for stability.

“This election is an important step in Burma’s democratic transformation, and we hope it is an indication that the government of Burma intends to continue along the path of greater openness, transparency and reform.” – White House statement

The apparent thaw in Myanmar’s usually political isolated government has underscored the shift of its dynamics with China and the West.  China has been one of Myanmar’s biggest international backers and has poured billions of dollars in investment into the country to operate mines, extract timber and build oil and gas pipelines.  China has also been a staunch supporter of the country’s politically isolated government.  But ties appear to have cooled recently with China caught off guard by the suspension in September of a $3.6 billion China-funded dam, which was being built by a Chinese company in Myanmar.  The project has drawn protests from ethnic and environmental groups.  Now, China has called for Western countries to immediately lift their punitive sanctions on Myanmar in the wake of the by-elections.  The call by the Foreign Minister, Hong Lei, echoes one made by Southeast Asian leaders after a summit Wednesday.  In the US, President Obama said that the administration would soon nominate an ambassador to Myanmar and ease some travel and financial restrictions on the nation.  Secretary of State Clinton also announced that Washington would allow select senior Myanmar officials to visit the US and ease restriction on the export of financial services.  The US will also open an office of the US Agency for International Development in Myanmar.  Nonetheless, Clinton did state that sanctions against people and institutions in Myanmar that try to thwart democratic progress would remain in place.



Myanmar: Democratic Transition and China

Myanmar, a country located between communist China and democratic India, is the site of an important political transitioning period that could prove vital to the stability of the region.

Myanmar's Democratization Proves Consequential for Neighboring China

Since the establishment of army rule in 1962, after a supposed bloodless coup d’etat by New Win, Myanmar has been home to social instability, fiscal poverty and political repression.  Formerly known as Burma until 1989, the socialist state has played a strategic role in the geopolitical situation of the region, mainly due to its firm alliance with China.  Myanmar was the first non-Communsit country to recognize the “People Republic of China” after its foundation on October 1st, 1949.  Relations soured after a wave of anti-Chinese riots in 1967 but mimicking Tiananmen Square in China in 1989, Myanmar’s junta violently repressed pro-democracy movement sin 1988, quickly repairing past transgressions.  The growing international condemnation led to the re-cultivation of a strong relationship with China, allowing China’s influence to grow rapidly.  Currently, the bilateral trade between Myanmar and China exceeds $1.4 billion, with China being the most important supplier of military aid: jet fights, armed vehicles, naval vessels and personnel training.

With the “Arab Spring” escalating throughout the Middle East and North Africa, countries like China have been experiencing its own social instability which has grown harder to impede due to the expansion of technology and networking.  With such tumultuous times approaching  communist and militarily controlled countries, alliances such as these seem vital to the geopolitical identity of China and the surrounding environment.

Moreover, since the formation of the military junta, pro-democracy movement have persistently sparked civil unrest in Myanmar, escalating at every opportunity.  Now it seems democracy has a change of firmly rooting itself in Myanmar, uprooting a vital ally for China and leading to a possible power shift in favor of democracy and against communist China.  Being led by Aung San Suu Kyi, a cycle of historic reforms under way in Myanmar could lead to Asia’s newest democratic transition.  As seen in Syria and Yemen, the junta has tried to appease demonstrators with calls for free elections, which were held in November, for the first time in 20 years.  Nonetheless, the elections were widely condemned as being far from free and fair.  So saying, the new president of Myanmar, former General U Thain Sein, has raised state pensions for nearly a million people as much as a thousandfold, reduced taxes and dismantled trade cartels.  The thaw comes after the General’s inaugural address, condemning the high poverty rates, corruption, ending the country’s armed conflicts and working towards political reconciliation.

“Burma’s foreign minister would be more convincing if the government released all political prisoners and held security forces accountable for the brutal suppression of monks and peaceful protesters exactly four years ago.” – Elaine Pearson, Asia deputy director of Human Rights Watch

Mimicking past responses to mass protests, Myanmar’s military crushed demonstrations led by Buddhist monks in September 2007, jailing hundreds and killing dozens.  The story has been oft-repeated  throughout the history of the unstable country, resulting in Western nations urging Myanmar to free its more than 2,000 political prisoners.  On July 19th , the democratic leader Aung San Suu Kyi was released from house arrest and invited to the annual Martyr’s Day ceremony.  Thousands of her supporters were permitted to hold their first lawful march in years.  By August, the Myanmar Parliament began debating previously “taboo” issues, such like the release of political prisoners and passed multiple laws legalizing micro-finance for rural poor and allowing trade unions.  Clearly, the steps being taken by the regime has accelerated, potentially leading to an irreversible track towards democratization.

The impact on China has been exemplified this past week when Myanmar halted work on a $3.6 billion hydroelectric dam being built by China on the Irrawaddy River, which was meant to send power to Chinese provinces in neighboring lands.  The dam project was loudly opposed by Myanmar’s nascent environmental movement and the area’s minority Kachin people.  Apparently, the president knew the Myitsone Dam project was against the will of the people and has stated that he will not let it resume in his tenure, no matter the pressures from China.

“As our government is elected by the people, it is to respect the people’s will.  We have the responsibility to address public concerns in all seriousness.  So construction of Myitsone Dam will be suspended in the time of our government.” – U Thein Sein, Myanmar President

Nevertheless, monumental challenges remain for Myanmar’s future.  Much of the future of Myanmar and its transitioning period rests on the shoulders of the Obama administration.  Since the 198 repression of civilians, Western nations have isolated the country for all aid and communication.  Over the next few weeks, the US could make a monumental difference by publicly supporting the democratic transition and supporting the rhetoric by ending the country’s isolation.  Ending the isolation of Myanmar would end limitations on the UN and international financial institutions like the World Bank, who could then offer the country technical expertise and trade.

Yet, the changes could lead to a democratization of neighboring countries like China, thus serving as a strategic attack against China through the geopolitical significance of Myanmar.  China would not allow such a close neighbor the experience of democratization, Western aid and political openness.  Such social liberty and political liberalization have been fought for within China, resulting in various repressive actions by the country.  If events were to unfold in surrounding countries, and be effective, the Chinese people would be emboldened by such success.  With technology being a vital asset of the majority of the “Arab Spring” movement’s, Chin would very well find itself in a similar position.  For these reasons, China will most likely put as much fiscal pressure on the US to avoid such Western intervention. With the mutual interdependence of China-US bilateral trade, the circumstances would very well limit US support, of China would only be able to voice empty threats without serious implications.