How Big a Success Is the Democratic Revolution in Burma?

And how much credit should the Obama administration and Hillary Clinton get for making it happen?

Last November, Myanmar held its first truly fair national elections in twenty-five years. The National League for Democracy (NLD), the party of the Nobel laureate and longtime dissident Aung San Suu Kyi, routed the Union Solidarity and Development Party (USDP), the political arm of the military. For the first time in over half a century, a freely elected parliament was seated in Myanmar.

Mar-16-Kurlantzick
The Rebel of Rangoon:
A Tale of Defiance and
Deliverance in Burma

by Delphine Schrank;
Nation Books, 352 pp.

In the tense months leading up to the vote, members of the NLD, foreign diplomats, and many voters worried that, no matter who actually received the most votes, the results would be invalidated. It had happened before. In 1990, Suu Kyi and the NLD similarly dominated a national election, winning 392 of the 492 contested parliamentary seats. But the army refused to recognize the result, and ran the country for another two decades. Indeed, in the run-up to November’s vote, the government had brought to bear all its powers—state media, funding for local projects, arrests and detentions of opposition political activists—to help the USDP win control of parliament and the provincial parliaments across Myanmar.

The military, which had ruled Myanmar since 1962, when it first took power in a coup, began to give ground only in 2010 and 2011, when it handed power to a civilian government led by the former general Thein Sein. (Myanmar’s president is not directly elected, but instead chosen by members of parliament.) The constitution that the junta left behind also reserved 25 percent of the seats in the lower house of parliament for military officers—so last November, the USDP only needed to win 25.1 percent of seats for the army and its allies to have de facto control. (The constitution also decrees that no one having a foreign spouse or children can become president—a provision designed to keep Suu Kyi, who was married to a Briton and whose children hold British passports, from the post.)

To his credit, Thein Sein made many moves toward normalcy, opening the country to foreign investment, restoring closer relations with leading democracies, loosening restrictions on the local media, and freeing hundreds of political prisoners. Even so, in a speech before the 2015 election, he issued a veiled warning that if voters did not choose the USDP, Myanmar’s reforms could easily be endangered. Surely, most USDP officials felt, the public, appreciative of Thein Sein’s reforms and scared of voting against the military, would support the USDP.

It didn’t happen. On election day, the NLD swept both national and provincial legislatures. The party won 86 percent of the seats contested in the national parliament, winning a majority in the lower house, despite the military’s guaranteed 25 percent. The NLD’s majority will allow its parliamentarians to choose Myanmar’s next president. The NLD also won a majority of Myanmar’s provincial legislatures. Many of the USDP’s most powerful politicians, who had been sitting in the lower house since the handover to civilian rule, were ousted. Suu Kyi immediately met with the army leadership, and the army chief pledged that the military would not intervene in the transition to an NLD-led government. Top leaders of the USDP echoed the army’s call for a calm transition, with the USDP’s acting chairman, U Htay Oo, telling reporters, “USDP has lost to the NLD. We will accept this result.”

Blood, Dreams and Gold:
The Changing Face of Burma

by Richard Cockett;
Yale University Press, 296 pp.

As the returns trickled in from Myanmar’s election commission, the citizens of Yangon (formerly Rangoon), Myanmar’s biggest city, held a raucous, nearly nonstop party in front of the NLD’s headquarters. The foreign reaction to Myanmar’s election was, in some ways, even more euphoric. Obama administration officials I met with in the weeks after the election seemed almost giddy that the Southeast Asian nation, so long a byword for thuggish army rule, could actually now be led by the NLD. Myanmar’s election was even more remarkable given that in the countries surrounding it, like Thailand, Bangladesh, and Malaysia, democracy seems to be going into reverse.

Foreign media outlets, too, celebrated the election as a massive breakthrough. The Washington Post, whose editorial board had been known for its hard-nosed view on the Myanmar military regime, touted the elections as “a triumph of hope . . . a triumph for those who kept the flame [of freedom] alive.”

For the White House, such celebrations were not surprising. Until Barack Obama became president, the United States had been among the most forceful advocates of economic sanctions against the junta. But Obama and his administration made rapprochement with Myanmar something of a priority. Hillary Clinton visited Myanmar as secretary of state in 2011, and developed a personal bond with Suu Kyi. She devoted a whole chapter of her recent memoir, Hard Choices, to Myanmar’s democratization as reflecting “the unique role the United States can and should play in the world as a champion of dignity and democracy.” It is, she wrote, “America at our best.”

Hard Choices
by Hillary Rodham Clinton;
Simon & Schuster, 560 pp.

This revamped U.S. policy had apparently begun to succeed. Myanmar looked like it might become a democracy. An NLD-led Myanmar would surely tilt toward the United States and American friends like India and Singapore, end the country’s lingering civil conflicts, crack down on the trade in illegal narcotics, gems, and wildlife, and create an economic environment ripe for U.S. companies.

Unfortunately, this rosy narrative has more than a few holes in it. Although Suu Kyi and some other NLD leaders have generally warm feelings toward the United States, there is no clear evidence that an NLD government will be a closer U.S. partner than the Thein Sein government was—or even that Myanmar is all that important to U.S. regional strategy. Much of the country remains in a de facto state of war, as ethnic insurgencies face off against the military. This political instability, combined with terrible infrastructure and lingering questions about whether the military truly will return to the barracks, have deterred many American investors. And the NLD, which has no experience in governing, has yet to offer a clear plan for economic development.

Not unsurprisingly, Myanmar’s opening has created a small outpouring of books on the country’s politics, international relations, and economy. The reforms initiated since the early 2010s have made it much easier for journalists, academics, businesspeople, and aid workers to enter the country, and have sparked greater interest in Myanmar within the United States, Europe, Japan, and other countries in Southeast Asia.

In The Rebel of Rangoon, the former Washington Post reporter Delphine Schrank chronicles the country’s struggles through the eyes of several young democracy activists. Schrank follows several residents of Yangon, the largest city in Myanmar. She tracked them for years, as they traveled furtively from safe houses to Internet cafés, to tea shops and homes, wooing people into the democratic movement while trying to send news about Myanmar to the outside world.

Though often overwritten and filled with unnecessary asides, the book does offer a compelling picture of life under the military junta, before Myanmar began to change. Schrank started researching her book in 2008, just after a cyclone hit the country, killing more than 138,000 people. Aung San Suu Kyi had been under house arrest on and off for nearly two decades, and other NLD leaders were jailed in the notorious Insein Prison, where torture was common. Military intelligence men in plainclothes loitered around every major market, hotel, restaurant, bookstore, temple, and monument. Mobile phones were rare, and Internet traffic was heavily monitored.

Only a year earlier, over 100,000 Myanmar monks had marched into Yangon to protest falling standards of living, poor governance, and repression in general. The military responded by shooting live ammunition at the unarmed monks in what came to be called the “Saffron Revolution.” The crackdown was in keeping with the army’s tradition of brutality toward its own people. In 1988, during nationwide protests the army used live ammunition to murder thousands in Yangon, Mandalay, and other parts of the country.

The Rebel of Rangoon offers no single theory about why Myanmar began to change, but Schrank posits that it was prompted by the long, hard slog of innumerable pro-democracy activists who, like the book’s protagonists, spent decades leading rallies, preparing for votes, using the Internet to organize, and fashioning small examples of defiance of military rule. Schrank’s theory is substantiated, in some part, by reports about Myanmar’s transition, released by the United States Institute of Peace (USIP), suggesting that the country’s blossoming civil society helped put pressure on the military to open up. USIP reports also suggest that the growing power of reformists within the military finally pushed Myanmar’s army to embrace civilian rule.

USIP’s analysis also gives some credit to pure luck—the right people ascending to power at just the right time. Not an uncommon theme in the history of political revolutions. To begin the transition to civilian government, the junta, then led by Senior General Than Shwe, chose Thein Sein to head the civilian regime. A sham election in 2010 packed the parliament with pro-military MPs, including many former officers. Thein Sein, a modest and (by Myanmar standards) clean military leader, had given few hints of his intentions, but soon after taking the presidency in 2010, he signaled his willingness to promote freer elections, open the economy, release political prisoners, and free Myanmar from its global isolation. He wooed Myanmar’s best-educated exiles home from Sydney, London, Singapore, New York, and other cities, and employed them in drawing up plans to liberalize the economy, devise a new strategy for peace talks with ethnic minorities, and pave the way for all-party elections. Thein Sein’s ideas were received enthusiastically by most of the population, and were not immediately quashed by the former junta leaders, many of whom still exercised considerable influence behind closed doors. This may have been in part because those ideas had already won such support from the population, and coming out against them publicly would have potentially forced the former junta leaders to take power again, which they seemed unwilling to do.

Myanmar’s fiercely xenophobic generals also may have worried that the country was becoming too dependent on its largest trading partner, China, suggests the former Economist Southeast Asia correspondent Richard Cockett in his book Blood, Dreams and Gold. Cockett’s book is a useful primer for understanding the roots of the country’s deep ethnic cleavages, its ruined economy, and the military’s fierce belief that it is the most important unifying element in the country. It also offers some theories about why Myanmar finally came out of isolation. Breaking away from China’s orbit was surely one reason; the junta’s leaders had vivid memories of Chinese government support for communist insurgencies inside Myanmar during the Cold War. Even after the end of the Cold War, China continues to apparently provide sanctuary for leaders of ethnic insurgencies with cultural and political ties to southwestern China.

The truth is, anyone who follows Myanmar closely knows it is impossible to pinpoint the exact reasons why the junta leader Than Shwe, a man with an elementary school education and little international experience, decided to establish a civilian government. He and other top generals left no written records of their decisionmaking process, gave no interviews to either local or foreign reporters, and allowed no leaks to emerge from the strategy sessions that preceded the beginnings of reform.

Besides the impact of military reformers, and the pressure of civil society, the generals may have wanted a get-out-of-jail-free card. Suu Kyi, who repeatedly stated her respect for the military even while under house arrest, was aging, and the junta may have gambled that if they worked with her, she would likely allow the army to maintain its outsized budget, keep its hand in many profitable businesses, and avoid any prosecution for decades of crimes against humanity. It appears to have worked. Suu Kyi told the United Nations special rapporteur on the situation of human rights in Myanmar, Tómas Quintana, that she doesn’t “believe in revenge and finger-pointing” for the army’s past abuses. She has given no indications of wanting to pursue prosecutions or even a South Africa-style truth and reconciliation commission. Meanwhile, army leaders and their families actually have expanded their stakes in the country’s most profitable economic sectors. Myanmar’s jade industry alone, controlled largely by military elites, is worth $31 billion, according to a recent study by the anti-corruption NGO Global Witness.

How important was U.S. policy in general, and Hillary Clinton’s diplomacy in particular, to this transition? Probably less than Clinton makes out in Hard Choices, although certainly it had some impact. Clinton rightly points out that in an attempt to diversify their country’s strategic relationships, the military may have wanted to bolster ties to the United States and other leading democracies. They hoped that countries like Japan, which had long wanted to invest more in Myanmar and provide more aid, would pour money into the country. And investment and aid are absolutely critical not only to exploiting Myanmar’s abundant natural resources but also to upgrading the country’s crumbling roads, rails, ports, and telecommunications infrastructure. Moreover, the military may have held out the hope that economic change and mild political reforms would blunt the popularity of Suu Kyi and the NLD. But they failed to account for the NLD’s ability to rapidly rebuild its party apparatus, even after two decades of repression. Nor did they consider the abiding love, and even veneration, for Suu Kyi, the daughter of the country’s hero of independence.

The Obama administration did indeed shift U.S.-Myanmar policy dramatically, even if it remains unclear how much impact the new policy actually had. Clinton and Obama successfully convinced skeptics in Congress and the human rights community to support attempts at rapprochement with Myanmar. Years of sanctions had not toppled the junta, and without a greater U.S. presence in the country, they argued, Myanmar could become a Chinese client state. Launching closer diplomatic ties would help guide the country toward democracy. The White House followed through, sending a series of senior officials (including President Obama) to Myanmar, relaxing sanctions, establishing a USAID presence there, and restoring ambassador-level diplomatic ties, among other moves. Because the United States had led the sanctions movement, it served as a kind of gatekeeper, and now other major democracies, from Australia to Japan to Canada to the European Union, have engaged with Myanmar as well.

But once the new U.S. policy was launched, American influence over the country, already limited, diminished further. Although Myanmar has, for two decades, received more news coverage than most other Southeast Asian nations, partly because of Suu Kyi’s global appeal, it is one of the poorest countries in Asia and not a major U.S. strategic partner. Even though the country has ports that could be valuable to China, India, and other regional powers, they are not critical to U.S. naval strategy. Unlike most of the other countries in the region, Myanmar has no treaty alliance or comprehensive strategic partnership with the United States, and its military is decades away from being helpful to the U.S. armed forces in the event of a conflict in Southeast Asia. And the reality is that China, as Myanmar’s neighbor and one of its biggest investors, aid donors, and diplomatic partners, will always enjoy greater strategic influence in the country.

Today, U.S. investment in the country is still very small. Executives of big U.S. companies who have traveled to Myanmar since 2011 to gauge the business environment have mostly chosen not to make major commitments, despite the fact that the country boasts a largely untapped consumer market of some fifty-four million people. In fact, according to an article last year in the Wall Street Journal, official U.S. investment in Myanmar since 2011 is a tiny $2 million.

In addition, Myanmar’s political opening is far from complete. In many ways, the country has become more violent than it was under the brutal junta. Although Thein Sein’s government signed cease-fire deals with several of the smaller ethnic insurgencies, it also stepped up conflict with some of the remaining groups, battering them with artillery and air strikes in northern Myanmar and forcing tens of thousands of people to flee across the border into China. At the same time, the government has mostly allowed the biggest and most powerful ethnic insurgency, the United Wa State Army, to prosper. This group, which is heavily involved in narcotrafficking, controls a de facto statelet in the country’s northeast and has under its command heavy weapons, huge stocks of cash, and an estimated 20,000 to 30,000 fighters. The national government has no power there. Government’s armed forces do, however, wield enormous power in managing the battles in minority areas, but the chain of command back to the Defense Ministry is extremely weak. Even under the former general Thein Sein, the ministry of defense had trouble restraining regional commanders who wanted to press bloody attacks against insurgent groups. Under an NLD-led government, the military’s regional commands might prove even more difficult to control.

And it gets worse. In Myanmar’s west, the end of authoritarian rule unleashed a fury of new inter-ethnic and inter-religious violence, primarily targeting the Muslim Rohingya population. According to a recent report by Yale Law School’s Lowenstein International Human Rights Law Clinic, the situation with the Rohingya provides “strong evidence of genocide.” Many of the attacks on the Rohingya appear to have been committed by hard-line Buddhist nationalist paramilitaries with links to or at least the tacit acceptance of the armed forces.

Some 130,000 Rohingya are now internally displaced, living in squalid camps that are more like concentration camps than harbors for refugees. Despite the NLD’s big victory in November, in western Myanmar’s Arakan State a hard-line anti-Muslim party took control of the provincial parliament, setting the stage for more anti-Rohingya legislation and violence. The NLD leadership, including Suu Kyi, has taken pains not to criticize anti-Rohingya activists, probably in order to woo Buddhist voters; just before election day Suu Kyi warned outsiders not to “exaggerate” the problems in western Myanmar. The NLD put up no Muslim candidates for parliament at all. Aid workers with experience in western Myanmar expect new waves of anti-Rohingya violence this spring, and another exodus of the ethnic minority from their homes, with many trying to flee the country for Malaysia and Indonesia on rickety boats. The boats put out to sea with few provisions; according to reports in Reuters, many Rohingya die of dehydration onboard, or are picked up and sold into human slavery in Thailand and other countries in the region.

On the joyous November election day when NLD supporters thronged the party’s headquarters in Yangon, most Rohingya had little to celebrate: hundreds of thousands of them reportedly had been stripped of their rights to vote before the elections took place. Besides Suu Kyi’s willful ignorance of the crimes against the Rohingya, the USDP and the Thein Sein government had turned camps for displaced Rohingya into de facto internment centers. The government did nothing to punish the alleged ringleaders of violence in western Myanmar. On election day, Buddhists in the west turned out in large numbers, voting for the Arakan National Party, which campaigned on the slogan “Love your nationality, keep pure blood.” The party gained control of the provincial parliament in one western state, and sent twenty-two people to the national parliament. Nationwide, no Muslim candidates, from any party, won a seat in the upper or lower houses. “In effect,” note Allison Lim and Michael Kugelman of the Woodrow Wilson International Center for Scholars, “Myanmar’s 2.5 million Muslims have zero representation in Parliament for the first time since the country’s independence in 1948.” It’s not time for jubilation in Myanmar just yet.

Joshua Kurlantzick

Joshua Kurlantzick is a fellow for Southeast Asia at the Council on Foreign Relations.