Burma will hold nationwide parliamentary elections on November 8th. As is often the case with countries in transition, enormous hopes are trained on the election to usher in a new era of freedom. The National League for Democracy, under the leadership of Aung San Suu Kyi, is expected to do very well. Whatever happens on Sunday, however, Burma’s struggle for democracy will not be over.
It’s not only that the vote will not be free and fair. A litany of problems have been noted by human rights organizations: Voter lists are incomplete. The election commission is not independent. Huge numbers of Rohingya Muslims are denied a vote, intentionally disenfranchised by government policies. They and other Muslims are the target of a virulent strain of Buddhist chauvinism championed by popular monks who favor the ruling Union Solidarity and Development Party. The USDP has been accused of vote-buying, and a report accuses military and political elites of corruption related to the jade trade.
The election was supposed to be the culmination of a reform process begun by the ruling party in 2010. Suu Kyi was released from house arrest, to which she’d been confined for the better part of 20 years. The following year, General Thein Sein put on civilian clothes and began to run the country as president. Press censorship was lifted and many political prisoners were released. Many imagined Thein Sein to be a transformative leader who recognized his country needed relief from Western sanctions. In this view, he was motivated in part by the need to offset the influence of neighboring China. The Obama administration lifted most sanctions. President Obama visited Burma and welcomed Thein Sein to the White House.
The embrace of Burma’s leader was premature and went too far too soon. According to the London-based NGO Burma Campaign UK: “The reform process should be seen as part of a carefully planned strategy, beginning with the new Constitution, to manage the change necessary to end sanctions and international pressure and normalize international relations while retaining political and economic control.” Remarks by Thein Sein have repeatedly called his commitment to democracy into question.
Suu Kyi says Burma is now on the path not to democracy but “disciplined democracy … democracy as seen by military authoritarian leaders.” She is barred from holding the presidency because her sons hold British citizenship. The Constitution also guarantees the military a quarter of the seats in Parliament and preserves its power over civilian rule. Over the summer, the ruling party purged a member of its ranks who’d shown a willingness to collaborate with Suu Kyi.
Rather than the apotheosis of Burma’s democratization, the November 8th election will begin another, more complicated phase of Burma’s democracy movement. A strong showing by Suu Kyi’s NLD, and a greatly expanded contingent in Parliament, may create the illusion of democracy, while the military retains ultimate control. The West will have to revise its approach with a more sober understanding of what has been happening in Burma.