Yesterday’s elections confirm more of the brutally same — despite what you might hear from the wishful thinkers.
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Daron Acemoglu and James A. Robinson of MIT and Harvard, respectively, wrote: “History shows that gradual, half-hearted reforms of this sort are exactly how many autocracies successfully transition to democracy.” However, the examples they cite are less than convincing. Great Britain and early America were republics which distrusted direct democracy, not dictatorships. Chile immunized participants in the military regime, but returned power to an elected civilian government. Taiwan allowed the established though previously outlawed opposition party to contest newly free elections. Burma matches none of these. Egypt may be closer, but that nation remains unfree a half century after Col. Abdul Nasser became a civilian.
Allowing a genuinely free vote for a civilian government with some independent powers even while the military maintains control over security agencies might permit a gradual evolution to a more liberal system. But allowing a few dissident civilians to assume powerless positions in a system controlled by the same authoritarian apparatchiks, only wearing suits rather than uniforms, is unlikely to yield any noticeable difference in governance.
Some analysts posit that the process may empower younger military men. Younger does not necessarily mean reformer, however. Observed journalist Bertil Lintner, “Lower and middle-ranking army officers remain immensely loyal to the leadership, knowing full well that they can only rise to prominent and privileged positions by showing that they are even more hardline than their superiors.” Anyway, the aging process guarantees personnel turnover. The faux elections add nothing. So too when it comes to dreams of economic liberalization and government transparency: such policies will change only if the military wants them to change, not as a result of the vote.
If Suu Kyi is released after her house arrest formally expires on Nov. 13 — and she is allowed to resume active political activities, along with other democratic activists — then there might be at least a little hope for a little change. But if most of those who have been fighting for liberty remain imprisoned, opposition political activity remains proscribed, and criticism of the government remains prohibited, then even Suu Kyi’s release, though welcome, would signal no change.
Still, Lex Rieffel and David I. Steinberg, of the Brookings Institution and Georgetown University respectively, argued that “With smart, nuanced policies, however, the U.S. and other Western countries could help to ensure that the November election is a major step toward a democratic and prosperous Burma.” What policies they do not say. Since the ballot changes nothing substantive, it is hard to imagine policies which could to turn the vote into a positive step forward.
The fact that the faux election offers no prospect of change doesn’t mean the West should maintain its policy of isolation and sanctions. This strategy has manifestly failed. Today’s only winner is China, which has achieved disproportionate influence in Rangoon.
Attempting to reinforce isolation and sanctions is a dead-end. For instance, the administration is now pushing for a UN-sponsored commission to investigate Burma for war crimes. It’s a fine idea, but one that will never get past Beijing in the Security Council. Given the prevalence of human rights abusers in the international body, General Assembly or Human Rights Council vote is no more likely.
It is time to move in the opposite direction.
Kurt Campbell, Assistant Secretary of State for East Asian and Pacific Affairs, said the ballot “will be without international legitimacy” but called for “dialogue” as “the best way forward” among difficult options. He hopes for the rise of new players and structures, but that’s more dream than reality. The poll alone is no reason by itself to reverse policy. The U.S. should not aid the junta’s attempt to disguise its malign character. Brutal authoritarians were in control on November 6, before the vote. Brutal authoritarians remain in control on November 8, after the vote.
After a decent interval, however, Washington should consult with Europeans and leading Asian states to forge a united strategy to press Burma for reform. The U.S. government needs to recognize that its ability to influence events in Rangoon is limited. Broader international support, especially in Southeast Asia, is required for any hope of progress.
No policy offers much likelihood of success. But promising to eschew attempts at coercive regime change while offering rewards for political liberalization may provide the best, if still not a good, strategy to promote real change. For instance, Jared Genser of Freedom Now argued: “It is only through a facilitated process of tripartite dialogue among the junta, Suu Kyi and the National League for Democracy and the country’s disparate ethnic groups that any real reconciliation and progress toward democracy will be made.”
Burma poses one of the world’s greatest humanitarian challenges. The latest “election” changes nothing. The Obama administration should treat the new “civilian” government no different than the old military regime. But Washington nevertheless should acknowledge the failure of its past democratization efforts, and look for a new way forward.
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