Burma’s by-elections on April 1st offers a glimmer of hope for a country that has been under military rule for decades. Although the military-backed Union Solidarity and Development Party (USDP) still controls a heavy majority of total seats in Burma’s parliament, 43 of the 45 seats contested were captured by the National League for Democracy (NLD), the pro-democratization party led by Nobel Peace Prize laureate Aung San Suu Kyi. The recent by-elections were monitored by members of ASEAN, the main regional organization of which Burma is a member, and were widely viewed as free and fair. In response to Burma’s progress, ASEAN leaders called for immediate lifting of U.S. and European sanctions against Burma. The U.S. response has been cautious but positive: on Wednesday, Secretary of State Hillary Clinton announced that the United States would soon nominate a U.S. ambassador to Burma, as well as loosen restrictions on the export of financial services and encourage visits of high-level leaders to the United States. Despite improvement in Burma-U.S. relations, however, the Obama administration has made further rewards contingent on Burma’s reform progress.
The current U.S. policytowards Burma was adopted in 2009 and includes the strategic goals of “a unified, peaceful, prosperous, and democratic Burma that respects the human rights of its citizens.” Although Burma still faces major problems, U.S. policymakers have seen gradual progress over the past year. For decades, Burma has struggled with ethnic conflict among its many minority populations in addition to a poor track record of human rights abuses and political suppression. In late 2010, Burma’s government shifted to nominally civilian rule (dominated by a party of mostly retired generals). Most of the world regarded Burma’s 2010 general elections as fraudulent and unlikely to lead to change. Over the past year, however, under the leadership of seemingly reform-minded President Thein Sein, Burma appears to be making progress. The biggest evidence of this democratic progress can be seen in Aung San Suu Kyi and her party’s participation in the recent by-elections. Since Suu Kyi and the NLD boycotted the 2010 election on grounds of unfair election rules, her decision to participate is a sign that democratic processes in Burma are improving.
On the whole, Burma’s recent elections have been viewed as a milestone of success. While this success cannot be completely attributed to U.S. policy, Burma’s progress on democratic reform is very important to the United States, as the administration has indicated that further lifting of sanctions will hinge on Burma’s actions. This policy of proceeding action for action has praised by some, who worry that removing sanctions too quickly will undermine U.S. leverage over Burma. While sanctions still remain in place, however, the United States can maintain pressure on the Burmese government to make sure there are no reversals in progress as well as to call for further changes, like the release of political prisoners. If Burma continues on its current path of democratization, there will be a win-win situation for both Burma and the United States.
Some other strategic benefits of more friendly relations with Burma include the opportunity to draw Burma away from China and convince it to break its military ties with North Korea. While the West has mostly isolated Burma, the small Southeast Asian country has accepted much investment and political support from China. Although close Burma-China relations are unlikely to change given the two countries’ geographic proximity, the U.S. should not pass up an opportunity to gain a new friend, especially if that friend is moving towards democracy. Also, if Burma does indeed completely break military ties with North Korea, this will improve regional security somewhat by reducing the spread of North Korean military technology, which has long worried the United States
Overall, the direction of Burma’s development is satisfactory. Although many goals still need to be met, such as the release of political prisoners and the actual delegation of influence to opposition parties, Burma is improving. The current U.S. policy of rewarding actual democratic progress for diplomatic and economic perks strikes a good balance between caution and optimism. If Burma continues down the path to democracy, this will be a major success in the region, not just for U.S. policy, and not even just for Burmese freedom, but rather as a powerful example of peaceful democratic reform. If the United States can successfully take advantage of the reform momentum already existing in Burma and reward positive development, what will this do for U.S. soft power and its global image as a promoter of freedom? If Burma, a poor country weighted down by decades of military rule, can reform, what kind of example does it set for the many countries around the world struggling with similar histories of authoritarianism? While it is right not to be too optimistic, a gradual U.S. policy of rewards for democracy seems to be both safe and rewarding.