Myanmar: A Hopeful Transition

The Weekly Focus explores the events that have taken place in Myanmar over the past two years, and where the country's transition might take it.

February 29th, 2012

Aung San Suu Kyi, leader of the opposition National League for Democracy, gives a speech at Kachin National Park in Myitkyina, Kachin state, Myanmar.

Myanmar, formerly known as Burma, has until recently been one of the most isolated countries in the world. Ruled for decades by a military junta that governed with an iron fist, the country has stagnated on almost all social and economic indicators. Yet beginning in 2010, a glimmer of hope emerged from this Southeast Asian nation. This Weekly Focus looks at what has happened in Myanmar over the past two years, whether or not these changes are here to stay, and what these changes mean for the region and the future of Myanmar.

Myanmar’s thaw began in November 2010 when general elections saw former military general and junta member Thein Sein elected president. These elections were hardly notable to the world community since they were identical to past fraudulent Myanmar elections. The main opposition parties boycotted the election, and the ruling Union Solidarity and Development Party (USDP) won close to 76% of the vote. It was difficult to believe that Thein Sein’s election would result in anything different than the repression that had dominated Myanmar for decades.

However, shortly after these elections, events began to transpire that indicated a change in the inner-workings of Myanmar’s government. One of the first breaks from business as usual was President Sein’s decision to suspend construction of the planned Myitsone Dam in the Irrawaddy region. The project had been backed by China, one of Myanmar’s few international trading partners, and electricity from the dam was to be sold in China’s Yunnan province. The unexpected announcement to suspend the project officially indicated that public opposition to the dam had made the project unacceptable for Myanmar. This explanation seemed unlikely given that the public’s input has had almost no impact on Myanmar politics for a number of years. Yet the fact that Myanmar’s decision conflicted with the interests of China, an otherwise close ally, indicated that the country may have been in the process of a major shift.

In November of 2011, doubts about the authenticity of Myanmar’s new direction began to diminish when Nobel Prize winning activist Aung San Suu Kyi was released from house arrest. Ms. Suu Kyi is the leading figure of the opposition party, the National League for Democracy, and had been in and out of house arrest since elections in 1990, which her party won and then lost when the results were overturned by the military junta. As one of the few non-USDP figures with the ability to garner national support, Ms. Suu Kyi’s release was a dramatic shift from her long political isolation. At the time of her release, Myanmar was also making overtures to Western countries, which have enforced sanctions against the country since the early 90’s. These overtures met with success in December of last year as Hilary Clinton became the most senior U.S. official to visit the country in over 50 years. Officials have begun to negotiate the drawdown of economic sanctions and it seems that Myanmar’s government’s departure from its authoritarian past may be genuine.

By far the biggest test of whether this transition will continue comes on April 1 of this year when Myanmar will hold elections for forty-eight parliamentary seats. Among the parties with candidates in the running are the National League of Democracy, headed by the aforementioned Suu Kyi (who is herself running for a seat in the parliament) and the USDP, which is backed by the military. Authorities have made moves to distinguish these elections from the fraudulent elections in 2010, lifting restrictions on campaigning, which had previously prevented the opposition parties from using certain public spaces for political rallies. This adjustment came after a series of other election changes, including the release of several political prisoners. The stakes for this election are high, as many Western countries, including the United States, will be using it as a benchmark when considering whether to go even further in lifting economic and political sanctions.

Myanmar’s reformist trajectory is already having a large impact on Southeast Asia’s regional political and economic scene. In a major modification of military posture, Myanmar has considered making a bid to join the multinational “Cobra Gold” military exercise, which involves forces from the United States, Thailand, Singapore, South Korea, and Indonesia. Such a move would be interpreted by many as an unambiguous and intentional shift in Myanmar’s international relations away from China and toward other regional and international players. While China and Myanmar continue to have close ties, including the joint policing of their shared border, recent moves portend a cooling of their relationship.

As with other Southeast Asian countries, Myanmar finds itself at the center of a broader competition between East and West. Continued political and economic reforms would invariably lead to increased investment from the West, including the United States. However, such transformations could create a more defensive China, raising the possibility of confrontation between the neighboring countries. China is wary of Western political activity in what it perceives as its sphere of influence, particularly in a country like Myanmar, which is close to tumultuous Chinese provinces such as Tibet and Xinjiang. Myanmar’s transition has been stunning in its speed and apparent authenticity. The world can look with hope to its upcoming elections as Myanmar, a country once reviled as isolated and despotic, begins to reintegrate with the world community and sets a course towards representative democracy.