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Saturday, Nov. 13, 2010


First step for Myanmar?

There are two ways to look at the parliamentary elections held Nov. 7 in Myanmar, the first such vote in that country in 20 years. The first is that the vote is a cynical exercise designed to provide a veneer of legitimacy to a corrupt and brutal regime. The other sees the ballot as the first step in a transition away from military politics to some form of popular representation.

Although the first interpretation is more accurate, the second is not complete fiction. Myanmar is changing and the challenge now is to influence that evolution to encourage a turn toward more representative government.

The last election in Myanmar was held in 1990. It was an eye-opener for the military junta that ruled the country. The National League of Democracy (NLD) won a stunning upset, but the military refused to hand over power, annulled the results and imprisoned NLD officials, including party leader Ms. Aung San Suu Kyi. Ms. Suu Kyi has become a symbol of democratic aspirations in Myanmar, winning the Nobel Peace Prize, despite spending 15 of the last 21 years in prison or under house arrest.

Foreign governments have pressed for Ms. Suu Kyi's release and the holding of genuinely democratic elections in Myanmar. The government responded with increasing repression, shutting down all protest and opposition.

In recent years, however, the military recognized that it could repair its image without necessarily loosening its grip. It drafted a constitution that codified military domination of politics and then held an election with the bulk of the opposition effectively disenfranchised.

To no one's surprise, military-backed parties won last Sunday's ballot. The Union Solidarity Development Party (USDP), backed by the army, well stocked with retired generals and closely affiliated with supreme leader Gen. Than Shwe, claimed about 80 percent of the available seats. With 25 percent of seats already reserved for military appointees, the election signals virtually no change in politics in Myanmar.

That outcome was never in doubt, certainly not with the NLD boycotting the election, more than 2,000 political activists behind bars and state workers reportedly forced to back certain candidates. And the remaining members of the opposition — the National Democratic Force, the Democratic Front (Myanmar) and four other smaller parties — conceded defeat shortly after the ballot, crying foul.

Outside observers have for the most part agreed with that claim, although a truly accurate assessment is difficult because the government of Myanmar banned foreign observers. Japan, the United States, Australia, Britain and the European Union have all dismissed the ballot as neither free nor fair.

There is another perspective on the election. China, for example, applauded the vote as "peaceful and successful." Russia concurred, noting that "We see the elections as a step in the democratization of Myanmar society in accordance with the political reforms taken by the country's leadership."

Of course, both Russia and China have selfish reasons for avoiding criticism of the junta in Myanmar. Each sees support for the government as a way of maximizing influence in a very important state in an increasingly critical part of the world as well as a way of getting hands on its resources.

There is something — besides cynicism and hypocrisy — to those comments. The resort to elections, even though flawed, is a step in the direction of democratization. It is recognition of the need to at least acknowledge certain norms and embrace certain principles. Civilian rule is being codified. It is a tiny start on the seven-step road map to democratic rule.

The challenge now is to keep the process moving. That requires continuing pressure from outside. The rest of the world must not be content with a democratic charade or the facade of civilian rule. As a first step, Ms. Suu Kyi should be released from house arrest and allowed to resume political activities. Continuing restraints on her behavior must end — freedom with limits is not freedom at all. It may be time, however, for Ms. Suu Kyi to assess her role in the democracy movement and contemplate permitting other voices to rise and rival her own.

While all countries that respect democracy and human rights should demand change, the burden falls heaviest on Myanmar's neighbors and partners in the Association of Southeast Asian Nations (ASEAN). They brought Myanmar into their group, and as a member, it must meet certain obligations and respect the group's norms.

Singly and as a group, ASEAN has been reluctant to criticize Myanmar, in principle honoring the idea of noninterference in member affairs while, in reality, avoiding the appearance of powerlessness if its demands were to be ignored.

But ASEAN should be acting for reasons of its own. First because Myanmar's continued misbehavior makes ASEAN look weak and ineffectual, unable to enforce its own principles. And second because Myanmar's behavior undermines the security of its neighbors.

After Sunday's vote, government soldiers again clashed with rebels in violence that claimed at least 10 lives and sent 18,000 civilians across the border into Thailand. Closing its eyes does not help ASEAN or its members' security. Democratic change in Myanmar will do both.

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