U.S. policy for Myanmar’s 2015 election

U.S. policy for Myanmar’s 2015 election

The election that will decide Myanmar’s political future will come in 2015, when 75% of the parliament will be up for grabs.

Myanmar’s April 2012 by-elections have been hailed as the most important sign yet that Myanmar’s nascent reform process is serious, and have been followed by increased United States opening. However, successful by-elections and the emergence of the National League for Democracy in parliament do not ensure that the reform process has been consolidated or that future developments will be in line with U.S. interests. The election that will decide Myanmar’s political future will come in 2015, when 75% of the parliament will be contested in contrast to the 10% contested in 2012.

Why the 2015 Election is Important for U.S. Interests

U.S. interests, defined as security, economic growth, universal values, and international cooperation by the 2010 U.S. National Security Strategy, provide the necessity for a successful 2015 election in Myanmar. Myanmar has the potential to serve as a major new market; Myanmar stands as a potential partner on China’s doorstep amidst growing security concerns; Myanmar serves as an opportunity for the United States to support universal liberal values, and Myanmar’s reception of international interest provides an opportunity for increased international cooperation. The difficulty for the United States lies in achieving security and economic growth without sacrificing universal values and international cooperation. Only through a successful 2015 democratic transition can the ideal combination of interests be supported.

Myanmar’s reforms rest on the precarious positions of both opposition and the regime, and subsequently an unsuccessful 2015 election could firmly derail the progress made. The opposition’s strength is imperiled by Suu Kyi’s constitutional ineligibility for the presidency, as well as constitutional reservation of 25% of the parliament’s seat to the military. With Thein Sein expected to not stand for reelection, there will likely be a scramble for the presidency amidst the hardliner concern about the future of the military, potentially leading to a regression of reforms.

Policy of Re-measurement

This position holds that the Obama Administration’s policy toward Myanmar lacks sufficient protections against the Burmese backsliding on reforms to properly ensure a full democratic transition by 2015. The focus should be put on setting precise criteria for Myanmar’s progress and tying failure to achieve these benchmarks to re-imposition of the major U.S. sanctions. Residual sanctions will remain as a safeguard. By holding the Myanmar government to a harder line, the United States can ensure follow-through on still incomplete reforms and force constitutional changes that will allow Suu Kyi’s participation in the presidential election and ensure the removal of military’s permanent positioning in the parliament.

This position over-emphasizes the foreign policy tool box’s stick while under-emphasizing the carrot. It risks making the democracy movement appear as a greater threat and fails to recognize the fragility of gains made. Seeing the recent removal of sanctions as too much too soon, it fails to provide further incentive for the government to cooperate in the lead up to the election.

Policy of Opening

This position holds that more opening up to the government is required to ensure continued cooperation. The Obama Administration should consider removing travel and asset bans against particular individuals and organizations, prohibition on certain military-to-military activities and assistance, restrictions on investments and financial services tied to Burma’s armed forces, and the arms embargo. Aid should be utilized to promote growth and increased positive relations between the United States and Myanmar. By providing more assistance to the Myanmar government, the United States can ensure participation in further reforms amidst concerns about the future of the military amidst the democracy.

This position over-emphasizes the foreign policy tool box’s carrot while under-emphasizing the stick. It risks undermining the democracy movement by over-supporting the government. Seeing the democratic gains in line with opening as successful, it fails to provide a threat to ensure government cooperation in the lead up to the election.

Recommended Policy of Moderating Facilitation

To ensure the completion of a democratic transition in 2015, it is important for the Obama Administration to create the conditions for cooperation. Cooperation will not be possible without adequate reassurance of both regime and opposition. As the transition to democracy will be completed in the opposition’s favor, it is important that the regime is not “scared” by the democratization process, while at the same time the opposition must be empowered to act.

Policy for the Regime

The Obama Administration should not give up its strong bargaining position by decreasing residual sanctions before 2015 elections. At the same time, it must not reintroduce dropped sanctions unless there is a strong regression. From this firm posture, democratic transition can be induced through the provision of increased, targeted aid. The regime must be assured of lack of punishment as well as political survival of its members following transition.

Policy for the Opposition

The opposition should be aided by increased transitional assistance for Myanmar from USAID and international actors. The Obama Administration must work with the opposition to ensure moderate policy in transition. Independent arbiters should be utilized to assist with facilitating constitutional changes and democratic transition. Maintaining residual sanctions without a wanton increase will signal U.S. caution to the regime and in this way support for the opposition.

Categories: Asia Pacific, Politics

About Author

Taylor Wettach

Taylor is a participant in the Government of Japan-administered Japan Exchange and Teaching (JET) Program. Previously, Taylor worked for the Office of the Senior Vice President for Asia and Japan Chair at the Center for Strategic and International Studies (CSIS). He graduated magna cum laude graduate of Georgetown University’s Edmund A. Walsh School of Foreign Service.