Myanmar election: An outrage or an opportunity?

WASHINGTON — The military junta in Myanmar recently announced that the country’s first election in 20 years will be held Nov. 7.

This is the country formerly known as Burma, that went to the polls in 1990 and voted overwhelmingly for the National League for Democracy (NLD), only to have the results thrown out by the junta.

This is the military junta that has kept Aung San Suu Kyi under house arrest for most of the past 20 years and made her one of today’s leading global symbols of the struggle for democracy and human rights.

This is the junta — led by Senior Gen. Than Shwe — that has presided over the world’s longest continuing civil war (since 1949), that brutally suppressed monk-led demonstrations (in 2007), that was slow in responding to the worst natural disaster in the country’s history (Cyclone Nargis in 2008), and that allowed the country to sink to the bottom rank of the world’s countries by most social and economic indicators.

And Than Shwe is the dictator who has been impervious to the sanctions imposed by the United States and other democratic countries, as well as to pleas from the United Nations to bring an end to decades of flagrant human rights abuses.

Why then is the junta holding an election now?

There are multiple reasons for the scripted performance that is underway. In particular, the military’s ideology calls for their continuing leadership to safeguard national unity. The military junta has been ruling by decree since 1988 and an elected government holds the prospect of mitigating domestic unrest and the international condemnation that annoys them. Moreover, in 2003, the junta promised to implement a seven-step “roadmap to discipline-flourishing democracy.” Free and fair elections are Step Five.

The most compelling reason, however may be that the election is Than Shwe’s solution to one of the biggest challenges faced by any authoritarian state: succession. Hoping to avoid the ignominious ending of Gen. Ne Win, his predecessor — who was placed under house arrest while members of his family were put in prison — Than Shwe has opted for a stage-managed transition to handpicked loyalists who will protect him, his family and business cronies. He will still be calling the shots, pun intended.

Responding to growing pressure from democracy and human rights advocates, the U.S. Congress is now considering imposing more sanctions against Myanmar because its draconian campaign regulations have tilted the playing field sharply in favor of government-supported parties. In addition, a recent news leak indicated that the U.S. government might support a U.N. commission of inquiry as a first step toward criminal indictments of Myanmar’s leaders for their human rights abuses.

Approaching its own difficult mid-term elections on Nov. 2, the Obama administration is bending to the political winds due to the high costs of pursuing a more nuanced policy on an issue without an internal political constituency.

Similarly, the European Union and other democratic countries are taking harder stances. Between now and Nov. 7, a rising crescendo of voices condemning the election process is likely. Support of many kinds will flow to opponents of the regime inside Myanmar and among the large exile community in Thailand and elsewhere. An internal boycott movement has already started.

Almost all independent experts expect the election to be carried out peacefully, with the junta’s favored party winning the largest block of seats in the national parliament on top of the 25 percent reserved for military officers.

They also expect that the new government due to emerge two or three months after the election will quickly be accepted by Myanmar’s ASEAN partners, the major Asian powers — China, Japan and India — and the U.N. A key point, however, is that the new government will almost certainly be different in some important respects. It may adopt policies more conducive to private sector-led growth, and may evolve toward a more representative form as other Asian countries have done.

For the U.S. government and the international community, the ultimate policy challenge after the election will be to forge a relationship with the new government that benefits the 50 million people within Myanmar’s borders who have been deprived for at least two generations of basic access to education and health services and other benefits of modern life.

As so often the case in policy choices, the perfect will be the enemy of the good. The momentum of recent opposition will intensify pressure from the West to make the political system more democratic quickly. But Myanmar’s Asian partners will not join this chorus, and the Western pressure could be counterproductive.

What lessons have Americans drawn from their efforts over the past 10-20 years to bring democracy to conflict countries such as Somalia, Sudan, Democratic Republic of the Congo, Iraq, Afghanistan and North Korea? We may be proud of our record of fighting for good causes, but most of the rest of the world is not impressed by the results.

The path to democratic rule in most Asian countries has been a long one associated with periods of authoritarian rule driving rapid economic growth based on free market principles, and the opening of alternative avenues of social mobility. In the process, middle classes with a vested interest in pluralism and good governance have been created.

A similar process in Myanmar would certainly be frustratingly slow for most Burmese. 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 or Myanmar.

Lex Rieffel is a nonresident senior fellow at the Brookings Institution in Washington. David Steinberg is Distinguished Professor of Asian studies at Georgetown University's School of Foreign Service and the author of "Burma/Myanmar: What Everyone Needs to Know."