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Myanmar election: An outrage or an opportunity?

Opinion: Western pressure after election could be counterproductive.

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."