Thursday, February 02, 2012

The World Looks on as Myanmar Prepares for Elections


After nearly five decades of military rule, political oppression, and economic mismanagement, Myanmar (also known as Burma) has undergone many reforms since the military gave up control of the government in 2010. To transfer power, Myanmar held elections in November 2010—elections which the U.S. and European countries claimed were unfair—that brought a military-backed civilian government to power, led by former general Thein Sein.

Under President Sein, the government has released political prisoners, called a cease fire with ethnic groups, and eased political censorship, which has encouraged the international community to improve its economic and political relationships with Myanmar. Already, the United States has agreed to exchange ambassadors with Myanmar for the first time in over twenty years, and the European Union (E.U.) agreed on January 23rd to lift travel restrictions on certain Myanmarese leaders. Several individual E.U. countries have responded to political reforms in Myanmar as well, with France agreeing to triple its development aid to Myanmar and Denmark agreeing to double its aid. In January, Australia also announced it would relax its financial and travel sanctions on Myanmar. Despite these positive developments, the U.S. and E.U. still have strict economic sanctions on Myanmar which have limited its economic development.

Despite the political and economic rewards reaped from President Sein’s political reforms, another political leader in Myanmar, Aung San Suu Kyi, is perhaps more important for the country’s future. Suu Kyi is the leader of the opposition party in Myanmar, the National League for Democracy (NLD), and has been under house arrest for fifteen of the last twenty-three years. This year, she is running for parliament in an April 1 election. Suu Kyi has broad support throughout the West, including in both political parties in the United States, and although her party cannot take over Parliament because only 48 of 440 seats are up for grabs in the upcoming election, a fair, democratic election could convince Western countries that the military-backed government is committed to prolonged reform.

A fair election, coupled with the reforms President Sein has already enacted, may convince the West that economic sanctions are no longer necessary. Asian companies are already moving to Myanmar to take advantage of its low labor costs and large supply of natural resources. If the U.S. and E.U. lift their sanctions, Myanmar will see even greater foreign investment, which leads to increased employment and higher wages. The potential of Myanmar is clear—the International Monetary Fund recently said Myanmar has “high growth potential” and is the “next economic frontier in Asia.”

Holding a fair election may seem like an easy choice for the military-backed government. After all, the NLD cannot take over Parliament even with a land-slide victory in April, and ensuring a fair election could end two-decades-old economic sanctions. However, free elections may eventually deteriorate the power of the entrenched military elite, which it may be reluctant to allow.

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