America must take action to back democracy in the Burma election
What a difference five years makes. Burma was celebrated as a light for democracy in 2015, when Nobel Peace Prize laureate Aung San Suu Kyi and the National League for Democracy formed the civilian government, ending a half century of military dictatorship. But the elation was short lived. Violent attacks on the Rohingya, a Muslim ethnic minority, by the Burmese military have already forced over 730,000 of them to leave for Bangladesh, as Suu Kyi and her government turn a blind eye.
Now Burma finds itself on the cusp of a further backslide or a transition to democracy for all. A parliamentary election next month will be critical to determine which way it will move and provides an important opening for the United States to support the fledgling democracy in Burma. With our support, and that of the international community, Burma can once more become a beacon of hope for peace and security in the region.
At stake are more than 1,170 seats in the Burmese legislatures. However, the challenges and political burnout of the Burmese people are real. The country is ranked “not free” by Freedom House because of the Rohingya crisis and other ethnic conflicts. The military remains the most powerful Burmese institution, as it does not face any civilian control or oversight. The constitution grants the military a fourth of the seats for parliament, but it manages to take more by running certain candidates.
But it does not end with that. The Burmese people are also frustrated with how far the country remains from achieving the goals of democracy that Suu Kyi promised. The government has not done much to resolve several ethnic conflicts around the country and has not succeeded in reforming the constitution to limit military power in politics. Suu Kyi has distanced herself from civil society consortiums, democracy activists, and ethnic groups that were once among her strongest supporters.
Ethnic minorities like the Rohingya remain voiceless, and a sharp spike in coronavirus cases has complicated the campaign that started last month. There are several actions that the United States can take to support Burma so its people can achieve the democracy they deserve.
A critical first step is to bolster the political parties that are committed to democracy. Almost 7,000 candidates are running, but plenty of them are not prepared. Under the brutal military dictatorship, the Burmese people lost access to education to learn and understand concepts like the rule of law, human rights, individual freedom, and economic principles. Members of parliament often lack political experience and legislative knowledge, so support of the political parties and candidates committed to democracy is critical to the development of a functioning parliament.
Capacity building and increased funding from the United States can help civil society groups to monitor elections, educate voters and candidates, and promote truthful campaign strategies. The United States and its allies must both pressure and support Suu Kyi and the civilian government, and push for fair elections with full participation of ethnic minorities, notably the Rohingya. The National League for Democracy does have two Muslim candidates, demonstrating that the civilian government will respond to international pressure, and these efforts need to increase.
The efforts by the civilian government to create institutions of democracy should be encouraged, and pressure must be applied to the military. Suu Kyi and the National League for Democracy remain popular, notably with the Bamar ethnic majority with the central and south areas of the country. They are highly likely to win the election next month and remain in power. But the United States sanctions on the military must continue.
Democracy is a difficult process. Removing military dictatorships from politics does not ensure democracy. Forming civilian governments is an important step, but the process takes patience and an alliance between the country in transition and the international community. Lasting peace is possible in Burma. With a greater alliance between its people and the United States, it can achieve its potential to be a democracy.
Jieun Pyun is senior program manager for the Human Freedom Initiative and the Liberty and Leadership Initiative with the George Bush Institute.
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