Brian McCartan

Myanmar’s highly anticipated by-election, held on April 1 for some 45 parliamentary seats, has borne its first diplomatic fruit. The United States announced a relaxation of certain economic sanctions and movement on the resumption of full diplomatic relations with Naypyidaw in reward for the country’s recent democratic progress.

However, the opposition National League for Democracy’s landslide victory of 43 out of the 45 seats may be somewhat overstated and questions remain about the sincerity of President Thein Sein’s government’s commitment to sustainable reform.

On Wednesday, US Secretary of State Hillary Clinton announced that the US is moving forward with reciprocal steps forward in light of Myanmar’s reform efforts and the by-elections. These steps include the seeking an agreement for a fully accredited ambassador to Myanmar, the first since 1990, and a formal announcement of a nominee soon.

A US Agency for International Development (USAID) mission will be established and restrictions removed for private organizations to conduct activities in-country, including in areas related to democracy promotion, health and education.

A travel ban on government officials, businessmen and their families listed on a previous sanctions list will be relaxed to allow visits by select officials and parliamentarians. The process to begin a targeted easing of bans on the export of US financial services and investment will be started “to help accelerate economic modernization and political reform”, Clinton said.

Clinton made it clear in her statement that “sanctions and prohibitions will stay in place on individuals and institutions that remain on the wrong side of these historic reform efforts”. She went on to say that the US will continue to monitor the situation and press for continued reform, especially in human rights, the release of remaining political prisoners, progress in national reconciliation with ethnic minority groups and the “verifiable termination” of Myanmar’s military ties to North Korea. She stated that improvements in these areas will be met by positive action by the US.

The relaxation of sanctions, while not the complete removal many had hoped for, will still surely be good news for potential investors. Western companies have been eager to move into the country since the 2010 elections changed Myanmar from a military dictatorship to a more palatable civilian-military hybrid democracy. American companies, in particular, fear that Asian investors will consolidate the more lucrative investment opportunities before they can make inroads. Many of the US sanctions are grounded in law and will require congressional action to lift them, a lengthy process even with bipartisan support. Still, the executive has the authority to grant waivers on sanctions in certain sectors including financial, agriculture, tourism and telecommunications industries. The Department of Treasury, too, is able to grant licenses on a case-by-case basis.

Clinton’s announcement came only hours after a statement by the 10-member Association of Southeast Asian Nations (ASEAN) calling for the immediate lifting of Western sanctions. The joint statement came at the conclusion of a two-day ASEAN summit in Phnom Penh and amid praise for Naypyidaw’s handling of the by-elections. The statement was the strongest yet from the grouping, which has long derided sanctions as being counterproductive.

The European Union, too, seems on the verge of relaxing its sanctions. Maja Kocijancic, spokeswoman for the EU’s Foreign Policy Chief, said on Monday the grouping is expected to send a “positive signal” when it reviews sanctions at the end of this month.

She cautioned, however, that the actual lifting of sanctions may depend on how the government performs after the elections. British Foreign Secretary William Hague said on Wednesday that EU foreign ministers had indicated that many of the sanctions could be lifted if remaining political prisoners were freed and the by-elections were deemed fair.

Late on Tuesday, the Union Election Commission confirmed that the National League for Democracy (NLD) had won 43 of the 44 seats it contested, including Aung San Suu Kyi’s constituency in Kawhmu Township south of Yangon. The one seat it lost went to a candidate from the Shan Nationalities Democratic Party, which was widely expected before the elections.

The result was a clear defeat for the military-backed Union Solidarity and Development Party (USDP), and demonstrated that Suu Kyi remains immensely popular. It also sent the signal that the NLD will be a force to reckon with in the 2015 general elections.

Although touted as a major test of the new government’s democratic resolve, the by-elections amounted to a win-win situation that the government could not pass up. President Thein Sein on the sidelines of the ASEAN summit in Phnom Penh called the elections “successful”. His government’s reformist credentials have been further burnished through the legitimization provided by Suu Kyi and the NLD’s participation in the polls.

Thein Sein and his reform-minded allies can afford to allow Suu Kyi and the NLD the victory. The 43 seats won by the NLD amount to less than 7% of the 644 seats in parliament. Of those, a quarter is reserved for the military and around 80% of the remainder were won by the USDP in an election that was widely derided due to rampant vote tampering, intimidation and other irregularities. Many of the USDP’s members are former military officers and officials of the previous ruling military junta.

The real prize is the elections due in 2015, when the NLD will be able to challenge the USDP for control of parliament. The by-elections gave the government an opportunity to gauge grass roots support for Suu Kyi and her party. Now that the elections are out of the way, the government has some breathing space to plan how to whittle away that support over the next three years.

New dynamic

With Suu Kyi in parliament, the political dynamic will change from one of “The Lady versus the Generals” to mainstream democratic politics where the NLD will have to compete with other voices in parliament to be heard. To be sure, Suu Kyi’s popularity and charisma will make her voice a powerful one in the legislature, but she will be in the minority against the interests of other opposition parties, the ruling USDP, and the military.

The military and the government are surely aware of their own unpopularity. They know that to win the 2015 elections they will either have to resort to vote-rigging and intimidation, which would draw the ire of the international community, or find a way to undermine support for the NLD. The alternative is to resort to military power, through a coup or other intervention in the name of national security, to secure their hold on executive and legislative power.

A softer approach would be to co-opt Suu Kyi and the NLD without giving them significant powers. There has been speculation that Suu Kyi may be offered a cabinet position, though she has said that she will decline any such offer. Even if rejected, the offer will still make the former generals appear reformist.

The USDP can also continue to claim credit for the ongoing reform effort that began before the by-elections and score political points with the economic development which is sure to follow from the rollback of sanctions.

Successful peace deals with ethnic insurgents negotiated with government representatives would also go some way to gaining the support of ethnic minority voters in 2015. At the least, the deals would see former insurgent groups transform into mainstream ethnic-based political parties, which could dilute the vote for the NLD in ethnic areas.

The NLD’s presence in parliament will allow it to call attention to pressing national issues as part of the mainstream political process. Suu Kyi said that her party’s priorities after the election would be to push for peace in ethnic minority areas, institute “rule of law”, and support amendments to the constitution. She has also highlighted the need for poverty alleviation through job creation and improving education and public health services.

Thein Sein’s government has already gone some way on the first point by starting a peace process with most of the armed ethnic movements. However, an ongoing bitter counterinsurgency campaign against the Kachin Independence Organization that flared up again in June 2011 after 17 years of ceasefire has drawn criticism from the international community.

Amendment of the constitution will be almost impossible with the few seats held by the NLD. Even with the support of other opposition parties, she will be unable to garner the necessary 75% of parliament needed to initiate charter changes. She can, however, keep the item in the public’s consciousness in readiness for the 2015 elections.

She may find more traction in seeking improvements in rule by law. Thein Sein has made several statements about seeking an end to endemic corruption. Drafts of new laws such as those governing labor and foreign investment have already been put up for debate in parliament.

These issues, however, may not be on the top of the list of many Myanmar citizens who face a daily struggle to put enough food on the table. After decades of economic mismanagement, many people in this largely agrarian country simply want reforms that will guarantee that they can bring their crops to market for a fair price, provide better access to jobs and give reliable sources of electricity and water.

For the NLD to maintain its current widespread grassroots support, they will have to deal with these issues as well as seek political reform. Suu Kyi’s recent statements about the NLD working both within government and outside may go some way to keeping the momentum behind her mass base. Programs such as the NLD’s HIV/AIDS relief center and social-aid outreach will provide the party with a means to engage the populace outside of politics.

Thein Sein and his USDP backers will also need to address these issues if they hope to defeat the NLD in 2015. Yet already questions are being raised about the government’s most visible reformist move, the suspension of work on the Myitsone dam in Kachin State. There are growing indications that the Chinese company responsible for constructing the dam, China Power International, has quietly resumed work on the project following talks between the Myanmar and Chinese governments in early March.

The next three years have the potential to shape up into an unprecedented competition for the hearts of Myanmar’s population, one that for once does not involve guns. That is as long as the military does not decide it has had enough of the democracy experiment and reasserts its control.

– Asia Times