LONDON, UK- On November 19, President Obama was the first ever incumbent American to officially visit Burma [Myanmar]. His stop is nested within a larger strategic visit to South East Asia, improving relations in an attempt to mitigate China’s rising economic and geo-political influence. The tour is his first since re-election and includes participation in the East Asia Summit as well as a brief interlude with ASEAN. Though Obama’s stay in Burma lasted a dizzying six hours before his departure to Cambodia, it edified the seed of change there just beginning to take root as a statement of possibility to the Burmese public and indeed to burgeoning democracies throughout the region.
Over the past two years, Burma has undergone a transition of no mean size. After a longstanding legacy of rule by military junta (persisting since 1962), current President and former Prime-Minister Thein Sein began implementing policies in early 2011 to transition Burma into a democracy.
While sceptics at the initial stages pointed to the dramatic efforts needed for change, the Burmese government has been successful in implementing many reforms essential to a functioning democracy. Political prisoners have been released and many exiled activists have returned. Key changes to the legislature have led to expanding basic freedoms: citizens are more critical of the government, and media censorship has lightened. Freedoms of association and assembly have also improved.
Furthermore, the bi-elections in April, 2012 ceded forty-two of forty-six available seats to the National League for Democracy (NLD)- a party run by 1991’s Nobel Peace Prize recipient Aung San Suu Kyi. Suu Kyi had been imprisoned under house arrest for more than fifteen years. Concrete steps have been taken to reconcile with the NLD after their election boycott in 2010.
Yet, uneasiness persists through the almost Janus-like transition of Sein’s regime. He was on the one hand a military authoritarian; yet he has become the surprising new champion of democracy. And, the military isn’t giving up its power by any means. The constitution entrenches the military into the Burmese democratic structure, reserving one quarter of the seats in the legislature. Activists also point to persisting human rights abuses and the continued retention of political prisoners, condemning Obama’s visit as premature.
Further, economic sanctions on Burma serve as a measure to encourage keeping to democratization. British Prime Minister David Cameron suggests some validity to austerity, opting to suspend sanctions rather than removing them entirely. While this strategy is unstable for Foreign Direct Investment, it provides economic leverage to the Burmese.
Still, the figure holding all the cards in this game is Aung San Suu Kyi. Suu Kyi’s iconic popularity garnered her Washington’s attentions both in her visit to the USA last year, as well as during Obama’s visit. America is interested in solidifying its economic partnership with Burma under its new democratic outfit. The crucial decision to associate with Aung San Suu Kyi firmly places the onus of change in her hands and signals a reliance on her to carry through the transition to democracy.
“The danger is that Aung San Suu Kyi will end up providing ‘cover’ – and an alibi of sorts – for a stage-managed political process that preserves the interests of the military establishment and its cronies, constrains democratization within narrowly oligarchical limits, while legitimizing Western investments and the establishment of linkages with the Burmese military,” says Professor John Sidel, a Southeast Asia specialist at the London School of Economics. “But Aung San Suu Kyi’s continuing international prominence and popularity give her leverage, vis-à-vis both the Burmese military and the American and European governments that claim to support her cause. As the 2015 election approaches, something will have to give….”
Aung San’s critical juncture will be the elections in 2015. During Obama’s recent visit, she stated, “The most difficult time in any transition is when we think that success is in sight, then we have to be very careful that we are not lured by a mirage of success.” Election day 2015 will be Burmese democracy’s moment of truth: if she is allowed to win, it may be Burma’s leap into democracy, but to lose may signal a regression into a full-scale and well entrenched military junta regime.