Is Myanmar's Reform Real?

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Recent elections in the long-time dictatorship went well, but the country has a long way to go.

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People in Yangon rally to hear election results announced. Reuters

This week's by-elections in Myanmar, in which roughly one-tenth of the seats in the national parliament were contested, have been hailed as the most important sign yet that Myanmar's nascent reform process is serious. The elections were marred by reports of voting irregularities; however, none were significant enough to spark immediate dispute on Election Day, which was dominated by candidates from Aung San Suu Kyi's National League for Democracy [NLD].

The NLD, which has been the main force for democracy in Myanmar for more than two decades, will now have a seat at the policymaking table for the first time in the country's history. Despite efforts by the military and the current civilian-military government to help the Union Solidarity and Development Party [USDP] win the by-elections (including reported harassment of NLD candidates and supporters, alleged attacks on some NLD backers, and denying the NLD the opportunity to hold rallies at major public sites), the USDP won only a small fraction of the forty-eight seats that were contested.

Indeed, with Suu Kyi herself winning a parliamentary seat, and possibly even taking a cabinet post alongside President Thein Sein, Myanmar can be said to have a real multi-party system for the first time since the military coup in 1962. The elections took place alongside many other political and economic reforms instituted by the government in the past eighteen months. Many developed democracies are boosting aid to Myanmar and considering dropping sanctions that have been in place for more than a decade due to the previous military government's serious human rights abuses. Western corporations, anticipating an end to sanctions, also are preparing to enter Myanmar, one of the largest untapped emerging markets left in the world and a major source of natural resources.

However, successful by-elections and the emergence of the NLD in parliament do not ensure that the reform process has been consolidated. The government allowed the election in part because the shift in seats does not yet threaten the power of the military and its civilian allies. What's more, Suu Kyi and Thein Sein do not hold enough sway over their supporters to ensure a successful reform path.

A Season of Rapid Change

Over the past year, after the military regime officially retired in November 2010, Myanmar has begun to change enormously. A new government, led by Thein Sein, a former military man but one who seems to have reformist instincts, launched a series of surprisingly swift changes. Suu Kyi has welcomed a partnership with Thein Sein, and has privately told supporters that she believes the president's motivations are genuine.

The Democracy Report

Meanwhile, the government has liberalized investment laws, planned to free the currency, launched plans to end the country's myriad civil wars with various ethnic minority insurgencies, invited back the IMF and other international financial institutions, and aggressively courted investments and relations from countries all over the world. Last month, Myanmar announced it would start letting in foreign banks, a major opening to financial reform. Many incoming investors and analysts are comparing its potential opening to the early days of reforms in China.

Meanwhile, even before the NLD's victory in the by-elections, the parliament, though dominated by former military men, has been active in questioning government policies. The government also has set up a national human rights commission, invited political exiles to return, and released many political prisoners.

With its election victory, the NLD will now take forty-three seats in the parliament. Opposition activists say that the party and Suu Kyi will prioritize increasing transparency of the government and help end the country's many ethnic insurgencies to create a truly federal state. Suu Kyi has spoken of the need for a second Panglong Conference agreement, a sequel to the 1947 event in Panglong, in which Suu Kyi's father, independence leader Aung San, agreed with ethnic minority groups to create a federal union with significant autonomy for minority areas. That agreement collapsed after Aung San was assassinated, and the country descended into decades of civil war that continues today.

The Significance of Elections

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Joshua Kurlantzick is fellow for Southeast Asia at the Council on Foreign Relations. He blogs at “Asia Unbound.”

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