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Burma Election Signals Continued Reform

U.S. Praises Suu Kyi's Victory

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Updated April 04, 2012

An election in Burma (also known as Myanmar) on April 1, 2012, spelled a victory for that country's liberal opposition National League for Democracy (NLD) and its leader Aung San Suu Kyi. It also reinforces U.S. President Barack Obama's reinvigorated policy toward the Asia Pacific region, which counts on Burma as a friend in Southeast Asia.

Suu Kyi and the NLD captured 43 of 45 vacant seats in Burma's 664-seat Parliament in the by-election (special election) called to fill them. Suu Kyi is expected to assume one of the seats herself.

Suu Kyi is the daughter of Burmese World War II hero General Aung San, who helped U.S. and British forces throw the Japanese army from the region. Aung San then successfully led a movement to force imperial Great Britain to give up its hold on Burma in 1948. He was assassinated before he could participate in an independent government.

Since 1962, a repressive, quasi-military government has ruled Burma. Aung San Suu Kyi spent 20 years in prison or house arrest for her outspoken activism against the regime. She was released from detention in 2010.

Some NLD opponents have charged irregularities in the by-election, but Burmese President Thein Sein said he thought the elections were "conducted in a very successful manner." The Association of Southeast Asian Nations (ASEAN) has also praised the election.

Heritage Of Repression

The United States, United Nations, and countries of Southeast Asia see the election (along with one in 2010) as part of a reform trend in Burma. Repressive regimes and violent events have marked most of Burma's post-colonial period. Those events include:

  • In 1962, General Ne Win led a Marxist coup that ousted the constitutional government of Prime Minister U Nu. Ne Win declared his Burma Socialist Program Party (BSPP) as the only legal political party in the country. His socialist policies -- as did similar programs in the Soviet Union and China -- emphasized the state and autocratic leaders over the Burmese people. BSPP control wrecked Burma's economy. The U.S. State Department says most Burmese people "lead a subsistence-level existence with minimal opportunity for economic improvement."
  • In 1974, after Ne Win refused an honorable state funeral for former United Nations Secretary General U Thant, Burmese students began protesting the government with demonstrations and speeches. Ne Win declared martial law, and government troops violently crushed the demonstrations.
  • Mass demonstrations erupted in 1988 as Burma's economic climate worsened. Troops killed more than 1,000 protestors in a crackdown. Aung San Suu Kyi made her appearance as opposition leader.
  • In September 1988, the State Law and Order Restoration Council (SLORC) ousted Ne Win's government, but proved itself to be just as repressive. The coup prompted renewed demonstrations, but SLORC troops killed some 3,000 people to stop them. SLORC then ruled by martial law, changing its name to the State Peace and Development Council (SPDC) in 1997.
  • In May 1990, an Aung San Suu Kyi and the NLD won some 60 percent of Parliamentary seats. The SPDC refused to honor the results, annulled the election, and returned Suu Kyi to intermittent periods of detention.
  • In 2007, Burmese civilians and Buddhist Monks led a series of protests against the poor economy. Once again, the government staged a violent crackdown that resulted in many deaths and thousands of arrests.

U.S. Sanctions Against Burma

While the U.S. and Burma allied against Japan in World War II, American relations with Burma since the 1962 have been routinely bad. Most recently, amid international outcry over Burma's governmental and human rights abuses, the U.S. has levied a series of sanctions against the country.

  • The United States downgraded its diplomatic representation in Burma from ambassador to charge d'affairs. (Both Obama and U.S. Secretary of State Hillary Clinton have said they are willing to return an ambassador to Burma if the reform trend continues.)
  • In 2003, President George W. Bush signed the Burma Freedom and Democracy Act, which banned the U.S. importation of Burmese goods, the extension of financial services to Burma, and the freezing of SPDC assets in the U.S.
  • In 2007 and 2008, Bush expanded sanctions to include freezing the assets of Burmese individuals and entities.
  • In 2008, the U.S. Congress blocked the importation of rubies and jade from Burma.

U.S. Supports Burma Reform

Burmese acceptance of the NDL victories in the 2012 election is an extension of a reform impulse that itself is probably the result of the sanctions and international pressure.

U.S. State Department spokesperson Victoria Nuland said, "we congratulate all who participated, and it does appear to be a big victory for the NLD in these elections." She said, "we are prepared to match positive steps of reform in Burma with steps of our own." While she did not say what those steps might be, she said the U.S. is "doing some internal work" and working with ASEAN and the European Union to work with the NDL and Burmese government."

Asked at a press conference if she feared a 1990-style annulment of Suu Kyi's victory, Nuland said, "our expectation is that these results will be honored."

Burma In Obama's Policy

Burma has ports on the Bay of Bengal and the Andaman Sea in Southeast Asia. It sits like a wedge between India and China, and it also shares borders with Laos and Thailand. As such, it is a key part of President Obama's plan to reinvigorate American interests in the Asia Pacific region after more than 20 years (since the Persian Gulf War) of focusing on the Middle East.

In November 2011, Obama toured the region and announcing new initiatives and reaffirmation of alliances with Australia, Japan, and South Korea. He also announced he was sending Secretary of State Clinton to Burma, the first time such a high-ranking U.S. official would visit the country in 50 years.

Clinton made the trip in December 2011. She met with leaders, praised the reformation trends in the country, and encouraged them to continue.

China has already begun to distance itself from China, most notably by canceling a Chinese-funded hydro-electric dam project that threatened to displace thousands of already impoverished Burmese people. Analysts have also noted Burmese resistance to continued Chinese hegemony on Burma's economy, which has led to monopolies and high prices.

While China says it encourages Burma to better its international relations, it certainly does not like American encroachment on part of its economic sphere. Nevertheless, a Burma on the road to reform, democracy, and open markets is good for both the United States and Obama's plan for the Asia Pacific region.

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