The Saffron Revolution: Prospects for Democracy in BurmaPrintable Version
Wednesday, March 7, 2012
The system of control appears to be loosening in Burma, with main opposition leaders entering the political fray. CNP President Scott Bates and an expert panel discussed prospects for democratic consolidation and human rights reform in Burma, as well as the concurrent implications for the region.
Marvin Ott, Adjunct Professor and Visiting Research Scholar at SAIS, approached the subject of Burma from the geopolitical perspective – a viewpoint that has traditionally been marginal to the conversation. With the apparent loosening of the control regime, Burma's position in South East Asian affairs has become more intriguing to the international community. Burma was once one of the most promising new states in the region before slipping into its current hermetic state. The initial inclination of U.S. policymakers was that the Burmese military regime could be accommodated and that in its self-imposed isolation it posed no real geo-strategic importance. The U.S. had the ability to message moral and political condemnation without any political cost.
However, as Mr. Ott indicated, the price paid was an increasing connection, and ultimate dependence on, its relationship with China. Mr. Ott illustrated that nearly 20 years ago, Burmese intelligence officials were increasingly concerned with their reliance on China and vulnerability to the whim of Beijing. Mr. Ott hypothesizes that this relative uneasiness informs the current attempts by senior Burmese leadership to appeal to the broader international community. While internal political dynamics are shaping the recent events in Burma, the desire for a new strategic focus should not be discounted as well.
Michael Green, senior adviser and Japan Chair at CSIS, believes that Burma's movement to reform will be indispensable to sustaining engagement with the U.S. and will have a strong effect on the democracy movement in the region. The important question for policymakers is what kind of Burma arises from this shift, and not necessarily how close it comes out relative to Beijing or Washington. The combination of new press freedoms, prisoner releases, and cease-fires is fostering international praise and interest. However, opposition leader Aung San Suu Kyi has stressed that this progress is reversible. While Mr. Green noted that political openings in Burma have regressed in the past, the fact that Burmese President Thein Sein is actively reaching out through Suu Kyi is a positive sign. Nevertheless, President Sein's willingness to work with the democratic opposition may be undermined by his lack of institutional reach into the "core equities of the military." There are encouraging signs within Burma, but for Mr. Green, serious challenges remain with the settling of internal political dynamics, complicated unpeeling of sanctions, and managing of relationships neighboring states like North Korea.
Solving the Ethnic Riddle
Jennifer Quigley, Advocacy Director for the U.S. Campaign for Burma, focused her remarks on the various actors working in and around the Burmese power structure. Ms. Quigley's primary concern is the volatile relationship between the varying ethnic groups and the central government. Despite individual cease-fires with the Karen, the situation with the Kachin is deteriorating by the day under the Burmese military onslaught. The current predicament underlines a point made by Mr. Green - the civilian administrations appears to have little control of the military. If the army defies the president, the whole fabric underlying a drive towards a unifying democracy is moot. The ultimate challenge is for the central government to persuade each ethnic group that their interests are being accommodated. All of the panelists determined that a serious dialogue between ethnic groups, democratic opposition, and the army presents the clearest avenue for a political solution.
Ms. Quigley also discussed the significance of the upcoming bi-elections. With only roughly 7% of the parliamentary seats up for contest, there will be no real impact on the power structure. Nevertheless, the elections will indicate whether campaigning can be done in a free and fair manner. Presently, international observers have not been allowed into Burma, raising the importance for building up the capacity of locals to monitor the campaign season. Finally, whether or not Suu Kyi can carve out significant policy space post-election will be a significant indicator of political progress.