Column  Foreign Affairs and National Security  2011.11.11

Hoping for Democratized Myanmar

For a long time, the military government of Myanmar has been suppressing its citizens' call for democracy. About two thousand activists have been detained and, to date, most of them have not been released.

Since Aung San Suu Kyi's initial house arrest in July 1989, she has been through several releases and house arrests. Over the past 21 years, until her fourth release (sometimes counted as the third) in November 2010, her freedom had been restricted for 15.5 years. If one includes the de facto limitations on her activities, the total time during which her activities have been restricted actually is much longer.

Western nations, being sharply critical of Myanmar's military regime, have imposed sanctions on it. Domestically, there have been many anti-government protests and the one in 2007, during which a Japanese photographer was killed, was especially large. Despite facing these difficulties at home, the military junta outlasted the protests and maintained its steadfast opposition to democratizing movements.

Since that time, however, the government has undergone some changes. In 2008, the government adopted a new constitution and, in 2010, it held a parliamentary election and elected a new president. The new government released Aung San Suu Kyi and, in August of this year, President Thein Sein met with her. The government also announced the release of some 200 political prisoners.

Military control of the government has ended and the government is now to act in accordance with the new constitution. The U.S. Assistant Secretary of State, Kurt Campbell, has reportedly stated that 'dramatic development' is now taking place in Myanmar. Some points, however, raise questions and bear examination.

First, even before the 2010 election had been implemented, it had been the subject of criticism. That is because the military government had ignored the results of the 1990 election, promoting, instead, the 2003 "seven-step roadmap to democracy," on which the 2010 election was based; this approach, however, was tantamount to holding the 1990 election all over again. The National League for Democracy (NLD), which had gained a major victory in the 1990 election, decided to boycott the 2010 election, thereby causing a faction to splinter from it.

The military junta did not heed these criticisms and it refused to accept international election observers. The Union Solidarity and Development Party, which won the 2010 election, garnered almost 80 percent of the vote. This was, in fact, a major victory for the military junta.

What will be the consequences of this election? Apart from other countries' criticism of the election, will the democratic forces within Myanmar cooperate with the government on the assumption that the election itself was a step forward, or will the defective election actually be the cause of further instability? One is uncertain.

Second, despite the supposed dissolution of the military regime, President Thein Sein himself was a general, and most of the members of the cabinet are from the military; half of the cabinet members also were members of the previous cabinet of the military government. In the new cabinet, only 4 of 30 have no military experience. Further, Than Shwe himself, the former President and Commander-in-Chief of the Armed Forces of Myanmar, selected military officers to the new cabinet and some believe that he is still exerting influence over the new government. If that is indeed the case, then although the junta has purported to disband and to democratize the government, in reality, the regime may not have changed all that much.

Third, will political prisoners be released? Whether they are released will be a key indicator of whether the new government is serious about democratization. The United States Secretary of State, Hilary Clinton, has demanded that over 2,000 political prisoners be released unconditionally. The Japanese Foreign Minister, while expressing his appreciation for the previous release of about 200 political prisoners, has not clearly stated that further releases are necessary. If the facts are unclear, he should have requested that the current situation be clarified.

Fourth, is the question of Myanmar's relations with China. President Thein Sein recently declared that, during his tenure (which will last 5 years), the Myitsone dam project will be suspended. This dam would have been built across the Irrawaddy River near the Chinese border, with the assistance of Chinese companies and with the hydro power generated by the dam destined for use by the Chinese. The project encountered strong opposition because the dam's construction would have had a significant adverse impact on the environment and many in the area would have had to emigrate. For these reasons, the democratic forces welcomed the president's declaration, but China should have been unhappy about Myanmar's unilaterally reneging on what was an official contract between the two countries. Myanmar's foreign minister flew to Beijing to explain the situation; reportedly he reached an agreement with the Chinese to pursue an appropriate resolution, through friendly negotiations. One wonders, however, if this issue has really been resolved.

Fifth, Myanmar hopes to become chair of ASEAN in 2014; this may have been one of the reasons why the country accepted demands for democratization. It is fine if this indeed was an impetus for change, but the democratization efforts need to continue after 2014. Other nations should cooperate with respect to this effort. In this regard, the Japanese government must be willing, on occasion, to point out problems to the Myanmar government.

Any progress with respect to democratization in Myanmar will have a positive impact on ASEAN as a whole and will be meaningful to Japan as well. We must pay attention to how its nascent democratic movement is taking root.