Burmese opposition victory a policy triumph for Clinton, too

Hillary Clinton, during her tenure as US secretary of state, traveled to Myanmar to visit Aung San Suu Kyi. (US State Dept.)
Hillary Clinton, during her tenure as US secretary of state, traveled to Myanmar to visit Aung San Suu Kyi. (US State Dept.)

With the ruling party already conceding defeat in the landmark elections that took place in Myanmar on Sunday, it seems certain that, a quarter-century after the Burmese military nullified her last election victory and placed her under house arrest, pro-democracy activist Aung San Suu Kyi will now lead her country, with her National League for Democracy (NLD) set to win a resounding victory. USflagmyanmar

Official preliminary election results will be announced on Tuesday, but the outcome now seems all but assured as more details emerge of the ruling Union Solidarity and Development Party (USDP)’s electoral collapse.

It is, above all, a moment for the people of Myanmar to celebrate what seems likely to be the most important step yet in the transition from military rule to something that looks increasingly like a democratic state. It’s also a moment for Suu Kyi and her party to celebrate, even though her late husband’s British nationality will prevent an NLD majority to select her as Myanmar’s next president.

No matter.

Suu Kyi, barring a major hiccup in the vote counting or a sudden volte face from the military, will soon become Myanmar’s next leader.

But it’s also a huge triumph for former US secretary of state Hillary Clinton, who championed Suu Kyi’s struggle in her tenure at Foggy Bottom and spent significant time and effort on building greater US-Burmese ties after years of hostility. When Clinton flew to Myanmar in 2011 to meet Suu Kyi, it was the first time that a senior US government official had set foot in the country for a half-century.

Clinton didn’t have to expend so much political capital on Myanmar. It’s not an incredibly strategic country to the US national interest, even in light of the increasing importance of the Asia-Pacific region. Goodness knows there are no votes among an American electorate that would be challenged to pinpoint Myanmar on a map. But there are (and continue to be) political downsides for Clinton if Myanmar’s transition disintegrates. That she moved so aggressively anyway to facilitate Burmese democracy is worth celebrating as part of the best tradition of American leadership in the world.

Clinton, who is now the frontrunner for the Democratic presidential nomination in 2016, in particular formed a special friendship with Suu Kyi. Her push to reassess relations with Myanmar, which came under military control in 1962, barely a decade after the country won independence from the United Kingdom, was always a risky bet. When Clinton began her tenure as secretary of state, Suu Kyi was still under house arrest and the military’s iron grip on power was strong, despite an isolated economy and deep resentment among the Burmese people. As recently as 2007, the government cracked down harshly on protests against a decision to end fuel subsidies, even though the highly respected community of Buddhist monks joined the protests.

Seemingly overnight, though, the military regime started to signal an intent to change. After bogus elections in 2010, the government suddenly ended Suu Kyi’s house arrest. Thein Sein, a reformer, became president (nominally a ‘civilian’ leader, despite his status as a former military leader) in March 2011, and he soon began to release many of Myanmar’s political prisoners, allowed a freer press and initiated a series of economic reforms. All along, Clinton and other officials in the Obama administration were taking notice.

Clinton traveled to Yangon in November and December 2011 to meet Suu Kyi in person, as well as Thein Sein, announcing that the United States would once again consider providing developmental aid to Myanmar. By January 2012, Clinton announced that the United States would exchange ambassadors with the country. In July 2012, the US government relaxed most (though not all) of its economic sanctions against Myanmar. In November 2012, US president Barack Obama himself traveled to Yangon, the first visit by a sitting US president to Burma/Myanmar in history.

Since then, policy experts have grumbled that the US efforts to open Myanmar have stalled. It’s true that, since 2012, the military-led government hasn’t pursued reforms with the same tenacity that it did prior to the lifting of US sanctions. Moreover, even Suu Kyi has ignored the plight of the Rohingya, an ethnic minority group that lives along the country’s western border with Bangladesh, and a Muslim community that has struggled even for acknowledgement that they are Burmese citizens.

When the NLD takes power in the Burmese legislature, 25% of the seats in both houses are still set aside for the military, and top generals will control much of the country’s governing apparatus. Pursuant to a constitutional amendment adopted in 2008, Suu Kyi is barred from serving as the next president. With an eye toward building consensus, there’s every possibility that the NLD will push to select a moderate reformer with ties to the old regime, including Shwe Mann, a former general who was pushed out as the ruling party’s chairman earlier this year in August.

As Myanmar continues to emerge as a more open, liberal and democratic state, where its citizens have more individual freedoms for self-expression, it is possible that politics will become polarized between Suu Kyi’s secular liberals and religious conservatives who want to infuse state institutions with Buddhism.  In a country without authoritarian controls, we might very well see more religious strife between Buddhists and Muslims.

So the transition from autarkic military rule to multinational democracy has not been and will not be perfect, even under the NLD’s rule. However, that shouldn’t diminish the amazing transitional pace from what, in 2007, was still an unreformed authoritarian state. Above all, the credit goes to Suu Kyi and her supporters for decades of bravery and commitment to a more open and democratic society.

But credit also belongs with the Obama administration and, in particular, Hillary Clinton, who certainly took a big risk in placing so much trust in Thein Sein’s reforms and in Suu Kyi’s ability to steer the country toward this weekend’s elections. That story is not over. In some ways, the real hard work has yet to begin as the NLD and everyone else adjusts to a stark new reality. It will be years or even decades before we can say that the Burmese transition has been a success.

But Clinton’s strategy undergirds the apparently successful 2015 elections, and it is a strong precedent for the smart and peaceful use of American power, including the ‘hard’ power of economic and diplomatic inducement, to effect real and positive change for millions.

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