As Barack Obama once famously said, ‘Elections have consequences.’
Indeed, few elections were more consequential in 2015 than the landmark vote in Myanmar, the country’s first freely open democratic election after a decades-long fight by activist Aung San Suu Kyi, a daughter of one of the country’s founding fathers, who began fighting to open Burmese political space in the early 1990s. The most outward consequence of that victory was Tuesday’s election of a new president, and the majority commanded by Suu Kyi’s National League for Democracy (NLD) meant that it could essential name the president.
With one exception. The most obvious choice, Suu Kyi, by far the country’s most popular figure, is barred from running because of a constitutional technicality. Instead, electors chose the next best thing: a close ally and friend fighting alongside Suu Kyi for decades.
Accordingly, Myanmar’s new president — and its first truly civilian president after a half-decade of military rule — is Htin Kyaw.
A 69-year-old British-educated computer sciences expert and author, Htin Kyaw was a civil servant in the 1980s before joining Suu Kyi’s democratic crusade. A longtime intimate of the Nobel peace laureate, he made it immediately clear upon his election that it would be Suu Kyi calling the shots in the new government. Suu Kyi herself has said that she will be ‘above the presidency,’ though she may yet take a role, such as foreign minister, in the new government. Continue reading Htin Kyaw elected Myanmar’s first civilian president→
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.
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.
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. Continue reading Burmese opposition victory a policy triumph for Clinton, too→
Five years ago, the National League for Democracy (NLD), Myanmar’s chief opposition party, boycotted the 2010 parliamentary elections because the party’s leader, Nobel Peace Prize laureate Aung San Suu Kyi, was barred from the presidency under a 2008 constitution amendment preventing anyone with a foreign spouse or children to run for president, and it was clear enough to anyone paying attention that the new rules were designed to keep Suu Kyi out of the presidency.
But shortly after that election, however, the ruling military junta released Suu Kyi from the house arrest under which she had been subject for more than 15 of the prior 20 years.
It was a sign of good things to come for Burmese advocates of democracy and liberalization.
On the cusp of the country’s elections on Sunday, touted as the most free and fair set of elections in a quarter-century, Suu Kyi appears to be on the cusp of leading the pro-democracy NLD to its greatest triumph yet — potentially remaking, rebranding and reforming her country in the 21st century.
From dictatorship to open elections
Shortly after the last elections, Thein Sein was sworn in as president in 2011. His government launched a tentative push for reform, freeing of many of the country’s political prisoners and introducing legally recognized labor unions. In the April 2012 by-elections, the NPD was not only permitted to campaign openly, but it won 43 of the 46 seats up for election. Later in 2012, Thein Stein appointed Aung Kyi, a leading negotiator between the government and the opposition camps, as his new information minister.
The United States took notice, engaging the new reform-minded Burmese regime and even lifting many of US government sanctions, so as to permit greater bilateral trade. By the end of 2013, US president Barack Obama had visited Myanmar, and Thein Sein had visited Washington in return, winning additional relief from US sanctions, despite ongoing concerns about treatment of the Rohingya minority — practicing Muslims who represent around 4% of the country’s 51.5 million population, mostly located in the far west of Myanmar.
Still, it’s no exaggeration to say that US outreach to Burmese officials in favor of modernization and liberalization might be the most important and well-deserved (though certainly unexpected) legacy of Hillary Clinton’s four years as US secretary of state.
Nevertheless, impatience with the glacial pace of reforms and lingering dissatisfaction with Burma’s economy explain why the NLD is such a strong favorite to win the November 8 elections.
It’s not the first time Burmese citizens have demonstrated their yearning for change. In the 1990 election, the NLD also won an overwhelming victory, only to watch as the country’s military installed an even more autocratic dictatorship, promptly placing NLD leaders, including Suu Kyi, in prison or under house arrest. Seventeen years later, between August and October 2007, Buddhist monks led a series of protests in what Western media christened the ‘Saffron revolution,’ attacking the rising cost of living and the sudden removal of Myanmar’s longtime petrol subsidy, which drastically increased fuel costs.
As world elections go, however, Sunday’s will be one of the oddest.
Over the past 12 months, the world witnessed a pivotal general election in India, presidential elections in Indonesia, congressional midterm elections in the United States, European parliamentary elections and elections (of varying competitiveness) in over a dozen of additional countries in the world, all pivotal in their own ways — Colombia, Brazil, Bolivia, South Africa, Japan, Afghanistan, Iraq, Egypt, Tunisia, Turkey, Serbia, Ukraine, Bosnia, Belgium, Sweden and independence referenda in Scotland and Catalunya.
After such a crowded 2014 calendar, it’s not surprising that 2015 will not bring the same volume of electoral activity. But there’s still plenty at stake, especially as volatile oil prices, Chinese economic slowdown and the return of recession in Europe and Japan could stifle global economic potential. The most important of those elections that will determine policy that affects the lives of billions of people worldwide.
No one thinks about ‘southwest Asia’ as among the world’s regions. But should we?
Consider for a moment that within the next 12 months, the world will witness the following:
the rollout of a new, more stable government headed by Nawaz Sharif in Pakistan dominated with the twin problems of regional security and economic growth, itself a transfer of power following the first civilian government to serve out a full term in office since Pakistan’s founding in 1947;
the selection of a new president for Pakistan in August 2013 to succeed Asif Ali Zardari, the widower of former prime minister Benazir Bhutto;
the selection of a new army chief of staff in Pakistan in November 2014 to succeed Ashfaq Kayani, who’s led Pakistan’s military since 2007 (when former general Pervez Musharraf was still in charge of Pakistan’s government) and who remains arguably the most powerful figure in Pakistan;
the election of a new government in Bangladesh before the end of January 2014 under the explosive backdrop of the ongoing 1971 war crimes tribunals and the Shahbagh protests of earlier this year; and
the election of a new government in India before the end of May 2014 — likely to be headed by the latest member of the incumbent party’s family dynasty, Rahul Gandhi, or the sprightly chief minister of Gujarat, Narendra Modi — that will end of a decade of rule by prime minister Manmohan Singh.
Taken together, it’s a moment of extreme political change in South Asia, with turnover in each of the five pivotal countries (with a cumulative population of over 1.65 billion people) that touches and concerns the ‘Af-Pak’ region, and the greater South Asian region generally, which could well be the world’s most sensitive security theater and remains a critical region for global economic development — India is one of the four BRIC countries, and Bangladesh, Iran and Pakistan are each ‘Next Eleven’ countries.
That’s without mentioning the fact that we’ve just entered the first year of what’s expected to be a decade of leadership by Xi Jinping and the ‘Fifth Generation’ of Chinese Communist Party leadership in the People’s Republic of China, and the ongoing interest of Russia as a geopolitical player in the region, with so many former Central Asian Soviet republics bordering the region. It’s also without mentioning the thaw in political repression and diplomatic isolation currently underway in Burma/Myanmar.
For some time, discussion about the European Union has involved the caveat that major policy initiatives on EU policy, especially with respect to monetary union and fiscal union, are on hold until the German federal election, which will take place at the end of September 2013. It’s reasonable to assume that Angela Merkel will want to secure reelection as Germany’s chancellor before pushing forward with new changes.
But that pales in comparison to the political transformation that will take place in west Asia in the next 12 months, even though I see very few commentators discussing that when they talk about Iran, south Asia, Af-Pak, etc. In many ways, I think that’s because foreign policy analysis don’t typically think about this particular set of countries as a discrete region in its own right.
Iran comes up in the context of the Middle East and much more rarely in the context of Afghan or Pakistani security, even though Iran’s population is comprised of Persians and Azeris, not the Arabs who otherwise dominate the Middle East.
It’s more common to think about Pakistan today in the context of Afghanistan (for obvious U.S. security interest reasons) than in the context of Bangladesh, even though Bangladesh continues to battle over political ghosts that originated in its 1971 war of independence from Pakistan. But how much of that has to do with, say, early turf wars in the Obama administration between the late diplomat Richard Holbrooke and other envoys, or the Bush administration’s initial approach to the global war on terror?
It’s common to think about Pakistan, India and Bangladesh together (but not Iran) because they were so centrally administered together as part of the British empire from the 18th through the 20th century.
Looking forward through the end of the 2010s and the 2020s, do any of those linkages make as much sense?
Without channeling the spirit of Edward Said too much, what do we even call the region spanning from Tehran to Dhaka and from Mumbai to Kabul? West Asia? Southwest Asia?
Though I cringe to call it a Spring, make no mistake — the leadership realignment has the potential to remake world politics in ways that transcend even the Arab Spring revolts of 2010 and 2011.
It wasn’t exactly the opening of the floodgates, but Burma’s Sunday elections marked a significant step toward greater political liberty from a regime that is moving rapidly from authoritarian to something much more liberal.
Longtime pro-democracy leader Aung San Suu Kyi emerged as the clear winner, with her National League for Democracy (NLD) winning 40 of the 45 seats being contested. Kyi herself will join her NLD colleagues to become a member of the Burmese parliament.
Nonetheless, the military still essentially controls the majority of the 664 seats in the parliament, which itself has very weak powers in respect of governing the country.
Still, Burma is shaping up to be one of the more surprisingly positive stories of the year, as its once-tight junta loosens political controls over a country long known for its repression. General Ne Win took power in post-independence Burma in 1962, and the military has held power essentially ever since. The so-called “8888 Uprising” in August 1988, saw Ne Win resign from power and Aung San Suu Kyi emerge for the first time as a player in Burmese politics. Even though the military used lethal force to put down the 8888 Uprising, just as it had during protests in 1975 on the occasion of the death of Burmese politician and United Nations Secretary-General U Thant, new hope — in the form of the 1990 elections — indicated perhaps a new opening in Burma for political freedom.
Kyi won those elections handily — the NLD took 58.7% of the vote and 392 of the 492 available seats in the constitutional committee to be formed. The military junta, however, annulled those results, established what would become the State Peace and Development Council under General Than Shwe, who ruled until 2011. Kyi, who was awarded the Nobel Peace Prize in 1991 for her efforts, remained under house arrest for most of those 20 years. Even recently, in the so-called “Saffron Revolution,” a revolt led by Burma’s highly respected Buddhist monks in 2007, was put down with brutal force, and the 2010 elections were not in any way fair or free.
Shwe stepped down in March 2011 and his successor, Thein Sein, has been making moves toward moderate reform ever since — Sunday’s election result was perhaps less striking than the amnesty provided to many political prisoners, the program of economic reform that Thein Sein has initiated and the diplomatic front that his government has opened to warm relations with the west — UK Foreign Minister William Hague and US Secretary of State Hillary Clinton have both visited in the past year. Indeed, the announcement yesterday of a “managed” floating exchange rate is perhaps even more significant for Burma’s reemergence on the world stage.
As Simon Tidsall writes in The Guardian, it is too early to tell whether the gains are irreversible — Burma’s leaders are not all nearly as reforming as Burma’s new president. Indeed, Kyi herself made the same point — with just a handful of seats in a parliament that remains submissive to the military, the NLD will be hard-pressed to achieve its three goals: rule of law, a revised constitution and national reconciliation.
But after two chilly decades of repression, all signs indicate cause for cautious optimism that such a thaw is well under way, even if it remains to be seen if Burmese military leaders will oversee a transition to full democratic freedoms and economic liberalization.
In its four decades of military, near-autarchic rule, Burma has watched Japan and South Korea leapfrog into the league of fully developed nations. It has watched China and India assume their role as the 21st century’s massive economic giants in manufacturing and data services. It has watched income growth in countries like Cambodia, Laos and Vietnam — once well far behind Burma’s development — double and even triple that of Burma/Myanmar.
After four decades that have seen Burma degenerate from one of Southeast Asia’s economic powerhouses into one of its poorest nations, Thein Sein’s gestures are a clear sign that Burma’s leadership wants to pivot to a freer society and a freer economy — and attract the international aid that can facilitate that transition.