For months now, many encouraging signals have been coming from Burma’s military-backed regime. The list of reforms over the last year is well-known: release of hundreds of political prisoners, relaxation of press censorship and return of exiled journalists, legal amendments to allow for labor unions and strikes, ceasefires with ethnic groups, and legal changes permitting Nobel Laureate Aung San Suu Kyi’s and her party, the National League for Democracy (NLD), to contest the upcoming April 1 by-elections.
There are caveats, of course, to this positive trajectory. The sentences of most released political prisoners are not full amnesties or pardons but conditional releases, so the individuals remain in jeopardy even as they are free to rebuild their lives and participate in the political life of the country. And of course, hundreds of Burmese remain jailed for political reasons. New freedoms of assembly remain short of international standards. The invitation to international election observers, including representatives from the U.S., is welcome, but this also falls short of international standards. And attacks on Burma’s ethnic minorities continue, despite ceasefires, and often apparently contrary to the orders of the central government.
It is no wonder that many observers have warned about the prospects of backtracking in Burma.
On the matter that is generating the most attention—the open competition for 45 legislative seats this Sunday—it remains to be seen how “conditional” Suu Kyi and her party’s participation in the elections actually is—that is, whether they will be permitted to reap a number of victories commensurate with popular opinion. There have already been multiple complaints about the pre-election environment and suspension of three contests of what were to be 48.
“Free and fair” elections on April 1 are likely not possible or verifiable given the many restrictions on the election environment. However, they will still be an indicator of the regime’s commitment to political reform—no more, no less. If the democratic opposition in Burma blesses the elections as reasonably accommodating, this development ought to be acknowledged with another step—albeit limited—in the Obama Administration’s action-for-action approach toward normalizing relations.
An obvious step would be to allow deeper involvement of international financial institutions, an area where the Administration has already permitted assessment missions and limited technical assistance in response to earlier reforms. The move toward appointing an ambassador to Burma is appropriate to facilitate the much greater diplomatic contact warranted by Burma’s outreach.
For the same reasons, depending on the post-election operation of Burma’s parliament, the Administration should look at releasing fully vetted Burmese government officials from visa restrictions. As for other near-term “carrots” for reform, counter-narcotics assistance is something that should be considered—so long as Burmese cooperation can be certified.
Beyond this, America’s sanctions regime should remain fixed pending further democratic reform. Developments in Burma are particularly far from meriting the easing of any restrictions on financial services, investment, or imports. Elections, especially when they represent less than 10 percent of parliament, do not a democracy make.