Burma’s Non-Election: A Sham, with Clues to the Future

Sunrise in Yangon
Sunrise in Yangon

By Ernie Bower, CSIS Senior Adviser and Director, Southeast Asia Program

Lex Rieffel’s post last week on Brookings’ website, “Looking Ahead From Burma’s November 7 Election,” does an excellent job of laying out the current realities of the sad situation in Burma, but he doesn’t address the question of why the ruling junta would risk going back to the polls.  That is an important question for policy makers to explore because it may reveal openings that can eventually be widened to create the rarest of commodities in the cloistered country – political space.

Burma last went to the polls two decades ago.  The generals then in charge believed they could take a step down the path that Indonesia and other ASEAN countries had taken to slowly turn away from the strange brand of socialism their quixotic leader, Ne Win, had foisted on the country, and begin to establish some governing legitimacy while not giving up any control.

They were dead wrong.  The daughter of Burmese independence, opposition leader Aung San Suu Kyi (ASSK), and her political party, the National League for Democracy (NLD), won a landslide victory as over 80% of the country’s voters turned out with hope for some change in their hearts.  The military stomped that hope to pulp, failing to recognize the election results and putting ASSK and the NLD leaders under house arrest and in prison.

In yesterday’s election, the junta wasn’t taking any chances.  As Lex Rieffel points out, the election was essentially predetermined by changes made to the Constitution and the effective prohibition of real opposition parties.  Reports indicate that only 30-40% of voters participated, quite literally under the guns of the military.  The fix was in for this non-election, and it is more than likely that the predominant winner in the contest for the 1,158 seats will be the ruling  junta’s political party, the National Unity Party (NUP).

While it is nearly impossible to know the motivation of Burma’s junta leader Than Shwe, there are signals that the reasons for going to the polls this time include the following:

  • Legitimizing military control through political means.
  • Relieving political pressure from neighbors – ASEAN, China, India, Japan & Korea.
  • Providing a mechanism for regional governments to at least pretend they have input into governance and policy in order to achieve stability.
  • Growing concern – described by some Burmese business leaders as “claustrophobia” — about expanding Chinese influence and control of the economy and military.
  • Exploring “exit strategies” or succession plans for the junta’s current leaders who fear reprisals if political change comes through revolution.


As Rieffel points out, before the elections important moves were being made in Burma, including the rapid privatization of previously state-owned enterprises.  The outlines of a plan are emerging, and it is important for policy makers to look more deeply into those changes and their motivations if they truly want to encourage political change in Burma.  Whether these factors manifested themselves alone or together, they create scenarios in which diplomats and planners can begin to map and exploit opportunities for future influence in Burma.

While the election yesterday in Burma was clearly a sham, the worst thing policy makers could do is to simply declaim the event and continue to employ policies that haven’t worked for decades.  The Obama administration has smartly used the new engagement strategy in Burma to get a seat at the table with ASEAN and participate in the creation of regional trade and security architecture.  Having pocketed that important achievement, it can now use a tool-kit of carrots and sticks, including those laid out in the Lantos Act, to apply new pressure on Burma’s intransigent leaders, while at the same time looking for openings to create political space in a country in desperate need of change.

Photo by Andrew. Used under a Creative Commons license.


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