Thursday, May 2, 2013

Memorandum for Secretary of State John Kerry concerning the 2015 Myanmar Elections Attitudes and Policy Regarding the Planned 2015 Elections in Myanmar

The first presidential election since the dramatic democratic and economic reforms in Myanmar will take place in 2015. The event is considered to be a signpost by the international community, including the US. An election considered legitimate will signal that the reforms will hold and most likely continue to be advanced in the future; an illegitimate election will be evidence of a backslide in the reforms and a shaky future for democracy in Myanmar.

The USG should use 3 very basic criteria to consider the elections legitimate: 1)No widespread complaints of voter obstruction or intimidation 2)Election results that have not been tampered with 3)The elections are held and constitutionally eligible elected parties are allowed to take office in a timely manner.i If the 3 criteria are met, the USG should make moves to permanently lift sanctions. The USG should communicate these expectations and the potential for lifting sanctions to the Myanmar leaders in private and not telling the government what to do, but offering to helping the government host legitimate elections.ii

The Burmese government is sensitive to being perceived as a puppet of any country. There is a strong sense of nationalism and pride shared among Burmese citizens, which the USG will want to avoid aggravating by appearing to interfere in internal affairs. For this reason, the USG should not threaten the Burmese government with what US policy would be if the elections are not deemed legitimate.

The USG should make 4 further recommendations to the Burmese government in private: 1)Appoint and allow access to local organizations to partner with international organizations for elections monitoring, 2)Encourage the Parliament to amend the 2008 Constitution to allow all Burmese citizens above a certain age be eligible to run for President and to remove the provision of 25% of Parliament seats for the military 3)Encourage the participation of Rohingya, other Muslim citizens, and ethnic minorities in the election. If verifiable efforts and relative successes are made to act on the recommendations, the USG should tell the government it will start the process of a preferential trade agreement with Myanmar.

A commission to review the constitution for possible changes was establish in late Mar. 2013, but it was proposed by the USDP, and needs to integrate NLD members.iii As the Constitution currently stands, Suu Kyi is not eligible to be President because her late husband and 2 sons are UK citizens. It is possible the Constitution could be amended to make it legal for her to be President, especially in light of the statement from the current President, Thein Sein, in support of her candidacy, and her recent attendance at the Armed Forces Day.iv However, passing a Constitutional amendment requires approval from 75% of Parliament, which is unlikely when 25% of the seats are held by current members of the military. The US could suggest that the government wait to see the outcome of the elections, and if less than 25% of the candidates elected to the Parliament are from the military, than the Committee would be obliged to present Parliament with a Constitutional Amendment.v

The USG will likely receive pressure from the business community and related lobbying organizations to employ a loose definition of what constitutes a legitimate election and find a way to work with whatever regime is in power in 2015. The US business community has already made substantial investments in Myanmar, including the announcement of the opening of the first American hotel in Yangon in 2014 by Hilton Hotels, and would like access to Myanmar’s market of almost 60 million people, geostrategic location between the world’s two most populous countries, and resources such as natural gas, labor, jade, and

Members of Congress will likely pressure the USG to adopt a stricter view of what constitutes legitimate elections in Myanmar. Members representing Burmese hubs such as San Francisco, Fort Wayne, Indiana will be influenced by their Burmese American constituents who traditionally support Suu Kyi’s positions.vii They will be hesitant to permanently lift all sanctions, fearing that the USG will lose all leverage over the Burmese government.

Top Myanmar academics and diplomats will argue for continued engagement, regardless of the outcomes of the elections, because many do not view the sanctions as effective in influencing the military regime in the past. US Citizens who have had a chance to visit Myanmar and experience the poverty and severe underdevelopment of human capacity will likely encourage continued engagement in the hopes of bettering the lives of the majority of the country’s people who live in extreme poverty.

US Allies Japan and Thailand will argue for an approach of continued engagement because they are betting on an economic boom in Myanmar. Japan has recently invested a lot of foreign aid in the country in deals that American professors, such as Prof. Karl Jackson, have played a role in. Thailand, who recently encouraged the US military to invite the Burmese military to be observers at the Cobra Gold exercises will also support continued US engagement.viii Thailand will want to avoid any changes that could cause further unrest along the border or an influx of refugees. The number of flights from Thai border towns to Myanmar are increasing, and the border trade will soon be more closely monitored, providing a large tax collection opportunity.ix

The Chinese government, people, and businesses could verbally protest if they perceive the USG to be too involved in the elections process and influencing the results. The Chinese already suspects the increasing US interaction with Myanmar to be part of a containment strategy. The Chinese business community was slighted by the halt of the Myitsone Dam and is now facing increasing competition from international companies, and the nationalism of the Chinese people could be stoked if the US involvement in Myanmar is seen to be a catalyst for worsening Myanmar – Sino relations.

In the lead up to the election the most important thing the USG and Americans can do is communicate at every possible opportunity to the USDP, the Tatmadaw and ethnic minority militias, the business community, opposition political parties, and civil society groups that timely and legitimate elections in 2015 is in Myanmar’s best interest.

The US should continue, and expand, programs building the skills of journalists and support the 16 newly free and independent media outlets.x The media can further investigate the source of the violence in the country, and potentially expose the truth regarding the USDP involvement in framing it as stemming from religious conflict. It is possible that the recent conflicts in Bago Division are being framed by the government as stemming from conflict between Buddhists and Muslims as part of a strategy to cause political difficulties for Suu Kyi. If Suu Kyi stays quiet about the supposed religious conflict, the international community will criticize the Nobel Laureate for failing to stand up for human rights, but if she works to end the conflict and appears too supportive of the Muslim community (about 2% of the population), she could lose favor with the Buddhist majority of the country (about 85%) and lose many of the votes needed to be elected in 2015.xi Media can be watchdogs in the absence of rule of law or an electoral commission.

The American Center and USAID mission should continue educational programs about the different ways a legitimate election can be conducted so that the Burmese citizens are able to recognize and report inconsistencies leading up to the election. The American Center in Yangon can show and then discuss American movies that feature election stories during its weekly Tuesday free movie screening.

i Forbes, Thea. “What is a ‘free and fair’ election?” Special Report. The Mizzima. October 15, 2012. Accessed April 1, 2013. and-fair-election.html
ii In-person conversation with former Burmese Foreign Service Officer. April 1, 2013.
iii Aye Aye Win. “Myanmar Parliament Agrees to Review Constitution.” The Associated Press. March 20, 2013. Accessed April 1, 2013. agrees-review-constitution
iv Fuller, Thomas. “Myanmar Jarred by Peace Laureate at Military Parade.” The New York Times. March 27, 2013. Accessed April 1, 2013. aung-san-suu-kyi-appears-at-burmese-military-parade.html
v In-person conversation with former Burmese Foreign Service Officer. April 1, 2013.
vi “Hilton to open hotel in Myanmar.” The Bangkok Post. March 6, 2012. Accessed April 1, 2013.
vii “Suu Kyi to visit largest Burmese community in US.” Mizzima News. August 28, 2012. Accessed April 1, 2013. burmese-community-in-us.html
viii Ralph, Talia. “Cobra Gold: Myanmar gets invitation to US – Thailand military exercises.” The Global Post. October 19, 2012. Accessed April 1, 2013. gets-invite-us-thailand-military-exercises
ix “Thai Airline to Launch Burma Flights from Mae Sot.” The Irrawaddy. April 1, 2013. Accessed April 1, 2013.
x Naw Say Phaw Waa. “Eight more publishers granted daily licenses.” The Myanmar Times. April 1, 2013. Accessed April 1, 2013. more-publishers-get-daily-newspaper-licences.html
xi Conversation with Burmese VOA journalist. March 30, 2013. 

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