U.S. Secretary of State Hillary Clinton Meets With Burmese President U Thein Sein

By all accounts, Burma today is vastly different than a year ago. Since the fraudulent November 2010 elections, President Thein Sein has enacted a series of reforms, eliciting praise from the international community. Yet numerous challenges still remain, and recent incidents have cast doubt on the government’s ability, and willpower, to sustain the momentum for reforms.

Indeed, the good, the bad, and the ugly of Burma’s recent progress—and the prospect of backtracking—is increasingly important to analyze, especially as we approach the critical April 1 by-elections.

All of these issues will be addressed next Wednesday, February 29, as The Heritage Foundation hosts an expert panel to discuss the “Prospects for Backtracking in Burma.” For more information and to RSVP, click here.

The Good

Aung San Suu Kyi has enjoyed considerable freedom since her release from house arrest, as the government eases censorship and allows greater political participation. In a few waves of prisoner amnesties, the government has released 648 political prisoners, including some top leaders of the 88 Generation and 2007 protests. Naypyidaw has reached out to various ethnic groups to broker ceasefires and foster peace negotiations—with varying degrees of success.

These reforms have prompted high-level visits from the U.S. and Europe, including Secretary of State Hillary Clinton, Senator Mitch McConnell (R–KY), Senator John McCain (R–AZ), and British Foreign Secretary William Hague, among others. The U.S. has announced it will restore full diplomatic ties with Burma, appointing an ambassador for the first time since 1990, and has eased some low-level sanctions on technical assistance and visas. ASEAN has awarded Burma its rotating chairmanship for 2014. Finally, President Thein Sein has said that Burma will not “draw back,” and Clinton stated that the U.S. will meet “action with action.”

The Bad

Hundreds of political prisoners still languish in Burmese jails. Moreover, released prisoners have reportedly been monitored, harassed, and re-arrested by the government.

Take Shin Gambira, a leader of the monk-led 2007 Saffron Revolution. Released in the January 13 amnesty, he has continued his criticism of the government, voicing skepticism about reforms. As if to validate his concerns, authorities arrested him on bogus charges—illegal squatting and breaking into monasteries—attempting to stifle his criticism. Similarly, Zarganar, a former political prisoner, likened the government to Somali pirates, holding current prisoners hostage to keep those released quiet.

Shin’s case is not an isolated incident, and it raises fresh concerns over the sustainability of reforms. Indeed, Tomás Ojea Quintana, the U.N. Special Rapporteur on the human rights situation in Burma, warned that there remains a risk of “backtracking” on recent reforms.

The Ugly

The human rights situation in Burma remains “dire,” according to Human Rights Watch. Despite Naypyidaw brokering ceasefires with a few ethnic groups, ongoing conflicts in the Kachin and Karen states have displaced thousands and resulted in egregious human rights violations, including use of human shields, torture, rape, and extrajudicial killing, as Burmese forces act with impunity. Quintana said that Burma will have to “acknowledge violations” to foster reconciliation, but as it stands, fighting and abuses in some areas are getting worse, not better.

The Election

On April 1, Burma will hold by-elections for 48 seats vacated since the last election, and Aung San Suu Kyi has announced that she and her National League for Democracy (NLD) party will compete.

The importance of these elections cannot be overstated. Across the world, governments have pegged free and fair elections as a benchmark toward continued engagement. In the U.S., Senator McConnell, the Senate’s leader on Burma policy, has stated that successful elections will result in a thorough review of congressional sanctions. Likewise, fraudulent elections, like in 2010, could mar Burma’s reforms and derail its recent progress.

Successful elections will not gloss over the aforementioned issues, and even if the NLD wins every seat, it will still be in Parliament’s minority. Yet symbolically, it will further demonstrate the government’s commitment to reform. Moreover, the Burmese government should invite credible international observers to monitor the elections, including Western observers.

The elections will only become more important as April 1 draws closer, so please join us at Heritage (in-person or online) next Wednesday as this issue is thoroughly discussed.