April 4, 2012

FOR MANY YEARS, Burma was a special case, because its dictators could not even pretend to represent the will of their people.

The junta, in a spasm of wildly unfounded self-confidence, had allowed an election in 1990, which the opposition National League for Democracy (NLD) overwhelmingly won. The junta annulled the results, imprisoned many of the winners and confined NLD leader Aung San Suu Kyi to her house for most of the next two decades. Yet they could not erase the election results.

In the past few years, though, regime sympathizers and assorted “realists” and “pragmatists” began whispering that it was time to move on. The 1990 election was ancient history, they said. NLD leaders were old and out of touch. Aung San Suu Kyi was brave and admirable, yes, but more a stubborn obstacle to reform than a representative of her people. The West should lift sanctions, whether she approved or not.

So a significant result of Sunday’s by-election is to silence the whisperers. In the first quasi-free election since 1990, Aung San Suu Kyi reprised the results of 22 years ago. She was elected to parliament, and her party won 43 of 44 seats it contested. The ruling party was shut out. Once again, there is no question who in Burma (also known as Myanmar) speaks for the people.

Many of those who were arguing to lift pro-democracy sanctions despite Aung San Suu Kyi’s confinement now argue to lift sanctions because she has triumphed. That’s wrong, too. Burma is still far from a democracy. The election Sunday filled fewer than 7 percent of parliamentary seats; everyone else was elected in a phony 2010 vote or chosen by the military. The constitution continues to vest supreme authority in the military, not surprisingly given that the military wrote it. Hundreds of dissidents remain in prison, and those who were recently freed are at constant risk of reimprisonment, since their release was conditional.

So what is the right response? The United States can take its cue from the regime. Liberalization in Burma has been significant but limited, incremental and reversible. The easing of sanctions should be the same: substantive but limited, incremental and reversible. President Obama needs to show reformers inside the junta that liberalization will bring rewards without allowing hard-liners to argue there’s no need for further democratization. The easing of financial restrictions announced Wednesday by Secretary of State Hillary Rodham Clinton, for example, must be carefully designed so as not to simply enrich regime cronies.

When it comes to determining tactics, it’s no longer fair to put the burden on Aung San Suu Kyi. She must push the regime to reform while reassuring it that she is not out for revolution or vengeance and assuring her supporters that she is not selling out. She shouldn’t have to be the West’s adviser, too.

But the administration very much can look to her for broader strategy. Aung San Suu Kyi has laid out three broad goals: establishing a rule of law, rewriting the constitution and achieving reconciliation with all ethnic minorities, who have been brutalized by the army. Any easing of sanctions should be targeted enough to reinforce those goals and gradual enough to take effect only as the democrats’ objectives are attained.