WHEN SECRETARY of State John F. Kerry travels to Burma later this week, it will be crucial that he not treat the Southeast Asian nation as a democratic success story, which it emphatically is not. Burma, also known as Myanmar, is a dictatorship that may or may not be in transition to a more open society. U.S. policy will help determine whether it makes that transition.
With a population of perhaps 60 million (there’s been no reliable census), Burma suffered under one of the world’s most repressive dictatorships for more than a half-century. Three years ago, its president, former general Thein Sein, met with pro-democracy leader Aung San Suu Kyi, who had spent most of the previous two decades under house arrest.
Out of that meeting came the stirrings of reform: Most political prisoners were conditionally freed. Aung San Suu Kyi’s party, the National League for Democracy, was allowed to take part in a parliamentary by-election in April 2012 and swept to victory. Aung San Suu Kyi herself won a seat.
The Obama administration claimed the unexpected opening as a success for U.S. policy, which it was: The United States had imposed economic sanctions in response to Burma’s human rights violations, and the junta was eager to free itself from them. Unfortunately, the administration was too quick to roll most of the sanctions back, reducing its leverage. And since 2012, movement has been limited.
In some areas, in fact, movement has been in the wrong direction. Officials have condoned and encouraged egregious violence and discrimination against a Muslim minority. The army continues to wage war against other minorities, and in areas of newfound peace, regime cronies are seizing land from farmers who have nowhere to turn for redress. In July four journalists were sentenced to 10 years of hard labor. “This conviction should shatter any illusions that President Thein Sein’s government grasps the role of a free press in a democracy,” said Bob Dietz, Asia director for the Committee to Protect Journalists.
Most worrying is that there has been no progress in rewriting Burma’s constitution, which enshrines military control regardless of who might win future elections and which was written to bar Aung San Suu Kyi from running for president. If the constitution is not reformed, then other goals — an independent judiciary, an end to child soldiers and forced labor — also will be out of reach.
So far, in other words, Burma’s generals and former generals have the best of all worlds: Sanctions are lifted, foreign investment is arriving, relations with the United States are good and they remain in control. Mr. Kerry must make clear that relations cannot stay good unless reforms advance and citizens of every religion and ethnicity can live with dignity. Myanmar wants improved military-to-military contacts; it wants remaining sanctions lifted; it wants international respect; it wants a U.S. presence as a counterweight to China, its pushy neighbor to the north. The Obama administration must convince the generals that none of these goals is attainable unless Burma moves to genuine democracy.