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NLD’s Victory A Step Forward But Sanctions Must be Maintained Until Genuine Reforms Under Way

By Burma Partnership  •  April 9, 2012

The past week has seen much celebrating from people throughout Burma and around the world over the election of Daw Aung San Suu Kyi and 42 additional members of the National League for Democracy. These results marked a moment of excitement and hope for the people of Burma. However, the many irregularities in the process and the continued numerous restrictions on people’s fundamental freedoms demonstrate that a great deal more progress needs to be made on Burma’s path towards genuine democracy.

As Soe Aung, Deputy Secretary for Foreign Affairs of Forum for Democracy in Burma, noted in an opinion piece earlier this week, “[G]enuine change must be defined by bold institutional, legislative and policy reforms that can decisively create a truly democratic, inclusive and accountable government based on the rule of law and respect for all human rights. For the majority of people in Burma, there has been little real change. The quasi-civilian administration has made small gestures calculated to generate maximum excitement in the international community with minimum cost to high-ranking officials and their cronies.”

In a recent interview, Htay Oo, the leader of the military backed Union Solidarity and Development Party (USDP), demonstrated that his party has no interest in understanding or responding to the will of the people. Rather than recognizing that the population seeks genuine change in accordance with the platform of the NLD, Htay Oo stated that the NLD’s sweeping victory was a result solely of the fact that “[w]e all know General Aung San, the leader who is respected by the whole nation. Since Aung San Suu Kyi is his daughter, people will know her as associated with General Aung San. I think that’s it.”

In evaluating the “democratic transition” in Burma the international community needs to focus on developments which make a difference in the lives of the people rather than symbolic gestures. Elections where less than 10% of the seats in parliament are contested, those in ethnic minority constituencies where armed conflict continues are prevented from casting a ballot, that follows on the heels of general elections widely rejected as a sham, and is based upon a constitution drafted to entrench military rule, are little more than a symbolic gesture.

The United States has announced that it will begin gradually removing some sanctions and providing development aid to Burma in the wake of the “successful” by-elections and other western governments have also discussed beginning to lift sanctions. It is extremely important that sanctions not be lifted too quickly and that the process of removing sanctions be contingent on meaningful progress towards democracy and ending human rights violations. As a press release from the ASEAN Inter-Parliamentary Myanmar Caucus stated, “The government has failed to address concerns regarding serious human rights violations, including extrajudicial killings, sexual violence, land confiscations and the recruitment of child soldiers. An unknown number of political prisoners remain behind bars and laws curtailing the most basic of freedoms remain. AIPMC fears the lifting of sanctions too early will benefit a military regime responsible for crimes against humanity and allow them to evade justice, thereby undermining the reform process and threatening the long term development of the country. Before sanctions are lifted, the government of [Burma] must undertake genuine political, legal and socioeconomic reforms necessary to guarantee the rule of law and that will underpin the future reform process.”

The victory by Daw Suu and the NLD is undeniably a positive step and a moment that many hoped for, for more than two decades and feared would never come. However, despite the NLD’s landmark victory, the fact remains that the party occupies less than 7% of the seats in Parliament. There has been no change to the balance of power and it will be incredibly difficult for the opposition to press for meaningful reforms, especially amendments to the 2008 Constitution.

At such a crucial time, the international community can play an important role in transforming the symbolic gesture of the NLD victory into concrete steps towards democratic transition by responding cautiously to the by-elections and maintaining targeted sanctions until real institutional, legislative and policy reforms are under way.

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