U.S. Interests in Myanmar Require Looking beyond the 2015 Elections

U.S. policy toward Myanmar is seen by many as one of the most important successes of President Barack Obama’s first term. U.S. engagement played a critical role in lending momentum to political reform in the country. But U.S.-Myanmar relations have appeared somewhat stalled in Obama’s second term.

In addition to human rights, communal tensions, and the prospects for military reform, one major issue that has hobbled further engagement is the need for constitutional reform to allow opposition leader Aung San Suu Kyi to contest the presidency in 2015. Yet if the United States wants to promote its long-term interests in Myanmar, Washington will need to start planning its policies with an eye beyond 2015 and prepare to deal with a Myanmar that might not have Aung San Suu Kyi at its helm.

A number of U.S. lawmakers have openly questioned whether the administration has decided to embrace Naypyidaw too quickly. Congress in January passed a spending bill that makes removal of the remaining U.S. sanctions conditional on wide-ranging reforms, including making Myanmar’s constitution more democratic and achieving substantial progress on human rights. In April, a bill was introduced that would suspend U.S. security assistance to Myanmar in the next two years unless the government takes steps to establish civilian control of the armed forces and amend the constitution. For many in Congress, amending the constitution essentially means changing Article 59(f), known as the “Suu Kyi clause,” which bars individuals from becoming president if their spouses or children hold foreign citizenship. This formulation disqualifies Aung San Suu Kyi, whose sons are British citizens.

These are important issues, but by basing U.S. engagement on them, policymakers risk missing the bigger picture, including other significant reforms under way in Myanmar. What will happen in 2015 is, at this point, anybody’s guess. Washington needs to face the fact that democratic change may continue, but not in the shape that the United States has hoped.

Over the past year, the debate around constitutional reform has been front and center in Myanmar politics. Yet it has shifted from a narrative largely focused on Article 59(f) to concern with the military’s role in politics, manifest in widespread public calls—including from Aung San Suu Kyi and her National League for Democracy (NLD)—to overturn Article 436, which requires the support of more than 75 percent of parliamentarians to approve any constitutional amendment. This in effect gives military representatives, who hold 25 percent of parliamentary seats, veto power over changes to the constitution.

The removal of Article 436 would pave the way for amending many other sensitive areas of the constitution, such as the role of ethnic groups in a federal system and possible reforms to the electoral system, resulting in a more democratic environment. But these measures will not immediately lead to a reduced presence of the military in the legislature or parliamentary support for voting down the Suu Kyi clause. 

Meanwhile, the government’s ongoing efforts to negotiate a nationwide cease-fire and build trust with ethnic armies means that a variety of ethnic groups may decide to support a second term for President Thein Sein instead of an Aung San Suu Kyi presidency. Leaders from the Karen National Union did just that during a meeting this week with the president. Thein Sein said recently that regardless of his health, he would stay on for another five years if that is what the people desired. 

In reality, several key figures, including presumed presidential candidates Commander-in-Chief Min Aung Hlaing and parliamentary speaker Shwe Mann as well as emerging power players among ethnic political parties, have their eyes on the 2015 elections and have an interest in leaving the Suu Kyi clause intact. This means that the chances of amending the constitution in her favor before the elections are diminishing by the day.

In addition, there will be considerable political jockeying ahead of the elections and the earlier wisdom that the NLD will win overwhelmingly at the expense of the ruling, military-backed Union Solidarity and Development Party needs to be adjusted. Whether Aung San Suu Kyi is eligible for the presidency or not, the NLD will face stiff competition, including from several popular ethnic parties, and its ability to win a majority in the 2015 elections is unclear.

There have been marked improvements as a whole on the human rights front since Myanmar’s government launched reforms in 2011. Press freedom, freedom of speech, and other civil liberties have expanded rapidly, most political prisoners have been released, and measures have been taken to raise public awareness on international labor standards and train the police on international practices. To be sure, the continuing humanitarian crisis facing the Rohingya in Rakhine state, sporadic harassment of journalists, and the violent tactics used by the military against civilians in Kachin state and other conflict areas continue to stain Naypyidaw’s human rights record.
But the United States needs to remember that its strength has been in pushing for and lending support to further reforms when and where possible. It will likely take decades for Myanmar to consolidate its nascent democracy, and U.S. policymakers, both in the administration and in Congress, should continue to champion the pragmatic, long-term thinking that guided early engagement with Myanmar, rather than focusing on every slip backward along the road of reform.
Recent U.S. legislation aimed at punishing Naypyidaw for its shortcomings, followed by the extension of remaining U.S. sanctions against Myanmar under the National Security Emergency Act, have prompted some in Myanmar to wonder whether Washington is more interested in scoring a foreign policy success than in investing in long-term ties with their country.

A strategic U.S. policy in Myanmar will be one that is not dominated by individual human rights issues at the expense of the larger picture, or by the prospect of Aung San Suu Kyi becoming president. Myanmar’s civilian and military elites as a whole understand that their interests are aligned with continuing political and economic reforms, however uneven they may appear. And the United States, whether it likes it or not, will face the task of navigating Myanmar’s uncertain political landscape following the 2015 elections. The longer Washington waits to begin planning for alternative scenarios that could play out after 2015, the harder it will be to retain the leverage and use the momentum and goodwill the administration has accumulated in the country in recent years.

(This Commentary originally appeared in the June 12, 2014, issue of Southeast Asia from Scott Circle.)

Murray Hiebert is senior fellow and deputy director of the Sumitro Chair for Southeast Asia Studies at the Center for Strategic and International Studies in Washington, D.C. Phuong Nguyen is a research associate with the Sumitro Chair.

Commentary is produced by the Center for Strategic and International Studies (CSIS), a private, tax-exempt institution focusing on international public policy issues. Its research is nonpartisan and nonproprietary. CSIS does not take specific policy positions. Accordingly, all views, positions, and conclusions expressed in this publication should be understood to be solely those of the author(s).

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Murray Hiebert
Senior Associate (Non-resident), Southeast Asia Program

Phuong Nguyen