America And Southeast Asia
What Myanmar Means

It’s official: on Friday, Myanmar’s electoral commission confirmed that Aung San Suu Kyi’s NLD party has won a majority of the seats in Myanmar’s Parliament, in a victory that some are hailing as a defeat for the country’s military and a step forward for democracy and human rights.

In fact, however, things are not that simple: Even after Suu Kyi’s victory, the constitution reserves 25 percent of the parliament for the military. The military also performs critical bureaucratic functions and is the only institution with any experience actually running the country. As U.S. News and World Report put it:

Under the constitution, the Myanmar military is a fourth branch of government; it sets its own budget independent of the president and parliament; it appoints the defense, home and border affairs ministers; and it has the right to veto decisions of the executive, legislative and judicial branches of the government. In fact, the civilian government has no oversight over the military, which “has the right to independently administer and adjudicate all affairs of the armed forces.”

Nobody really knows exactly what this election will mean for the future of Myanmar, or for its democratic movement, though there are some hopeful signs that it won’t play out just like it did in 1990. Back then, the NLD won by similar margins and was rewarded for its success with the military jailing and prosecuting of many of its leaders, including Suu Kyi, who spent the next 20 years under house arrest. Today, the head of the military announced that he accepted the results of the election, and that he would meet with Suu Kyi soon to discuss “national reconciliation.”

The temptation for Western policymakers will now be to do everything they can to sideline or push out the military even further. That moralistic approach, however, misses several realities.

For one, it’s not actually clear if a democratic government can effectively rule Myanmar, a country in which at least a third of the population are minorities and ethnic tensions are running high. There’s a strong suspicion among the Buddhist plurality that Muslim and Christian minorities may harbor separatist sentiments. In fact, the NLD didn’t run Muslim candidates because of Buddhist nationalist pressure. Rohingya Muslims will need some kind of representation to feel included in the new order, and even so, they might still prefer national autonomy and attempt secession. It’s naive to assume that a fledgling democratic government can automatically hold together such a multi-confessional and multi-ethnic political entity. Just look at what happened in Yugoslavia.

And getting Myanmar right is critical, as it could shift the geopolitical calculus for the entire region. The North Koreans, for one, are surely watching. Myanmar has historically had very close economic and political ties with China, but in time its military leaders made a decision to diversify their foreign policy portfolio and improve relations with the United States and its allies. North Korea’s rulers must at least be thinking whether it might be better to join an American-led world order rather than relying only on Beijing for protection and economic assistance. It would not be the worst thing in the world if success in Myanmar made North Korea think it had more geopolitical options.

In Myanmar, then, the U.S. needs not to make the mistakes it did in Thailand after that country’s recent coup. Not only did a ham-fisted human rights-first attitude send Thailand into China’s arms; it has led the Thai government to abuse human rights even more. As important as human rights are, smart, strategic thinking—not mere idealism—needs to dictate our efforts in the world.

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