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Why the U.S. must not give up on Myanmar

By Suzanne DiMaggio, Special to CNN
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STORY HIGHLIGHTS
  • Suzanne DiMaggio: Deeply flawed election makes U.S. engagement policy difficult
  • The U.S. is making it clear that it is prepared to add to the pressures on the generals
  • The U.S. needs to encourage the new government to move towards openness
  • Washington should remain engaged even though it may be years before it sees results

Suzanne DiMaggio is director of policy studies at Asia Society in New York and Director of the Society's Task Force on U.S. Policy toward Burma/Myanmar. She previously served as the Vice President of Global Policy Programs at the United Nations Association of the USA.

(CNN) -- The November 7 elections in Myanmar will be the country's first in 20 years. It's been clear for a while that Myanmar's ruling generals have no intention of carrying out a "fair and free" election.

Months ago, they put into place a series of stringent laws to heavily skew the results in favor of the military, while nearly shutting out opposition groups, including Aung San Suu Kyi's National League for Democracy, and ethnic minorities from the process.

Calls on the junta by the United States, the United Nations and Myanmar's south-east Asian neighbors to allow independent election monitors have been wholly rebuffed, and foreign observers and international media have been barred from entering the country.

The regime's party, the Union Solidarity Development Party, has provided the vehicle to recycle a large swath of senior officers into civilian political life, running them as candidates for parliamentary offices across the country.

With 25 percent of legislative seats automatically allocated to military appointees, they're virtually guaranteed to come out with the largest bloc in the national parliament.

The only other party in the game is the National Union Party, which represents the pre-1988 socialist regime. In other words, a "democratic" majority is statistically impossible.

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Nevertheless, the elections may bring some elements of change to Myanmar, formerly known as Burma. The structure of the new government will be different from that of the junta's version of martial law, under which a committee of a dozen generals has ruled the country for more than two decades.

Representatives from opposition groups and "moderates," though very small in number, will have some seats in the new parliament. The big question is whether competing power centers will be able to develop over time both at the national and the state levels.

A deeply flawed election combined with persisting rumors of the junta's nuclear weapons aspirations, which is especially disturbing considering its surreptitious arms supply relationship with North Korea, will make the Obama administration's relatively new engagement policy toward Myanmar even more difficult.

The goal of this new approach has been to get to gradual confidence-building steps to foster cooperation and better understanding. Unfortunately, it hasn't worked out that way. Over the past year, attempts by U.S. officials to engage Myanmar's senior generals in dialogue on a variety of issues have not been met with any constructive response.

The United States is making it clear that it is prepared to use elements of pressure to change the generals' behavior. The lack of progress has led the U.S. Congress to consider tightening financial sanctions.

Additionally, the administration has begun to explore the creation of an international commission of inquiry into alleged crimes against humanity and war crimes by Myanmar's military leaders.

But pressure alone is not likely to bring results. Sanctions have not worked in the past. And while European Union members such as the United Kingdom and France, as well as Canada and Australia have publicly supported a commission of inquiry on Myanmar, key stakeholders in Asia, most notably China and India, have indicated that they will not back such a move.

Given this reality, the United States needs to focus on encouraging whatever government takes hold in Myanmar to move in the direction of openness and reform to improve the dire conditions in the country.

The United States should remain vigilant with regard to the postelection government's attitudes toward democratization, national reconciliation, and human rights.

At the same time, it should continue and even step up efforts to pursue an engagement process that is time-bound with specific benchmarks and aimed at promoting a better understanding of these objectives among Myanmar's future leaders.

Genuine political and economic reform and the advancement of human rights will be the real test of change in Myanmar over the longer term. To get there, the U.S.'s best option is expanded diplomatic engagement with Myanmar's new government in close coordination with other key players, including ASEAN, the U.N., and Asia's major powers-China, India, and Japan. The United States also should continue to develop, and even ramp up, means of reaching the Burmese people directly through assistance programs.

It may be years, if not decades, before the real significance of the elections and their aftermath becomes apparent. The United States should remain engaged, prepared to respond effectively and flexibly to the twists and turns that a potential transition may take over time, and ready to take a lead in pressing the new government to move in a positive direction.