Why U.S. should back change in Myanmar

Editor’s Note: Tom Cotton is a Republican U.S. senator from Arkansas. The views expressed are his own.

Story highlights

Tom Cotton: Myanmar's military is genuinely, if slowly, releasing power

Myanmar could also be a key partner in the war against terror, he says

CNN  — 

After holding historic elections in November, Myanmar, also known as Burma, is undergoing a remarkable transition to constitutional democratic governance. I recently led a congressional delegation to the country to evaluate this sweeping change firsthand and gauge how the United States can continue to support Myanmar’s movement toward the free world.

The National League for Democracy, the opposition party led by Nobel laureate Aung San Suu Kyi, swept the elections, winning 77% of contested parliamentary seats. This victory was many painful decades in the making. Suu Kyi’s father, Gen. Aung San, was assassinated in 1947 while he led the transitional government as Myanmar gained its independence from Great Britain.

Tom Cotton

Myanmar’s civilian government, buffeted by communist insurgency, ethnic strife and extreme poverty, fell in 1962 to a military coup. A brutal dictatorship went on to rule the country for half a century and became the subject of U.S. sanctions after a violent 1988 crackdown on pro-democracy protests.

However, in recent years, the country has made gradual – if halting – steps to open up. The military adopted a constitution, which envisioned elections while entrenching its power. Disputed elections occurred in 2010, which nevertheless led to the junta dissolving itself to make way for a military-dominated civilian government. Successful midterm elections in 2012 foreshadowed the sweeping National League for Democracy victory in November, and the party will take control of the parliament in the weeks ahead. Suu Kyi, though constitutionally barred from the presidency, is expected to provide informal but decisive leadership for the new government.

Why did the military finally allow elections and transfer power? There’s no single reason. As our delegation heard from many officials in the country, we must acknowledge that the military retains much power: It controls a quarter of parliamentary seats and core security ministries. And it remains largely immune from civilian control.

Yet the military is genuinely, if slowly, releasing power. Many parliamentarian-elects from the National League for Democracy credited U.S. sanctions for this, as they deeply isolated the junta and cast a spotlight on Myanmar’s plight.

China’s drive to control its neighbors also must be credited. Beijing increasingly treated Myanmar like a vassal state, exploiting its natural resources for economic gain, and it seems the country’s generals preferred to share power with a civilian government rather than cede power to China. Furthermore, they saw Vietnam’s rapid economic growth and warm relations with the United States and asked, “Why not us as well?”

The United States has compelling reasons to support Myanmar’s opening. First, the country can play a key role in the regional balance of power. As one senior official stated, Myanmar is a potential buffer state that sits between the world’s two largest countries: China and India. Myanmar is also the most direct overland route for China to the Indian Ocean, a body of water critical to global trade and energy flows that is increasingly the site of Chinese expansion and pressure. While we cannot expect Myanmar to become anti-China, we should help it become pro-U.S. and pro-India.

In addition, Myanmar could also be a key partner in the war against terror. Because it is a crossroads between the Mideast and Southeast Asia, Myanmar could restrict the movement of radical jihadis and drug traffickers. Finally, the country’s natural resources make it a potent trading partner, as business leaders from the country told us.

Finally, Myanmar is a good news story for U.S. moral leadership in the world. Bipartisan support for Suu Kyi, economic sanctions and diplomatic pressure helped reverse 50 years of tyranny and oppression. While progress is partial and still reversible, Myanmar can serve as an example for other benighted regimes. After all, it once resembled North Korea more closely than an emerging democracy.

Let there be no doubt: Much work remains to be done. There must be resolution on the military’s constitutionally protected role in the government. The National League for Democracy will need to transition from a democracy movement to a governing party. Internal ethnic conflict remains a serious risk, and much hinges on the party’s ability to secure a broad ceasefire. The Rohingya, a Muslim minority, live in deplorable conditions and are victims of official and unofficial discrimination. Corruption is deep and severe. And the economy needs sweeping reform.

To help Myanmar address these challenges, the United States must not fall prey to a short attention span. Historic elections are dramatic and telegenic. The hard work of strengthening democratic institutions is not. The United States must continue to leverage its influence in Myanmar even when the country is out of the headlines.

We can work with the new government as well as the military in linking the elimination of remaining U.S. sanctions to concrete progress on outstanding issues. We must clearly communicate the moral and security pitfalls of continued discrimination against the Rohingya. We can promote foreign direct investment in Myanmar and provide technical and governance assistance.

Several parliamentarian-elects from the National League for Democracy were once political prisoners. They told us they abide by a certain ethos: “Forgive, don’t forget.” That remarkable sentiment is not only the best hope for reconciliation in Myanmar but also a guide for U.S. policy.

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