The latest fashion for dictators is to appear as democratic as possible. A critical question for 2014 is whether Burma’s rulers will choose to follow this path, too – and whether the United States will join in the pretense if it does. It matters for the region and beyond because while freedoms have been constricting in many countries in recent years, Burma has been a bright spot.
Which path has the regime chosen: true democracy or window-dressing? Full elections are scheduled for 2015, but they will be meaningless unless the nation’s constitution is changed in 2014. That is not only because the charter was written to exclude Aung San Suu Kyi from the presidency, though barring the nation’s most popular politician would in itself make any vote illegitimate. It’s also because the existing constitution preserves the military’s untouchable status. It’s not compatible with democracy.
Other warning signs abound. The regime has yet to make good on its pledge to free all political prisoners; indeed, new ones continue to be locked up, and the releases so far all have been conditional. Violence by Buddhists (who are in the majority) against Muslims has gone unpunished and, in some cases, has been encouraged by officials; in contrast, a courageous Muslim leader who tried to stop such violence, Tun Aung, has been imprisoned. The cease-fire talks have yielded little progress.
There is still a great deal of work ahead before Burma fully transitions to democracy, national security adviser Susan Rice said. The question is whether Burma’s leaders think they can stop halfway and retain their power or whether they are prepared to allow the Burmese to freely choose their leaders. The Obama administration should make clear that the first option won’t fly.