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U.S. Continuing To Engage With Burma

Burmese political prisoner and opposition leader Aung San Suu Kyi. (file)
Burmese political prisoner and opposition leader Aung San Suu Kyi. (file)

The United States reaches out to the Burmese government as the country prepares for its upcoming national elections.

Burma's military government continues to prepare for upcoming national elections, the first since 1990 when the opposition National League for Democracy swept the polls but was prevented from taking power. Steps taken so far for the November 7 balloting, including the disbanding of opposition parties, cancelling balloting in many ethnic minority areas, and an electoral guarantee that military candidates will win a quarter of all legislative seats, suggest that it too will lack international legitimacy.

The list of 37 parties approved by Burma's Electoral Commission to offer candidates was published in a state-run newspaper the same day that it announced the NLD's formal dissolution. The approved parties include pro-government, unaffiliated, and democratic opposition groups. But this deceptively diverse group masks the sway that the 2 major pro-government parties – the Union Solidarity and Development and National Unity parties – are likely to hold. Each offers close to 1,000 candidates and employs strong-arm campaign tactics.

Meanwhile, Burmese troops and their families in barracks will have separate ballot boxes from ordinary citizens, 1 of several electoral procedures that will likely intimidate those under government control who might otherwise support the opposition.

Over the last year, the United States has reached out to the Burmese government, aiming to establish a workable dialogue and an opening of the political process there. Years of isolating the military regime have not borne substantial fruit. Engagement, while maintaining a variety of sanctions, was initiated in an effort to persuade the junta to free political prisoners, including opposition leader Aung San Suu Kyi, improve treatment of ethnic minority groups, and encourage an inclusive, meaningful national dialogue.

The regime’s response to the United States’ engagement efforts has been disappointing. As evidenced by the steps taken to prepare for November's vote, the junta has not undertaken genuine political reform, and its electoral process doesn't meet basic international standards.

Among the difficult options in dealing with the regime, however, engagement remains a possible means to encourage reform and a change in regime behavior. New players and new political forces may emerge from the elections, and the United States is prepared to engage with the new government to pursue positive change.