Myanmar’s Election Year and US Policy


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When: Dec 12 2014 - 12:00pm until Dec 12 2014 - 1:30pm
Where: 1819 L Street, NW, Washington, DC, Sixth Floor Conference Room

Myanmar’s Election Year and US Policy

An Asia Pacific Governance and Political Economy Seminar featuring:

Ms. Priscilla Clapp
Senior Advisor,
Asia Society and the U.S. Institute of Peace 

Myanmar’s Election Year and US Policy from East-West Center on Vimeo.

Ms. Priscilla Clapp outlines her predictions for the upcoming elections in Myanmar.

Having wound up its year as chair of ASEAN, Myanmar is now turning attention to preparations for next year’s election and we can expect the political environment to become intensely competitive and unpredictable. During his recent visit President Obama highlighted a number of concerns about the challenges facing Myanmar at this point in its transition and vowed that the United States would remain fully engaged as the country moves forward. At the same time, others see these challenges as signs that Myanmar’s transition has stalled and argue that the United State should begin to reinstate punitive measures that limit engagement.

Ms. Priscilla Clapp began with her observations on the question on everyone's mind: the outcomes of the elections that will be held next year in Myanmar. While the outcomes are understandably hard to predict, she stated that it is likely that the National League for Democracy party (NLD) headed by Aung San Suu Kyi would win a good number of seats. In local elections there is also a good chance that political parties representing the interests of ethnic groups would win numerous seats as well. There is the caveat however that these outcomes would happen only if the election "goes as planned" with less outright engineering of the elections by the military like that seen in the disputed 2010 elections.

What is most heartening about these elections next year is the fact that international observers will be allowed as well as local monitoring at polling stations. This has not happened before in Myanmar's history and already there are NGOs on the ground in Myanmar training Burmese citizens how to best handle all aspects of the elections. Should the election lead to significant gains by the NLD and ethnic groups, it would take away from the Union Solidarity and Development Party (USDP), the so-called "government party," thereby necessitating coalition-building in order to pass reforms. Ms. Clapp predicted that amendments to the constitution would be voted on, perhaps by referendum, next year and for any progress to be made coalitions would have to be built. This phenomenon is coming to pass much to the frustration of the Burmese military. With a firm hold on 25% of the votes in the parliament, the military is well-placed to make sure its opinions are heard and cause the other groups there to cater to its favor if they want to get something done. However, recent strengthening of parliament has led for the military to adopt amendments of its own to ensure that there is no move towards more proportional representation in parliament. Tellingly, neither the provision that would allow Suu Kyi to run for president (59-F) nor the section of the constitution that details the amendment process (4.3.6.) are up for amendments next year. 

According to Ms. Clapp it is the military's behavior that will largely determine if the election is a success or not (i.e. a move towards a more democratic process). If the military does not adopt a strong-armed approach like it did in the 2010 election there is a high chance that the 2015 election will be much more successful. A key component of that would be for the military to sit down with the various ethnic militias throughout Myanmar and try to get back to the progress that had been made in August regarding a national ceasefire. By showing a willingness to once again move forward with talks on the political side the military would demonstrate that it is not afraid of greater change in Myanmar. 

Ms. Clapp ended her talk with a warning against labeling recent developments in Myanmar as backsliding, a criticism that has plagued the Obama administration's efforts to continue close contact with Myanmar. Instead of thinking that every arrest of a journalist and similar issues constitutes a backslide, Ms. Clapp advised that those who are watching Myanmar focus on how far it has come. Coming back to the journalist example, she emphasized how now Myanmar has a freer press than it has ever had before in its history. Arrests of journalists, while lamentable, are "business as usual" in Myanmar and are occurring with less frequency and brutality than previously. It is therefore imperative that the United States maintains its close contact with Myanmar, in particular with the civil society which has benefited enormously from outreach by American and other NGOs on the ground. For what happens in Myanmar is truly "a test of democracy itself" as it seeks to assert itself in ways that just a few years ago many would have deemed impossible. 

 For more images, please visit the album for this event on the East-West Center's Flickr page. 

Ms. Priscilla Clapp currently serves as Senior Advisor to the Asia Society and the U.S. Institute of Peace, as well as being a member of the International Advisory Board of USIP. During her 30-year career with the U.S. Government, Ms. Clapp served as Chief of Mission and permanent Charge d’Affaires at the U.S. Embassy in Burma (1999-2002), Deputy Chief of Mission in the U.S. Embassy in South Africa (1993-96), Principal Deputy Assistant Secretary of State for Refugee Programs (1989-1993), Deputy Political Counselor in the US Embassy in Moscow (1986-88), and chief of political-military affairs in the US Embassy in Japan (1981-85). Ms. Clapp is also the author of numerous books including: with Morton Halperin, Bureaucratic Politics and Foreign Policy (Brookings, 2006), with I.M.Destler et al., Managing an Alliance: the Politics of U.S.-Japanese Relations (Brookings, 1976), with Morton Halperin, U.S.-Japanese Relations in the 1970's (Harvard, 1974). She is a frequent media commentator and the author of numerous publications on Burma and U.S. Burma policy with USIP, the Brookings Institution, the East-West Center, Australia National University, the Asia Society, the National Bureau of Asian Research and others. She speaks Russian, Japanese, French, and some Burmese.

Primary Contact Info:
Name: Sarah Batiuk
Phone: 202-327-9755