Hillary Clinton may claim it as a personal diplomatic achievement, but political reform in Burma is proving fitful and slow—if it continues at all. In the latest case, the country’s military-led parliament is poised to uphold the constitutional provision barring opposition leader and Nobel Peace laureate Aung San Suu Kyi from running for President in 2015.
Ms. Suu Kyi’s 2010 release from house arrest and 2012 participation in parliamentary elections were high-profile signs of change in a country that for decades was one of the world’s most repressive. As officers-turned-civilians took over from military junta leaders in 2011, Rangoon released some political prisoners, eased censorship and legalized labor unions. To expand their economy and avoid becoming a Chinese satrapy, Burmese leaders knew they needed to shed their pariah status and get out from under Western sanctions.
Everybody (except Beijing) celebrated this progress, but it’s worth remembering that those leaders were junta veterans governing under a constitution that they drafted and imposed through a rigged referendum in 2008. The document guarantees that the military will “participate in the national political leadership of the state” and hold at least 25% of seats in parliament. Since constitutional amendments require 75% parliamentary approval and a nationwide referendum, that gave the brass a veto.
The constitution also excludes from the presidency anyone whose children hold foreign citizenship, as Ms. Suu Kyi’s do. The opposition naturally wants to revise this eligibility provision, but last week a committee dominated by military and pro-military legislators overwhelmingly refused. Its decision will likely be confirmed shortly by the full parliament.
This doesn’t necessary spell disaster for Burmese democratization. The 2012 by-elections were largely fair, with Ms. Suu Kyi’s National League for Democracy winning 43 of the 44 open seats (for a 7% share of parliament overall). If next year’s general elections are also honest, and the NLD is able to capture a majority, Ms. Suu Kyi could then lead from the sidelines, a la Sonia Gandhi with India’s Congress Party.
But that assumes a lot, especially given the repression that endures more than three years after Rangoon promised a new era. The government still holds political prisoners, and many of those released languish in a vulnerable parole status. Journalists face intimidation, official finances remain opaque, and the undemocratic 2008 constitution is the law of the land. The worst abuses are against ethnic minorities, especially Rohingya Muslims, who face deadly mob violence and abuse from local authorities while Rangoon denies them citizenship and blocks aid.
The U.S. and European Union squandered some leverage by lifting sanctions too hastily in 2012, especially on investment in the state-owned Myanma Oil and Gas Enterprise. Last year Washington also lifted a far-reaching visa ban imposed on Burmese officials in 1996. But other sanctions remain in place, for example, against military-owned entities and “specially designated nationals” involved in human rights abuses or illicit trade with North Korea. Washington also maintains the power to tighten monitoring of U.S. firms launching or considering operations in Burma.
Ms. Suu Kyi’s exclusion from the Presidential race highlights the battleground to watch. Her party—which hasn’t been a particularly principled or skillful opposition the past two years—can now focus public attention on constitutional reform, especially the prohibitively high parliamentary bar for amendments. Clearly the generals want the benefits of an improved reputation without the costs of real reform, but internal and external pressure might still convince them that their strategic interests lie in following through.