Senior Research Fellow, Asia Programme

The recent spate of political reforms in Burma has raised more questions than answers. The motivation of the military, who dominate the parliament, is far from clear.

One interpretation that seems highly plausible is that the military assumed that the main opposition party, the National League for Democracy (NLD), was on its last legs. Aside from its leader, Aung San Suu Kyi, the party hierarchy is ageing, and the party's infrastructure has suffered from two decades of repression. In contrast, the military's Union Solidarity and Development Party are well organized and had performed well in the 2010 general election, which was boycotted by the NLD.

This week's by-election results in Burma, if confirmed, suggest that this assumption was deeply flawed. The opposition National League for Democracy claims to have won 43 of the 44 seats it contested, with some reports suggesting that it may have won all 44.

The notion that Burma’s military would be able to oversee a managed transition from military rule to some form of democratic governance always seemed more hopeful than plausible. The chances of either a return to repression or some form of revolutionary overhaul would be greater, at least from any historical comparison.

The reform process in Burma always had a back of an envelope feel to it; if some political prisoners are released and if some form of election takes place then sanctions will be lifted and the military can carry on ruling as before. Presuming that the NLD has demonstrated its popularity with the by-election, that envelope is likely to have been discarded. 

Thein Sein the Reformer? 

But President Thein Sein and his advisors still have some options. The next general election is not due until 2015. They may hope that having a rump of marginalized NLD legislators in parliament will demonstrate the NLD’s weaknesses. By 2015, maybe support for the NLD will have declined, and some veil of legitimacy will be able to justify continued military rule. 

One interpretation of the reforms is that there is a split between reformers and hardliners in the military. According to this view, reformers, led by Thein Sein, need to assuage the hardliners through, for instance, the 2008 constitution, under which the military directly controls 25% of the seats. Constitutional changes require 75% support. 

If he is a genuine reformer, it would seem doubtful that Thein Sein would personally believe that the constitution is sustainable. It may be that the military believed that it had some level of popular support; such notions will now need to be discarded. Indeed, if Thein Sein is a true reformer then it is difficult to envisage that de facto military rule will continue for another three years. If he is the de Klerk or Gorbachev character that some suggest, then the freedoms he has enabled – not least in the media – are likely to generate their own momentum in the months ahead.

Lifting Sanctions

The third option is less palatable, but no less plausible for that. The reform process seemed to have as its goal international acceptance of Burma as a 'normal' country - a country that does not endure sanctions and which is able to host international sporting contests, rather than democracy and 'freedom' per se. Will the military now conclude that the benefits of 'normalizing' Burma would come at too great a cost to its own position? Perhaps Thein Sein will be revealed to be less of the reformer. Or perhaps hardline elements of the military will step in and roll-back the reforms.

But this too would not be without risks. Domestically, it may be hard to put the genie back into the bottle. And internationally, the regime could bid farewell to the hope that Western sanctions would be lifted. Neighbours of Burma who have suggested that the reform process demonstrated the effectiveness of their 'constructive engagement' would face a few dilemmas of their own.

Those hoping to encourage democracy also face dilemmas. Should the NLD try to reassure the military of its continued importance to Burma's polity? Or, confident of its popular support, should it take to the streets? Should the West lift sanctions to encourage continued reform? 

The biggest dilemma is for Thein Sein. Following the elections, the time for him to reveal whether or not he is to be Burma's de Klerk will have to be sooner rather than later.

Also read:

Burma: Time for Change?
Programme Paper
Gareth Price, December 2011