A Few Wild Cards in the Myanmar Junta’s Stacked Deck

Myanmar’s first elections in two decades so far have delivered few surprises: The military-backed Union Solidarity and Development Party (USDP) is celebrating an overwhelming victory as opposition parties bombard the government-appointed Union Electoral Commission with fraud complaints.

Since March, when the ruling military regime announced its plan to hold elections in 2010, the government has been laying the groundwork for highly predictable results. Election regulations that sidelined pro-democracy leaders like Aung San Suu Kyi, dissolved the opposition National League for Democracy (NLD) party, crippled public rallies and set prohibitively high candidate registration fees ensured that the USDP would take a commanding majority of the 1,159 parliamentary seats available. Just in case, the government reserved 25% of the seats for the military, guaranteeing veto power.

The elections did not proceed entirely according to plan, however. On Election Day, a battalion of one of the ethnic minority militias, the Democratic Karen Buddhist Army (DKBA), staged an uprising that sent an estimated 15,000 refugees fleeing to Thailand. The military quashed the disturbance within 48 hours, but the rebels had made their point: Myanmar’s ethnic minorities resent their disenfranchisement and will not readily concede to government attempts at “unification.”

Since 2009, the government has been pushing these armies to merge into a Border Guard Force under military control, and some have agreed. These concessions followed shows of military force, including an offensive against the Kokang militias that sent 37,000 people fleeing to China. Yet, if election restrictions are any indication, the junta remains concerned about subduing the ethnic minorities that constitute 40% of Myanmar’s population. The Electoral Commission rejected the registration of some ethnic minority parties and deemed around 300 villages across five ethnic minority states ineligible for voting (“as they are in no position to host free and fair elections,” the commission announced in September). Despite the government’s efforts to keep these groups silenced and controlled, ethnic unrest may worsen. Six rebel groups have formed an alliance to escalate their anti-government efforts, including by attacking urban as well as rural areas, a representative from the Kachin National Organization, an activist group, told reporters.

The other potential destabilizing force is Suu Kyi, Myanmar’s most popular politician, whose house arrest is set to expire on November 13. Though the ruling regime no doubt will keep Suu Kyi under close watch (should it release her at all), she remains an immensely influential figure and has expressed her intention to return to the political arena. Suu Kyi “represents an alternative vision of how life in Burma could be,” British Ambassador Andrew Heyn writes in the Guardian, with “freedom from fear” and “a radical change from the current position.”

These potential sources of instability pose an economic as well as a political risk. China, India and Thailand want a stable Myanmar not only to stanch sporadic influxes of refugees; they also want to secure energy supply routes and resource deals. Construction is underway on an oil pipeline through Myanmar that will connect China’s Yunnan province with the Bay of Bengal and Andaman Sea. Meanwhile, Myanmar’s natural gas provides an estimated 20% of the power in Thailand—its top trading partner—and India has been pursuing investment deals in the sector.

With U.S. sanctions firm, Myanmar’s neighbors have the most to gain from pushing the new “civilian” government to implement the social, political and economic reforms needed to ensure stability. Aside from reminding regional players that they would benefit from holding Myanmar to certain human rights standards, the U.S. has few options for exerting pressure. After the U.S. policy of engagement with the junta failed to significantly influence the election proceedings, Secretary of State Hillary Clinton announced a Plan B: urging the creation of a UN commission of inquiry into crimes against humanity and war crimes in Myanmar. “Other than isolating the junta’s bank accounts in places like Dubai, which are viable options, there is relatively little more the Congress and the White House can do to punish the regime,” CFR’s Joshua Kurlantzick asserts in an op-ed. In fact, a tightening of financial sanctions may be in the cards: According to an unnamed source quoted in an August 18 WashPost article, the Obama administration is weighing such an option.

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