Myanmar and Democracy: Are They Compatible?

By Mikaela Tenner

Source: Reuters

Source: Reuters

In 2012, amid a sweeping wave of democratic reforms in Myanmar, President Barack Obama became the first United States president to visit the nation in Southeastern Asia. Prior to these reforms, Myanmar, officially known as Republic of the Union of Myanmar, was plagued by unrest and violence. Over the past several decades, international bodies have severely condemned Myanmar over its extreme violations of human rights, which have ranged from the employment of child soldiers in their military, to systemic sexual violence, to genocide allegations over the killings of the local Rohingya people.

Nevertheless, when Myanmar transitioned to a military-backed government in August of 2011, the newly formed government began to make a series of political reforms. These reforms, which include the improvement of civil rights, a decrease of media censorship, and the release of hundreds of political prisoners, garnered international praise and helped the country progress toward democracy. This ultimately brought hope for the future of Myanmar and its inhabitants, leading former Secretary of State Hillary Clinton to visit in 2011 and President Obama to follow in 2012.

Although Myanmar was slowly becoming more democratic, it began to backtrack in the early days of 2014 when waves of violence began erupting throughout the nation, particularly between its local Muslim and Buddhist populations. Instead of attempting to terminate the unrest, the government began imposing further restrictions on its population, such as imposing an all-night curfew. In April 2014, Human Rights Watch declared that if the government did not intervene to assist those in harms way, the international community would see them as taking part in the brutality.

With the future of the country at stake, President Obama once again went to Myanmar to meet with President Thein Sein to discuss the country’s turmoil on November 12, 2014. Obama focused his meeting with President Sein on the upcoming elections in the nation, declaring that they needed to be “free, inclusive, and transparent.” President Sein agreed with Obama’s proclamation, but also asserted that democratization is a process, and thus cannot occur overnight.

With Myanmar’s abysmal record on human rights, it is key that the international community takes action to ensure improvement of conditions in the nation. International pressure will be necessary to make sure that all citizens of Myanmar will be free from the corruption and abuses of their government. As one of the most powerful and democratic nations in the world, many see it as the duty of the United States to ensure the well being of citizens in Myanmar in order to prevent any more loss of human life at the hands of their ineffective government. With the democracy of Myanmar at stake, the U.S. ideally will want to secure the advancement of Myanmar and foster its growth as a country without intervening too much. Too much U.S. involvement in the affairs of Myanmar could ultimately be detrimental to the country’s future democratization.

While President Obama did indeed meet with President Sein earlier this month, it would appear that his goal was to make sure that the upcoming elections would be legitimate. He did not threaten military intervention, or warn of a suspension of diplomatic ties with the U.S. By doing so, President Obama is having the United States foster the growth of Myanmar through mutual talks and encouragement, rather than by force. Ultimately, this is the best-case scenario for both the U.S. and Myanmar in the long term.Although U.S. intervention may be able to initially secure Myanmar’s democratic processes, this in no way means that they will be sustainable long-term. In order to create lasting democracy, the government of Myanmar must be able to take the initiative to instate these reforms. The commitment to a more democratic Myanmar future must come from their leaders, rather than through external pressure.

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