The latest fashion for dictators is to appear as democratic as possible. The regime in Egypt, for example, has drafted a constitution that will enshrine the military as the nation’s decisive force. But it will hold a referendum on the charter, promoting the appearance of self-government even as more and more government opponents are put into prison.
A critical question for 2014 is whether Myanmar’s rulers will choose to follow this path, too — and whether the United States will join in the pretense if it does. This matters, of course, for Myanmar, a southeast Asian nation of 60 million or so people strategically located among India, China and Thailand. But it matters for the region and beyond as well, because while freedoms have been constricting in many countries in recent years, Myanmar has been a bright spot.
For most of the past half-century, the military regime in Myanmar, also known as Burma, was one of the world’s most repressive and isolated. Then, eager to escape international sanctions and worried that China was dominating its economy, the regime "chose another path," as national security adviser Susan E. Rice said in a recent speech at Georgetown University. Democracy leader Aung San Suu Kyi was released from nearly two decades of house arrest and last year won a seat in parliament in a special election swept by the National League for Democracy, which she heads. Hundreds of political prisoners were freed. The regime pursued ceasefire talks with some of the ethnic groups it had been fighting for many years.
But which path has the regime chosen: true democracy or window-dressing? Full elections are scheduled for 2015, but they will be meaningless unless the nation’s constitution is changed in 2014. That is not only because the charter was written to exclude Aung San Suu Kyi from the presidency, though barring the nation’s most popular politician would in itself make any vote illegitimate. It’s also because the existing constitution, like Egypt’s proposed charter, preserves the military’s untouchable status, for example by reserving for itself 25 per cent of the seats in parliament. It’s not compatible with democracy.
Other warning signs abound. The regime has yet to make good on its pledge to free all political prisoners; indeed, new ones continue to be locked up, and the releases so far all have been conditional. Violence by Buddhists (who are in the majority) against Muslims has gone unpunished and, in some cases, has been encouraged by officials; in contrast, a courageous Muslim leader who tried to stop such violence, Tun Aung, has been imprisoned. The cease-fire talks have yielded little progress.
"There is still a great deal of work ahead before Burma fully transitions to democracy," Rice said. The question is whether its leaders think they can stop halfway, retain their power and have their pseudo-democracy be accepted as the real thing, or whether they are prepared to allow the Burmese to freely choose their leaders. The Obama administration should make clear that the first option won’t fly.