July 22, 2015 | Backgrounder on Myanmar
Burma will hold parliamentary elections on November 8, 2015, that will be a test of the country’s political reforms. In Burma’s own interest, as well as in the interest of U.S.–Burma relations, clear benchmarks must be in place before the election. For this reason it is disconcerting that the Obama Administration has abandoned the well-defined “free and fair elections” benchmark and substituted a new and yet-to-be-clarified election-process requirement for Burma. The U.S. should maintain its traditional “free and fair” standards for all countries, including Burma.
Burma is set to hold parliamentary elections on November 8, 2015. The elections will be a test of Burma’s political reform—a test the U.S. government considers one of the most important for the reform process.
Jonathan Stivers, Assistant Administrator for the U.S. Agency for International Development (USAID), stated that the U.S. government “has made a long-standing commitment to the people of Burma … a commitment which will continue, regardless of the outcome of the election.”
Such unconditional support lowers the political stakes for Burma and limits the leverage that the U.S. has to press Burma for continued reforms. It is in the best interest of Burma and U.S.–Burma relations that clear benchmarks are in place for a successful election.
The U.S. government appears to have altered its standards for Burma’s elections: Instead of referencing “free and fair elections”—as detailed by, among others, USAID—the U.S. has tempered its language, requiring merely that elections be “credible, transparent, and inclusive,” and reflect the will of the Burmese people. Deputy Secretary of State Antony J. Blinken noted that the U.S. expects freedom of the press, freedom of speech, and the ability for voters to freely cast votes for any elected official without the threat of violence. USAID officials said that they will be looking for open dialogue with civil society, constitutional reform on the role of the military in parliament, and protection for ethnic and religious minorities. What the new language actually means, however, remains unclear.
While the Obama Administration has not laid out clear criteria for its new benchmark for Burma, USAID has 10 standards for what generally constitutes “free and fair elections.” If the status quo holds, and the Burmese government undertakes no electoral reform in the lead-up to elections, Burma will fail to meet even the minimum requirements of these 10 principles:
Burma has promised much action on democratic reform, but follow-through has been lacking. Increases in political prisoners, exclusion of minority groups, and failure to undertake constitutional reform suggests that the 2015 election may be just another sign of regression in the reform process. The U.S. government should closely observe the lead-up to the elections, and the election day itself, as vital parts of evaluating the staying power of Burma’s reforms. The U.S. should:
 U.S. Agency for International Development, “Supporting Free and Fair Elections,” April 17, 2013, http://www.usaid.gov/news-information/congressional-testimony/jun-11-2015-aa-jonathan-n-stivers-house-asia-pacific-democracy-asia (accessed June 29, 2015).
 U.S. Embassy in Rangoon, “Burma and the U.S. Conclude Successful Second Human Rights Dialogue,” January 16, 2015, http://www.humanrights.gov/dyn/2015/01/burma-and-the-u.s.-conclude-successful-second-human-rights-dialogue (accessed June 29, 2015).
 U.S. Agency for International Development, “Testimony of Assistant Administrator Jonathan N. Stivers Before the House Subcommittee on Asia and the Pacific,” June 11, 2015, http://www.usaid.gov/news-information/congressional-testimony/jun-11-2015-aa-jonathan-n-stivers-house-asia-pacific-democracy-asia (accessed June 29, 2015).
 U.S. Agency for International Development, “Supporting Free and Fair Elections.”
 Priscilla Clapp, “Burma: Can the 2015 Elections Overcome the Legacy of 2010?” United States Institute of Peace, March 9, 2015, http://www.usip.org/olivebranch/2015/03/09/burma-can-the-2015-elections-overcome-the-legacy-of-2010 (accessed June 29, 2015).
 Sam DuPont et al., “Elections and Political Transition in Myanmar,” Princeton University, Woodrow Wilson School of Public Policy, February 2015, p. 12, http://wws.princeton.edu/sites/default/files/content/Princeton%20-%20Burma%20-%20FINAL.pdf (accessed June 29, 2015).
 Ibid., pp. 11 and 30.
 Clapp, “Burma: Can the 2015 Elections Overcome the Legacy of 2010?”
 Ei Ei Toe Lwin, “International Groups to Monitor Elections,” Myanmar Times, June 10, 2015, http://www.mmtimes.com/index.php/national-news/14959-international-groups-to-monitor-elections.html (accessed June 29, 2015).
 News release, “USAID Announces Elections and Political Process Assistance Program in Burma,” USAID, March 8, 2013, http://www.usaid.gov/news-information/press-releases/usaid-announces-elections-and-political-process-assistance-program (accessed June 29, 2015).
 The Asia Foundation, “Myanmar 2014: Civic Knowledge and Values in a Changing Society,” December 11, 2014, http://asiafoundation.org/resources/pdfs/KNinhAsianPerspectivesMM2014SurveyPresentationFeb2015.pdf (accessed June 29, 2015).
 Vikram Nehru, “Myanmar’s 2015 Election: The Basics,” Carnegie Endowment for International Peace, April 30, 2015, http://carnegieendowment.org/2015/04/30/myanmar-s-2015-election-basics/i80p (accessed June 29, 2015).
 Annie Gowen and David Nakamura, “U.S. Wanted Burma to Model Democratic Change But It’s Not Turning Out that Way,” The Washington Post, July 6, 2014, http://www.washingtonpost.com/world/us-wanted-burma-to-model-democratic-change-but-its-not-turning-out-that-way/2014/07/06/78321986-367b-4422-a896-69342e8874ac_story.html (accessed June 29, 2015).
 Rhys Thompson, “Myanmar: Aung San Suu Kyi and the Constitution,” The Lowy Interpreter, July 3, 2014, http://www.lowyinterpreter.org/post/2014/07/03/Myanmar-Aung-San-Suu-Kyi-and-the-constitution.aspx (accessed July 8, 2015).
 Assistance Association for Political Prisoners (Burma), “158 Current Political Prisoner List in Burma 2015,” May 13, 2015, http://aappb.org/2015/05/currently-political-prisoners-list-and-in-burma/ (accessed June 29, 2015), and Assistance Association for Political Prisoners (Burma), Annual Report 2013: A Year in Review, April 7, 2014, http://aappb.org/2014/04/annual-report-2013/ (accessed July 8, 2015).
 Walter Lohman, “A Reverse Road Map for Burma Sanctions,” Heritage Foundation Backgrounder No. 2749, December 12, 2012, http://www.heritage.org/research/reports/2012/12/a-reverse-road-map-for-burma-sanctions.
 Hnin Yadana Zaw, “Myanmar Military Retains Veto After Constitution Change Vote Fails,” Reuters, June 25, 2015, http://www.reuters.com/article/2015/06/25/us-myanmar-politics-idUSKBN0P50Q820150625 (accessed June 29, 2015).
 International Crisis Group, “Myanmar’s Electoral Landscape,” Asia Report No. 266, April 28, 2015, http://www.crisisgroup.org/~/media/Files/asia/south-east-asia/burma-myanmar/266-myanmar-s-electoral-landscape.pdf (accessed June 29, 2015).
 DuPont et al., “Elections and Political Transition in Myanmar.”
 David Scott Mathieson, “Happy Birthday to Burma’s Military,” Human Rights Watch, April 7, 2010, http://www.hrw.org/news/2010/04/07/happy-birthday-burmas-military (accessed June 29, 2015).
 Olivia Enos, “U.S. Should Not Stand by While Government in Burma Undermines Religious Liberty,” Heritage Foundation Issue Brief No. 4373, April 3, 2015, http://www.heritage.org/research/reports/2015/04/us-should-not-stand-by-while-government-in-burma-undermines-religious-liberty, and Karin Roberts, “Rohingya Refugees from Myanmar Have Been Persecuted for Decades,” The New York Times, May 12, 2015, http://www.nytimes.com/2015/05/13/world/asia/myanmar-rohingya-refugees-rakhine-burma.html?_r=0 (accessed June 29, 2015).
 San Yamin Aung, “Political Parties Sign Election Code of Conduct,” The Irawaddy, June 26, 2015, http://www.irrawaddy.org/burma/parties-sign-election-code-conduct.html (accessed June 29, 2015).
 Lohman, “A Reverse Road Map for Burma Sanctions.”
 Senate Resolution 116–A Resolution Providing for Free and Fair Elections in Burma,” Congress.gov, March 26, 2015, https://www.congress.gov/bill/114th-congress/senate-resolution/116 (accessed June 29, 2015).