Strategic Patience: Keeping Burma's Reforms on Track

04/28/2015 03:36 pm ET | Updated Jun 28, 2015

Yangon -- Burma's President Thein Sein and ethnic armed groups recently endorsed a draft nationwide ceasefire agreement (NCA), which could bring an end to 60 years of ethnic conflict. The interim accord is the result of torturous negotiations over several years. However, the peace process is far from complete. Pressure on the parties is still needed for a final accord. Pressure from the international community is also needed to prevent Burma from backsliding on human rights.

Burma's military-led government initiated reforms in 2011. Reforms included releasing Aung San Suu Kyi, recipient of the Nobel Peace Prize, from house arrest and legalizing her National League for Democracy (NLD). The West rewarded reforms by lifting sanctions. The World Bank and Asian Development Bank cleared its arrears, and the Paris Club agreed to a huge debt write-off, totaling $6 billion. Burma was welcomed back as a member in good-standing of the international community, assuming the chair of ASEAN in 2014.

However, Burma's reform process is faltering just as the country enters the stretch run leading to national elections in November 2015.

Many pro-democracy advocates have been arrested and suffered harsh treatment by the authorities. More than 400 political prisoners and activists remain in custody.

The Burmese military retains control of the laws and institutions it used in the past to dismantle the reform movement. Police applied excessive force last month to disband protests over an education bill.

Citizens are arbitrarily detained under the flawed Peaceful Procession Law, particularly farmers demonstrating against illegal land grabs.

The government has also backtracked on press freedom, passing laws curtailing an independent media, unjustly convicting journalists and editors, and intimidating publications over their content.

Constitutional reform is also lagging.

The 2008 constitution, promulgated by the military junta, provides the military with 25 percent of parliamentary seats. Since 75 percent is needed to amend the constitution, the arrangement gives the military an effective veto.

Article 59F of the constitution excludes anyone with foreign ties from becoming president. Since Aung San Suu Kyi's ex-husband and children are British citizens, she is blocked from becoming president.

Sectarian tensions have roiled Burma, drawing criticism from the international community. Ethnic Rohingya Muslims in Arakan State, on Burma's border with Bangladesh, are systematically repressed.

In 2012, more than 100,000 Muslim Rohingya were driven from their homes by violence. Last year's nationwide census did not permit Rohingya to self-identify as such, preventing at least 1.3 million from registering to vote. The 1982 Citizenship Law is deeply discriminatory.

An ultranationalist Buddhist group, the 969 Movement, has been stoking religious violence between Muslims and Buddhists. Its activities clearly contradict Theravada Buddhist teachings.

National legislation introduced in 2014 promotes Buddhism over other religions. It establishes state control over religious conversion, interfaith marriage, and family planning.

A trust deficit exists after years of suppression and dissent. The trust deficit is growing, as Burma enters a period of contestation and gets closer to elections.

The U.S. government has taken an incremental approach, emphasizing strategic patience. President Barack Obama said, "Burma is still at the beginning of a long and hard journey of renewal and reconciliation." Washington worries about being too strident in its criticism lest it galvanize dark forces that could undermine peace and progress.

The Obama administration's approach to Burma's reform process raises a broader question about America's role supporting political transition around the world.

Regime change can be a destabilizing event, especially when countries lack a strong civic society and democratic institutions. Incremental change is more easily managed. However, the increments of reform must be enough to satisfy the demands of people seeking freedom from dictatorship.

Burma is a test case for calibrating the right balance between dynamic transition and a more deliberate process that may succeed, albeit at a slower pace.

David L. Phillips is director of the Program on Peace-building and Rights at Columbia University's Institute for the Study of Human Rights. He heads Columbia's Myanmar Assistance Program.