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What Opposition’s Big Victory Means for Myanmar’s Political Thaw

April 2, 2012 at 12:00 AM EDT
Catapulting from imprisonment to elected office, Myanmar's pro-democracy leader Aung San Suu Kyi on Monday hailed a "new era" in the country, also known as Burma. Jeffrey Brown and The Asia Society's Priscilla Clapp discuss what the opposition's win, yet minority standing in Parliament, could mean for the country's future.
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TRANSCRIPT

GWEN IFILL: Jeffrey Brown takes the story from there.

JEFFREY BROWN: And with me is Priscilla Clapp, a retired Foreign Service officer who served as chief of mission at the U.S. Embassy in Myanmar from 1999 to 2002. She last visited the country in January. And she’s now a senior adviser to the Asia Society.

Welcome.

PRISCILLA CLAPP, former U.S. chief of mission in Myanmar: Thank you very much.

JEFFREY BROWN: Now, it’s still her party has a small minority of parliament. How do you see the significance of this victory?

PRISCILLA CLAPP: The significance is not in the numbers of the seats in the parliament. It is in the size of the victory.

The information that we’re getting right now is that the — her party, the National League for Democracy, took all of the 44 seats that they contested, including four seats in Naypyidaw, the capital, where — which is only inhabited by government officials and military.

JEFFREY BROWN: Even they. . .

PRISCILLA CLAPP: Even they must have voted for the NLD.

JEFFREY BROWN: Tell us a little bit about the government. If you think about how the government will now respond to this victory, are there pro- and anti-reform factions within the government? How unified is it?

PRISCILLA CLAPP: Yes, there is definitely a small conservative — actually, probably a fairly sizable conservative faction, a small reform faction.

The reform faction is on top leading the reforms right now. The conservatives are resisting. But they don’t have an alternative program. Now, this is going to create more tension between them. It could go one of two ways. Either the reformers come out by saying, look, the USDP, our party, the government party, is going to have to appeal to the people if it’s going to win the elections, the next general elections in 2015, or the conservatives could say, look, you brought the NLD back into the political arena and you have made a big mistake. You’re now threatening our majority in the parliament. So you’re on the wrong side of this and we have to move back to a more restrictive form of government.

JEFFREY BROWN: It’s interesting.

I saw some speculation that some parts of the ruling party wanted her to win, even beating their own candidates, right, because they want to show the outside world.

PRISCILLA CLAPP: Yes. Absolutely.

There is a lot running — a lot at stake here with the outside world. And they wanted to have at least her win, but a fairly good win for the NLD. I don’t think that they expected the NLD to take all of the seats. That really is a major victory, but it is going to help them with sanctions and with support from the outside world. It’s going to help the reform agenda. It will help the outside world support the reform agenda.

JEFFREY BROWN: Now, before I ask you about sanctions, I want to ask you about Aung San Suu Kyi herself now. What happens to her? She’s a symbol around the world as an outsider, as an opposition figure.

PRISCILLA CLAPP: Right. Right.

JEFFREY BROWN: And now she gets into government and sort of has to get into the nitty-gritty.

PRISCILLA CLAPP: She will be in the parliament. And the parliament is actually a very visible part of the government now because they have a budding C-SPAN there. They actually show it on television.

So she will now be on television for the national public fairly often in the parliament. She will continue to be a bigger and bigger symbol. And I think she’ll be very careful about how she manages her fame in front of the people she will be dealing with there. I think she’s going to be very careful, but she will use the opportunity, I suspect, to make friends with the ex-military and the military that is sitting in the parliament, because she believes that, unless you have the military behind — solidly behind the reform, it’s not going to work.

JEFFREY BROWN: Now, you mentioned the sanctions. This is one of the questions of what happens now, right? What kind of discussions would be happening in Washington and European capitals about how to proceed from here?

PRISCILLA CLAPP: Leaders in all of the capitals have used April 1 as the date when they start seriously thinking about rolling back sanctions. Even Aung San Suu Kyi said, let’s see how the elections go on April 1. That will be the first test, and then think about rolling back sanctions.

So it’s agreed that this is the time to begin thinking seriously about how you roll them back. I think the Europeans will lead on this. It’s going to be more difficult for the U.S. Sens. McConnell, McCain, Kerry and others have said it’s time — if things go well on the 1st of April, it’s time to start looking at rolling back sanctions.

But our sanctions are extremely complicated legally. It’s going to be difficult to do.

JEFFREY BROWN: And these are all aimed at economic reforms, right?

PRISCILLA CLAPP: Well, we also had a lot of political and administrative sanctions in place. But those were easier to start moderating and using, because they were more under the control of the executive branch.

But the economic sanctions are all legislative. And so they’re going to require changes in legislation. And that’s difficult, as you know. And there are many different kinds of economic sanctions. But the most comprehensive are the financial sanctions on the use of U.S. financial services.

JEFFREY BROWN: All right.

Priscilla Clapp on Myanmar, thanks so much.

PRISCILLA CLAPP: Thank you very much.