Voters went to the polls last Sunday in Burma to elect a new Parliament. The opposition National League for Democracy—Nobel Peace Prize–winner Aung San Suu Kyi’s party—scored an impressive victory. According to the early returns, the NLD is on track to win over 80 percent of the vote and capture a sizable majority in Parliament.
And yet the election carries with it an asterisk—just like the New England Patriots’ 2015 Super Bowl victory (deflated footballs) or Barry Bonds’s home-run record (steroids). In Burma’s case, the asterisk involves the 25 percent of seats set aside for representatives of the military. This bloc also holds veto power over any constitutional changes.
And, according to the Constitution, Aung San Suu Kyi can’t be president.
Because of these asterisks, The Washington Post’s Jackson Diehl used Burma as Exhibit A in his criticism this week of the Obama administration’s coddling of dictatorships:
It nevertheless is becoming clear that the regimes on which Obama has lavished attention have greeted his overtures with a counter-strategy. It’s possible, they calculate, to use the economic benefits of better relations to entrench their authoritarian systems for the long term, while screening out any liberalizing influence. Rather than being subverted by U.S. dollars, they would be saved by them.
Tell that to all the people celebrating in the streets of Burma’s capital and throughout the country. The ruling party may well believe that it’s created the façade of democracy in order to secure foreign investments and maintain its hold on power. But that doesn’t mean that its perception jibes with reality. Nor does it follow that the Obama administration’s gambit is a faulty one. Diehl thinks that he’s as cunning as the Burmese junta in identifying the weaknesses of Obama’s strategy. More likely, Diehl is as intellectually torpid and politically blinkered as the junta is.
Also, democracy with asterisks is more the rule than the exception. And when it comes to tricky transitions, such asterisks can be a useful compromise.
Just ask the Poles.
The Case of 1989
The Polish opposition negotiated a compromise in 1989 very similar to the one embraced by the Burmese dissidents. And, at the time, plenty of critics responded with the same kind of hostility as Jackson Diehl. The Solidarity trade union, the skeptics lamented, had made a lousy deal with the devil.
In spring 1989, Solidarity activists sat down with government representatives in the legendary Round Table talks. Out of those discussions, the two sides agreed to parliamentary elections on June 4. All of the seats of a newly created Senate would be up for grabs. But the Communist Party and its satellite parties retained two-thirds of the seats in the more important chamber known as the Sejm (considerably more than what the Burmese junta demanded).