Myanmar Needs Peace Before Elections

You can't vote with a gun in your hands.

Photographer: David Longstreath/LightRocket via Getty Images

In Myanmar next month, elections are expected to produce the country's first democratically elected parliament since 1960. Ideally, that government would inherit a country unified and at peace after decades of battling ethnic insurgencies. For that to happen, however, Myanmar needs to consolidate a nationwide cease-fire agreement and ensure that all parts of the country get to vote. 

These goals just became more challenging, after only eight of the 15 rebel groups involved in negotiations with the government agreed to sign a comprehensive cease-fire deal. This raises the threat of renewed violence, as well as fears that the polls may not go ahead in contested areas. The government could suspend voting in several places due to security concerns, as it did in 2010 and 2012 elections, undermining the credibility of the outcome.

A continuing civil war would in turn hamper any new government's ability to attract investment, tap natural resources and weaken the military's grip on power.

QuickTake Myanmar's Transition

Authorities have indicated that the holdouts can always change their minds later and join in political negotiations that are meant to commence now. In reality, any new government will take months to get established and appoint a new negotiating team; the parliament won't even choose a new president until next February.

Even then, opposition leader Aung San Suu Kyi's National League for Democracy, widely expected to dominate the polls, is unlikely to be able to offer ethnic groups a deal more attractive than the one now on the table, given the party's fraught relations with the military. The chances of a comprehensive deal aren't going to improve over time.

If the international community wants to ensure that Myanmar's fragile transition stays on track, it cannot merely sit back and monitor the November vote. It needs to do more to improve the prospects for a cease-fire now. China, for one, has influence over the biggest holdout, the United Wa State Army, as well as three rebel groups still fighting along the Chinese border. Beijing could greatly improve its reputation within Myanmar by bringing the Wa into the fold and cutting off any support the others may be receiving on its side of the border.

The U.N. and Western countries should provide their own public assurances to the other rebel groups, promising to monitor compliance with the peace deal and to hold the Burmese military to its side of the bargain. The U.S. has especially strong leverage now that the Burmese army is seeking equipment and a closer military-to-military relationship. These countries should also be much more specific about the financial and technical aid that will flow to ethnic areas included within the agreement.

Suu Kyi herself, who remains the most popular figure in the country, finds herself in a difficult position. Naturally reluctant to grant the ruling military-backed party a public-relations victory ahead of the vote, she has warned ethnic rebels not to rush into a bad deal. But continued fighting would only reinforce the military's argument that it alone can guarantee the nation's unity and sovereignty. If Suu Kyi is to maximize her party's influence after the elections, she needs Myanmar to be at peace.

Quietly at least, she should make clear that the remaining holdouts would be wise to sign now, so that a new government can take the country forward and stop fighting the battles of the past. 

To contact the senior editor responsible for Bloomberg View’s editorials: David Shipley at davidshipley@bloomberg.net.