- - Tuesday, November 3, 2015


On Nov. 8, Myanmar will hold what many independent international observers and news media say are the most important elections in our country’s history.

And nobody knows for sure who will win and form a new government.

This testifies to the dramatic transformation in Myanmar, formerly known as Burma. Americans should be proud that the United States’ diplomatic outreach to Myanmar has effectively supported our reform process toward democracy. As our two countries broaden and deepen our friendship, Myanmar will be encouraged to evolve further from a once-closed society to an open and democratic one that welcomes participation by its people and engagement with the world.

Since our new government took office in 2011, Myanmar has been conducting a journey of change. After more than a half-century of ethnic conflict, international isolation and economic stagnation, Myanmar has been moving forward with political, economic and social reforms.

Under the current administration of President U Thein Sein, political prisoners were released. Daw Aung San Suu Kyi, through a bi-election in 2012, became a member of parliament; and there is a much freer press, with enhanced freedom of expression for the people. In place of a centralized, state-controlled economy, free-market reforms are underway, encouraging foreign investment and domestic entrepreneurship.

Meanwhile, the government recently signed a nationwide ceasefire agreement with eight armed ethnic groups, greatly reducing tensions ahead of the elections and laying the foundation for a permanent peace that would end 60 years of ethnic unrest.

In a milestone on Myanmar’s transition to democracy, more than 30 million of our country’s 52 million people will be eligible to elect a total of 1,171 representatives for the Pyithu Hluttaw and Amyotha Hluttaw — the two houses of Parliament — and for state and regional assemblies. In an indication of how competitive the political process has become, voters will choose among more than 6,000 candidates from more than 90 political parties, including the National League of Democracy, the largest opposition party that boycotted the 2010 general elections.

The government is committed to ensuring that the elections are free and fair, and transparent. The elections are being administered by an independent 16-member Union Election Commission, in consultation with civil society organizations and political parties, and we received electoral assistance from international organizations, including the United Nations and the International Foundation for Electoral Systems. The voting will be open to international observers from the Carter Center, the European Union, Japan and elsewhere. Officials from the U.S. administration, staffers from the U.S. Congress and other interested organizations have also been allowed to monitor the vote.

The international media have reported robust political campaigning across the country. The current government leadership has publicly confirmed their commitment to accept the outcome of the election, whoever wins, and in accordance with the Constitution to peacefully transfer power to a new government approved by a joint session of the two houses of Parliament in March.

It is no secret that we have challenges arising from our limited technical capabilities and our relatively brief experience with democracy. The Union Election Commission, in cooperation with both international and domestic stakeholders, is striving to put procedures in place for resolving disputes about imperfect voting lists, any potential early voting abuses, and uncertain election security in areas with ethnic unrest.

But Myanmar’s steady march to democracy is a marathon, not a sprint, and the road is often rocky.

Being a four-year old democracy, Myanmar still needs to build stronger democratic intuitions and upgrade our legal system to international norms. Together with our friends from other countries, the people of Myanmar and their elected leaders need to strengthen our system of self-government, maintain and expand the ceasefire agreement, resettle internally displaced persons, and continue to build the economy.

Opening the economy is already reaping returns, with growth of 7 percent or more every year since 2011. The United States can help by continuing to encourage two-way trade between our countries, which has increased from $9.7 million in 2010 to more than $185 million last year. Foreign direct investment from the U.S. and other countries has soared from $900 million in 2010 to more than $8 billion in 2014-15. Tourism has grown from 800,000 in 2009 to an anticipated 5 million this year.

True, no one knows who will win the elections. But as these statistics show, millions of Myanmar’s people are enjoying better lives as our country continues its journey toward free-market democracy. And as our leaders have said, there is no turning back.

Kyaw Myo Htut is Myanmar’s ambassador to the United States.

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