This publication is from Carnegie’s Rising Democracies Network.

Last November’s stunning electoral victory in Burma for the National League for Democracy (NLD), led by Nobel Peace Prize Laureate Aung San Suu Kyi, followed by the recent peaceful election of a new president, have spurred hopes that the country’s democratic transition is moving forward. But one crucial dimension of this transition has been overlooked by Western analysts — namely, how Burma’s liberalization process has been viewed by Asia’s democracies.

Maiko Ichihara
Maiko Ichihara is an associate professor at Kansai Gaidai University in Japan.

This regional dimension matters. In the past, outside actors have played important roles in democratic transitions in places like Latin America, Southern and Eastern Europe, and the Balkans. While Asian democracies have paid lip service to supporting Burma’s political reforms, in practice their assistance has remained limited and circumspect. Though they have recently taken some steps to push forward democracy, their support has come too late and remains unduly reactive.

Burma’s November elections did receive extensive scrutiny from other Asian countries. India, Japan, South Korea and the Association of Southeast Asian Nations (ASEAN) all sent monitoring missions. NGOs from these countries joined the Asian Network for Free Elections (ANFREL) to monitor the election as well. Japan provided material and financial assistance, and Japanese politicians created an independent monitoring mission separate from that of the Japanese government. Media coverage of the election was extensive in many Asian countries, especially in India and Japan. By keeping an international spotlight on the election, all these missions surely made it more difficult for the military to tamper with the results.

But after the results were announced, reactions were muted. No Asian political leader, with the exception of Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi, called Aung San Suu Kyi to congratulate her on her party’s victory. This is a telling sign that, after years of maintaining a cautious distance from Burma’s internal politics, Asian democracies have not managed to establish close relations with the NLD. Instead they have dealt mainly with the government and state institutions. Constrained by their adherence to the principle of non-interference, Asian democracies have been reluctant to proactively push Burma toward democratization.

As they begin to adjust to the reality of the NLD’s victory, Asian democracies have become more anxious to improve their relationships with Burma’s new leading political force. There are good geostrategic reasons for them to do so, most of which have to do with China. India is keen to strengthen ties with Burma because it’s a natural buffer with its giant Asian competitor. Meanwhile, Japan is concerned about China’s growing reach into Burma in search of natural resources and access to the Bay of Bengal. The fact that Burma has recently sought to lessen its dependence on China — and the Burmese people’s relatively friendly attitude towards Japan — gives Japan a tantalizing geopolitical opportunity.

Some countries are beginning to reach out. The Japanese Ministry of Foreign Affairs has invited NLD leaders, including Aung San Suu Kyi, to visit Japan to discuss deepening bilateral cooperation. India, too, is making efforts to strengthen its ties with Aung San Suu Kyi, with past and current prime ministers Manmohan Singh and Narendra Modi visiting Burma and meeting with her in 2012 and 2014, respectively.

Indeed, the Asian democracies have gone beyond simply talking to the NLD — they have begun to support Burma’s democratization process in earnest. India now provides training sessions for Burma’s legislators and parliamentary staff as a way of sharing the experience of its democratic parliament. Indonesia provides media training to journalists and holds dialogues with the Burmese military to share its experience of democratic military reform. Japan is providing capacity-building training for the Supreme Court and the Attorney General’s Office to strengthen the judiciary and also supports Myanmar Radio and Television, a state-run broadcasting service, to promote impartial journalism.

Such initiatives have, to some extent, helped close the long-standing gap between Asian and Western policies towards Burma, the West having traditionally pushed for democratic reforms much more strongly, both rhetorically and through sanctions against the previous military regime. But a crucial difference between Asian democracies and the West remains: the level of support for Burmese civil society.

In September 2015, the European Union launched a roadmap for engagement with Burma’s civil society that envisions broader support for grassroots organizations. USAID also helps train Burmese civil society organizations how to hold their government accountable and promote transparency. Various Western non-governmental foundations also support Burma’s civil society organizations.

Support from Asian democracies, on the other hand, tends to take the form of assistance directly to the Burmese government. Government officials from Asian democracies meet with Burmese government officials and NLD members, but not with independent civil society actors — showing once again how an overly strict interpretation of the non-interference principle can lead to imbalanced policy.

Many observers of Burma’s political scene are focused on whether the new government can overcome resistance from the military bloc in parliament to achieve far-reaching constitutional change. But simply supporting the newly empowered NLD isn’t enough. This is all the more true given Aung San Suu Kyi’s statement during the election that she will be “above the president” in the new NLD administration. This has created some anxiety about the legitimacy of her role. Aung San Suu Kyi is also said to be somewhat cool towards outside support for independent civil society actors, suggesting that she, too, has a somewhat top-down vision of reform.

To support Burma’s democratization, Asian democracies need to expand the portfolio of their support for and give greater priority to Burma’s civil society organizations. This is because a purely top-down approach to democratic reform is unlikely to achieve far-reaching change and because Burma’s civil society remains weak relative to civic influences in other transition states.

Given that most countries use government agencies to provide democracy assistance, this might be difficult even after the NLD comes to power. Asian countries should look to create non-government foundations to support civil society and further democracy. Burma’s reform process is a significant test for Asian democracies’ commitment to democracy support; they still need to move up a gear to meet that challenge.

This article originally appeared in Foreign Policy.