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Monday, April 2, 2012

Burma’s April Parliamentary By-Elections

Michael F. Martin
Specialist in Asian Affairs

The Republic of the Union of Myanmar (Burma) is scheduled to hold parliamentary by-elections on April 1, 2012. Depending on the conduct of the election and the official election results, the Obama Administration may seek to alter policy towards Burma, possibly including the waiver or removal of some current sanctions. Such a shift may require congressional action, or may be done using executive authority granted by existing laws.

The by-elections originally were to fill 46 vacant seats in Burma’s national parliament (out of a total of 664 seats) and 2 seats in local parliaments. On March 23, the Union Election Commission postponed voting for three seats from the Kachin State for security reasons. A total of 17 political parties are running candidates in the by-elections, including the National League for Democracy (NLD) and the pro-military Union Solidarity and Development Party (USDP). The by-elections are viewed as significant primarily because of the decision by the NLD to compete for the vacant seats.

The NLD and others allege that some Burmese officials and the USDP are taking steps to disrupt the NLD’s campaign and possibly win the by-elections by fraudulent means. Despite these problems, events at which Aung San Suu Kyi speaks routinely draw tens of thousands of people. In response to international pressure, the Union Government has invited the Association of Southeast Asian Nations (ASEAN), the European Union (EU), the United Nations, and the United States to send election observers. The State Department has said it intends to accept the offer.

Although largely free and fair by-elections would be a significant development, the current political situation in Burma remains a source of serious concern for U.S. policy makers. Hundreds of political prisoners remain in detention. Despite ceasefire talks, fighting between the Burmese military and various ethnic militias continues, resulting in a new flow of internally displaced people (IDPs) and refugees into nearby countries. Reports of severe human rights abuses by the Burmese military against civilians in conflict areas regularly appear in the international press.

The response of the Obama Administration to Burma’s by-elections will depend on the conduct of the campaign, the balloting process, the veracity of the official election results, and possibly on how the winners of the elections are treated once they become members of Burma’s parliaments. In addition, the response of opposition parties (particularly the NLD and its chairperson, Aung San Suu Kyi), other nations and the EU to the by-elections may influence the U.S. response.

Under current law, President Barack Obama has the authority to waive many—but not all—of the existing sanctions on Burma, and he may choose to exercise that authority following the byelections. Alternatively, the White House may ask Congress to consider legislation removing or altering some the existing sanctions. For its own part, Congress may decide to re-examine U.S. policy towards Burma and make whatever changes it deems appropriate.

For additional information on Burma, see CRS Report R41971, U.S. Policy Towards Burma: Issues for the 112th Congress; CRS Report R41336, U.S. Sanctions on Burma; and CRS Report R42363, Burma’s Political Prisoners and U.S. Sanctions. The report will be updated following the announcement of the official results of the by-elections, and as circumstances warrant.

Date of Report: March 28, 2012
Number of Pages: 14
Order Number: R42438
Price: $29.95

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