WASHINGTON — The recent unseating of the chief of Burma’s ruling party had a “chilling effect” on the political climate in the Southeast Asian country and was a reminder of the “bad old days” of military dictatorship, a senior US diplomat said on Friday.
The US assistant secretary of state for East Asia and the Pacific, Daniel Russel, was in Burma last week where he discussed the removal of party leader Shwe Mann as well as upcoming elections with senior officials.
“The internal leadership dispute within the USDP [Union Solidarity and Development Party] had a chilling effect on the political climate,” Russel said at the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace, a Washington think tank.
“The government and the ruling party have to act in a way that reinforces, not undermines, public confidence in the government’s commitment to democratic processes,” he added.
Shwe Mann was removed as head of the ruling party in August, just three months before a general election, after soldiers and policemen surrounded party headquarters in the capital Naypyidaw.
The move was greeted with unease in Washington but has not led to changes in the United States’ engagement with Burma.
Russel said while the ruling party had the right to make its own internal personnel decisions, the move was seen by many in Burma as “a return to the bad old days” of military dictatorship.
“I tried to make very clear that whatever the rationale … the government and the party really needs to bend over backwards to demonstrate that the bad old days are in fact over and they will not avail themselves of the tools of oppression that marred Burma for so many decades,” he said.
Russel said that during the visit he had discussed the upcoming Nov. 8 general election with officials from the government and electoral body, as well as opposition leader Aung San Suu Kyi, and nongovernmental organizations.
He acknowledged that while there were “structural imperfections” and flaws around the election, with dozens of candidates barred from participating, it was a step toward building a fully fledged democracy. The election will be Burma’s first since military rule ended in 2011.
Russel said it would be important for continued US support that the next government kept up the reform agenda and built stability by addressing human rights, releasing political prisoners and reducing the role of the military in politics.
“Despite these flaws, this election can be a significant step forward for the credibility and sustainability of Burma’s reform process,” Russel said, adding: “We are keeping our eyes on the prize and the prize is progress, progress toward democracy.”