Indiana University

Skip to:

  1. Search
  2. Breadcrumb Navigation
  3. Content
  4. Browse by Topic
  5. Services & Resources
  6. Additional Resources
  7. Multimedia News

Media Contacts

James Boyd
Maurer School of Law

Steve Hinnefeld
University Communications

Last modified: Wednesday, September 15, 2010

Indiana University expert: Don't pin hopes on Burma's upcoming elections

Sept. 15, 2010

BLOOMINGTON, Ind. -- The international community will be making a mistake if it focuses on encouraging Burma's military government to hold "free and fair" elections in November, says an Indiana University law professor who has advised the Asian nation's ethnic opposition groups.

David Williams, the John S. Hastings professor of law at the Indiana University Maurer School of Law and director of the Center for Constitutional Democracy, said Burma's 2008 constitution guarantees that the secretive and authoritarian military government will retain power, regardless of the elections.

David Williams

David Williams

Print-Quality Photo

"The central focus of the international community should not be free and fair elections," Williams said. "Instead, it should be seeking ways to encourage the Burmese government -- both the military, which will still hold real power after the election, and the new civilian office-holders -- to undertake sustained dialogue with all of the country's stakeholders, especially its ethnic minorities."

Burma has been torn by civil war for more than half a century. The military has governed the country since 1962 and officially changed its name to the Union of Myanmar in 1989.

Williams said the military government, called the State Peace and Development Council (SPDC), has ensured that its hand-picked candidates will win in November by imposing restrictions on opponents, including expensive filing fees, tight deadlines and limits on who can be on the ballot. Opposition leader Aung San Suu Kyi's National League for Democracy is boycotting the elections because of the rules.

And while the elections may produce a civilian government, the constitution allows the military to declare a state of emergency, dissolve the government and seize power -- legally.

But even if the civilian government had real authority, that wouldn't address the ethnic divisions that lie at the heart of Burma's decades-old civil war. The only path to true change for Burma, Williams said, is "trilateral dialogue" among the government, the democratic opposition and the minorities that have been fighting for a measure of self-determination.

Williams said the elections could, however, create a new interest group of civilian politicians who may eventually contend with the military for power and patronage. Instead of focusing on Burma's elections, he said, the U.S. and other international parties should establish relationships with the new civilian legislators and the ethnic resistance armies. Then, if the situation in Burma turns more fluid, the international actors could exert influence to promote dialogue with a goal of democratic power-sharing.

"Even if the elections were free and fair, it wouldn't matter," Williams said, "because under the constitution the military will still rule and the ethnic minorities will still be at risk. Right now, before the elections take place, the international community should focus its attention on the weeks and years after the election, because that is the earliest that real reform might take place."

To speak with Williams, contact James Boyd at the Maurer School of Law, 812-856-1497 or; or Steve Hinnefeld at the IU Office of University Communications, 812-856-3488 or