The past few months have seen their fair share of historic developments. Multiple terrorist attacks, the Paris Climate Conference, the Syrian conflict and the refugee crisis have dominated the headlines across Europe. In times of such uncertainty, the healthy functioning of democratic governance becomes increasingly at risk. For this reason, it is necessary to study the democratisation of Myanmar for lessons in the fundamentals of democracy.
Aung San Suu Kyi’s National League for Democracy (NLD) won by a landslide in Myanmar’s most recent democratic exercise. On Friday 13th November, the NLD was confirmed to have won nearly 85% of all contestable seats with around 30 million citizens casting their vote, out of a population of 53 million. Although there have been reported irregularities, these have not been enough to overturn the success of the NLD.
So after 25 years of periodic house arrest, Nobel Peace Prize winner Aung San Suu Kyi led her party to their second electoral success in the hope that this time the results are respected. Her release in 2010 coincided with the beginning of reform initiated by the Junta, beginning with a new constitution as part of a roadmap to democracy.
In the weeks following the election results, Aung San Suu Kyi met with leading General Min Aung Hlaing. Reports stated that the meeting was warm and open. Gen Hlaing indicated that further reforms could be pursued if there is a “mature and stable political situation,” in what has been described as a rather conciliatory interview.
Nonetheless, institutional barriers to democracy in Myanmar are severe. The constitution has built-in limitations that seem to have been designed with Aung San Suu Kyi in mind. That the President must not have foreign children prevents Suu Kyi’s ascension. Furthermore, the constitution guarantees 25% of the seats in the Hluttaw (Myanmar’s bicameral legislature) for the military. Additionally, the National Defence and Security Council remain the highest authority in the Government of Myanmar with direct control over the military. It is clear that the military is not yet ruled by parliament.
Aung San Suu Kyi has since publicly spoken of serving as President in “all but name” to bypass the constitutional barrier. While this may be practical during the transition period, it should not become a permanent feature of Burmese democracy. Some may feel that setting this precedent poses a threat to the long-term development of robust democratic institutions in the country.
Although further constitutional reform has been considered, this remains dependent on the old guard’s judgement of what is “mature” and “stable.” There are many factors which may influence this judgement. Primarily, they may fear persecution for their past atrocities. General Than Shwe ruled as head of the Junta for over two decades, overseeing a regime whose use of torture was widespread. Despite stepping aside in 2011, it is widely acknowledged that he still holds significant influence behind the scenes. His perception of the threat to his person may be an important factor in the progress of democratic reforms.
The history of ethnic conflict in Myanmar will be another major hindrance to democratic progress. Moreover, Aung San Suu Kyi’s silence on the persecution of the Rohingya minority has been of great international concern. Some have claimed that this silence has been primarily motivated by fear of jeopardising her support from large sections of the majority Bamar ethnic group. Already she has faced claims of being an “Islamist” by radical Buddhist monks for pursuing a pluralist agenda. The Rohingya minority, who are largely Muslim, have been severely targeted, with their voting rights categorically denied. Similar circumstances surround other ethnic minority groups including the Kachin and Shan.
Another threat to Myanmar’s democratisation is the network of retired officers who have camouflaged themselves within the bureaucracy, vying to ensure a continuation of their influence and power. Most notably, Tin Aye, a retired general, leads the Union Election Commission that has disenfranchised hundreds of thousands of ethnic and religious minorities. Those participating in the Ribbon Movement fear the creeping militarisation of civilian agencies, and have been marginally successful in resisting this development.
What lessons in democracy can we learn from Myanmar?
Firstly, the importance of strong democratic institutions has been made clear. The most prominent barriers to Myanmar’s democratisation are the institutional arrangements preserving the old guard.
Additionally, successful democracies necessitate a basic level of tolerance in order to protect minority groups and must also seek to ensure that they are involved in political processes. Resolving Myanmar’s history of ethnic violence will be as challenging and important as attaining institutional solidity.
It is also crucial for there to be a politically active citizenry who are diligent in protecting their infant democratic institutions. The Ribbon Movement in Myanmar is an excellent example for us all.
The challenges Myanmar faces in the short and long term teach us that democracy is not a utopian destination. It is a never-ending journey where complacency cannot be afforded. This is a lesson even the world’s mature democracies must be reminded of.
Erwin has recently completed an MSc in International Political Economy at the London School of Economics. He places great importance on multilateral cooperation and firmly believes that the Global South must be given greater parity in International Organisations. Previously, Erwin has interned at the Office of Tony Blair, and gained research experience at the Lau China Institute.