Myanmar’s unique challenges

One year after Aung San Suu Kyi took office, Myanmar’s transition to democracy remains incomplete, and the country faces serious challenges

Nigel Gould-Davies
10 April 2017
Aung San Suu Kyi addresses a crowd of supporters of the National League of Democracy. (Credit: Ye Naung/Jazz Editions/ABACA/PA)

Aung San Suu Kyi addresses a crowd of supporters of the National League of Democracy. (Credit: Ye Naung/Jazz Editions/ABACA/PA)One year ago, a new chapter opened in Myanmar’s history. In April 2016, Aung Sang Suu Kyi’s National League for Democracy (NLD) took office following its sweeping election victory the previous November. This peaceful transition to democratic government was the culmination of a remarkable and largely unpredicted opening-up by the entrenched military regime that had ruled the country for five decades.

The NLD has begun tackling the hard challenges of reforming one of the poorest countries in the world. Inevitably, the miracle narrative of Daw Suu’s ascent from political prisoner to State Counsellor (a bespoke position that makes her de facto President) has come under strain. These challenges are uniquely complex. We can understand why by comparing Myanmar with the distilled experience of the fifty or so countries that have made their own democratic transition over the past forty years. While each country is different, all transitions resemble one another. By studying them we can draw wider conclusions about their characteristic paths, dynamics and outcomes, and the ways that specific national experiences vary.

This casts light on the nature and scale of the challenges facing a new democracy. Transitions are not completed until a democracy is consolidated. This requires a broad consensus among all significant political forces that democracy is the only legitimate way to resolve disagreements, however severe they are. Meeting major early challenges successfully is critical: this provides wide reassurance that the new regime is resilient and effective.democratisations are careful and complex negotiations involving pressure, inducement and compromise

Democracies almost always face a difficult birth. This is because serious problems – economic decline, social conflict, defeat in war – undermined the previous authoritarian regime, causing it to open up. Why else would it do so? Successful autocracies do not give up power. Inevitably, then, the democracy that succeeds it inherits problems. In addition, many transitions are also “pacted”; that is, agreed between forces of the old and new regime. While we often think of democratisations as “hero stories” of self-sacrificing struggle led by exceptional leaders, they are also, no less than this, “strategy stories”: careful and complex negotiations involving pressure, inducement and compromise. The Myanmar transition has been no exception.

All this means that new democratic leaders gain power not on their own terms, but on those negotiated with their predecessors. And within these constraints they must address the problems that led to the negotiations. Three sets of challenges can arise from this combination of problems-plus-constraints. They may be posed as questions. The first is: how does power work? This is the challenge of state design. The second is: how does wealth work? This is the challenge of the economy. The third is: how does society work? This is the challenge of identity. Myanmar is unique in facing all three challenges on a significant scale.

First, how does power work? This question covers two issues: the constitutional design that defines how the country is governed, and the role of the military. In most democratic transitions the constitution is part of the bargaining process, or is promulgated by the new democratic regime as part of its ‘founding moment’. Either path confers democratic legitimacy on the constitution and ensures that it reflects the wishes of the new government. Unusually in Myanmar, the constitution was written by the military regime in 2008, before the transition began. The NLD has had no say in the design of the institutions through which it now governs. Nor can it obviously change them. The constitution is designed to remain amendment-proof without the consent of the military – not least by granting it 25% of legislative seats.the military appears determined to retain effective control over key areas of policy, especially security and home affairs

The role of the military is critical in transition. Since it wields the biggest stick, it can stop a transition in its tracks or remove a democratic government if it feels its interests are under serious threat. When, as in Myanmar, the military was the old regime rather than merely a servant of it, transition presents a deeper cultural and organisational challenge. The military must not only transfer loyalty to a new government, but also accept subordination to civilian authority.

This sounds hard. Yet civil-military relations have generally been a success story in recent democratic transitions, and intervention to halt or threaten democratisation rare. (Egypt is an exception). But the record in Myanmar is more complex and ambiguous. While the military allowed the NLD to take office and form a government, it appears determined to retain effective control over key areas of policy, especially security and home affairs. It remains a political actor that decides policies rather than merely advising on and implementing them. Myanmar seems far from achieving “objective civilian control”, Samuel Huntington’s classic account of stable and effective civil-military relations in a democracy. To this extent, the transition remains incomplete.

Second, how does wealth work? Economic failure is the most common cause of the performance and legitimacy crisis that forces an authoritarian regime to open up. In Myanmar’s case, chronic misrule (the country has been designated by the UN as a “least developed country” since 1987) was compounded by international isolation. This is a difficult point of departure for the new government: few countries as poor as Myanmar have undergone a successful transition, while the transition itself has generated rising popular expectations.a deeper structural challenge is to develop the country’s vast natural wealth in ways that avert the ‘resource curse’ 

Economic development is now a priority. Reforms like the new Foreign Investment Law will encourage this. Military-linked ‘crony’ interests, who thrived under the previous regime, may need to be managed carefully. But a deeper structural challenge is to develop the country’s vast natural wealth in ways that avert the ‘resource curse’. Too often elsewhere, elite struggles for access to resource rents have stunted democratic development and severely distorted economic development.

Third, how does society work? Recent experience shows that identity conflict can present the most severe challenge to the stability of a new democracy. In many emerging democracies new freedoms of speech and expression have allowed the celebration and revival of long-suppressed or discouraged national, religious and other bases of belonging. But this has a dark side: an immature information market, and ‘ethnic entrepreneurs’ seeking new bases of political support, can mobilise identities against one another, playing on historic distrust or past conflict. The ability to spread rumours and ‘fake news’, rapidly and on a mass scale, greatly magnifies this problem.

Tragically, Myanmar has experienced this and is likely to continue doing so. With over 135 nationalities it is among the most multi-ethnic states in the world, and has suffered continuous conflict since independence. In particular the Muslim Rohingya in Rakhine State suffer severe, widely-held prejudice and years of official persecution. The escalation of conflict and gross human rights abuses against them is the most alarming development in the country since the NLD took office.

Myanmar, then, faces all three of the major challenges that can beset a new democratic regime. In each case, it does so in especially acute forms. One bleak scenario sees assertive national groups demanding local control over resource wealth, pushing decentralising reforms further than intended. Since much of the country’s mineral wealth is located around its periphery, this could in turn prompt military intervention to forestall perceived threats to Myanmar’s territorial integrity. This is a perfect storm, and it illustrates how the challenges facing this new democracy must be considered together.

But none of this is a counsel of despair, nor does it absolve failure. While Myanmar has a difficult hand to play, its policy choices will determine whether it plays this hand well or badly. There are proven (though not fullproof) ways of tackling each of the issues discussed above. The scale of these challenges makes it essential that the government invest in the capacity to play its difficult hand as wisely as possible. It is vital too, that the international community maintain its focus, ensure effective co-ordination, and provide high-quality advice and support.

This article is published in association with the Westminster Foundation for Democracy, which is seeking to contribute to public knowledge about effective democracy-strengthening by leading a discussion on openDemocracy about what approaches work best. Views expressed herein do not necessarily reflect those of WFD. WFD’s programmes bring together parliamentary and political party expertise to help developing countries and countries transitioning to democracy.


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