Beyond the Critical Juncture: Myanmar’s 2015 Elections in Focus

By Jonathan Bogais —

Cyclists in the rising sun of Monywa, Myanmar. Source: Azweger’s flickr photostream, used under a creative commons license.

As the November 2015 elections approach, Myanmar’s politics have reached a critical juncture. It is a moment in the nation’s complex history during which patterns of interaction between individuals, groups, organizations, and authorities are set to unravel and place institutional arrangements on trajectories that will be difficult to alter. Individual action and the fluidity of the situation are now consequential, and statements, rallies, actions, and reactions all have a snowball effect.

The recent crackdown by Myanmar’s police on students demonstrating against education reforms, for example, immediately brought back memories of the bloody 1988 and 2007-2008 uprisings and crackdowns, with the obvious question raised by the international media and pro-democracy advocates: Could it happen again?

The debate about transition in Myanmar often starts and ends at the level of aphorism, stressing that there is an urgency and immediacy in the process of change. The first step to support a successful transition, however, is to listen and try to understand what is happening on the ground, and then contextualize the acquired knowledge in local, regional, national, and even global settings. With its large potential markets, abundant natural resources, and strategic position, Myanmar is the “new frontier” of the Asia-Pacific region. Competition for control of the anticipated revenues intensifies pressure on all sides.

While economic development can quickly generate wealth, the extractive, agricultural, and infrastructure-building industries are at risk of being concentrated in the hands of privileged elites, as in other Southeast Asian states, namely Cambodia. Economic development also has the potential to create and increase local grievances over social injustices and environmental damage, which in turn could disrupt fragile ceasefires in conflict-sensitive zones. This is a dangerous situation in a country of over 52 million people – home to 135 ethnic groups – in which 70 percent of the population are small-scale farmers and inequality is rampant. Myanmar has a long history of ethnic violence and is also a theater of violent interplay between two religious traditions within a sociocultural setting dominated by one religion.

Expecting rapid transformation in such a complex environment marked by decades of structural and political violence – and more recently, rising ethno-nationalism amid a rapidly changing socioeconomic landscape – is unrealistic. To expect the powerful Tatmadaw, Myanmar’s military, to surrender its political influence without economic gain while development aid and foreign investment are surging is equally unrealistic. This makes installing a Western-style representative democracy a difficult task, especially in a region in which weak democracies and autocracies are common and where military participation in politics and the economy is unexceptional.

Fair elections, a constitution, and the rule of law are the pillars of democracy. At a critical juncture challenges to legitimacy are the norm, in this case to the incumbent government. In April 2015, only months before scheduled elections in November, National League for Democracy (NLD) leader, Aung San Suu Kyi, told Reuters that President Thein Sein was insincere about reforms, might try to delay the election, and that her party was “ready to govern” but did not rule out boycotting the elections.

The concept of legitimacy is closely intertwined with a fair and ethical role in democratic settings. It gives answers to how a polity should look, also identifying best determinants ranging from democratic participation to respect for human rights. Here lies the weakness of the Myanmar political opposition, as they try to undermine the legitimacy of the autocratic incumbent government. Aung San Suu Kyi’s silence on the plight of approximately a million Rohingya people, and the anti-Muslim rhetoric used by members of the NLD, cast a significant shadow on the legitimacy of her own movement for change and democratization.

During his November 2014 visit to Myanmar, President Barack Obama asked President Thein Sein to revise the government’s anti-Rohingya policies, specifically a proposed resettlement plan. Change is unlikely, however, as both political camps in this highly nationalistic state share the same anti-Muslim views, and are supporting a number of troubling bills and government policies, including forced family planning, internment of Rohingya, and revocation of their right to vote in a future constitutional referendum.

In a country in which mistrust is high, the forthcoming elections have a significant impact on the level of uncertainty and anxiety across groups. Both are pre-determinants of individuals’ perceptions of conflict in relation to other groups, the impact of which is a key measure of social cohesion and helps analyze the dynamics of change in complex environments affecting stability and security. How patterns of interaction unravel in this period will determine the future for Myanmar.

U.S. diplomats, policymakers, and the international community have an important role to play in helping Myanmar shape its future. As Myanmar’s political leaders engage in meetings ahead of the November elections, international partners should:

  • Rethink development. Aggressive economic development that does not support effective social development is doomed to fail, usually causing systemic poverty and inequality for the majority of the population and a high level of insecurity. Evidence gathered in nearby Cambodia after two decades of “development” confirms this point.
  • Instigate and sponsor a negotiation and peacebuilding initiative between Myanmar and Bangladesh to address the issue of the Rohingya, or Bengali as the Myanmar Buddhist majority calls them. Border protection, resettlement, and recognition of identity and rights for all on both sides of the border, irrelevant of race and religion, as prescribed by international conventions, should form the basis for these negotiations.
  • Urge greater involvement of Chinese authorities in addressing the resurgence of drug, timber, and gem–trafficking along the Myanmar/China border.

Dr. Jonathan Bogais is a sociologist (international political sociology and intercultural psychology) and a specialist in foreign affairs with expertise in Southeast Asia. He is an associate professor (adjunct) in the School of Social and Political Sciences at the University of Sydney, Australia.

Jonathan Bogais

Jonathan Bogais

Dr. Jonathan Bogais is a senior associate (non-resident) with the Southeast Asia Program and an adjunct associate professor in the Department of Sociology and Social Policy at the University of Sydney.

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