Hard Choices Posed by the “Myanmar Spring”

By U Zaw Htay

Sunrise at U-Bein Bridge in Mandalay, Myanmar. Source: Staffanscherz's flickr phototostream, used under a creative commons license.

Sunrise at U-Bein Bridge in Mandalay, Myanmar. Source: Staffanscherz’s flickr phototostream, used under a creative commons license.

U.S. president Barack Obama’s historic visit to Myanmar in 2012 brought hope to the people of this country, which sits at the crossroads of China, India, and mainland Southeast Asia. President Thein Sein’s return visit to the White House in 2013 was the first official visit by a Myanmar leader since 1966 and represented an endorsement by the United States of the “Myanmar spring” he had initiated, based on democratic values the United States has promoted worldwide. But U.S.-Myanmar relations appear to have stalled somewhat during Obama’s second term. This is a matter of great concern to Myanmar, because strong U.S. support will be vital to the country’s successful transition to democracy.

Key Challenges of the “Myanmar Spring”

Although much remains to be done, President Thein Sein continues his effort to conclude a nationwide ceasefire in the coming months. His reforms have produced landmark improvements in human rights since 2011. Press freedom, freedom of speech, and other civil liberties have expanded rapidly, most political prisoners have been released, public awareness of international labor standards has increased, and police are being trained in international best practices. Most recently, President Thein Sein has accelerated his “third wave” reform process by making some people-centered changes, including a cabinet reshuffle in the ministries of Information and Health, to bring a new vision to some of the country’s most urgent problems.

Land problems are raising loud protests around the country, but external observers must understand that most of the land being disputed was confiscated before the new government came into office. President Thein Sein has organized a committee headed by Vice President Nyan Tun to tackle these land problems, and this committee has already solved 882 cases, transferring over 500,000 acres back to farmers around the country. In these land disputes, the new government and today’s army are not the problem makers, but rather problem solvers.

Myanmar’s transition faces another serious challenge in the area of media reforms and civil society, where the government is seeking the correct balance between rights and responsibilities to encourage ethical reporting and professionalism. The Unity Journal reporters, for example, were sentenced by the court to prison terms not for their reporting, but for violating state secrets and trespassing into a restricted area. No country allows unauthorized civilians, including reporters, to trespass in areas of national security.

The journalists were nevertheless guaranteed the right of due process and a fair trial, and the president, in a recent meeting with the Myanmar Interim Press Council, gave assurances that he will protect these rights within the limits of his authority. He also said that, as an alternative to legal action, the council could play a mediating role between journalists and government in resolving ethical disputes.

This period of political transition has given rise to unanticipated social conflict stemming from religious and ethnic differences in Myanmar’s highly diverse population. These are deep-seated, complex prejudices within society that must be addressed with comprehensive measures based on education and the rule of law. In response to the recent outbreak of communal violence in Mandalay, President Thein Sein applauded the religious and community organizations that banded together to prevent further violence and promised that the government would take action against those who instigated the violence. The president has asked the government to develop a comprehensive strategy for addressing the roots of communal violence through education, economic measures, and effective policing.

President Thein Sein is now facing four key political challenges that will determine the future course of the Myanmar spring. The first is achieving a nationwide ceasefire agreement to end the world’s longest civil war. The second is the struggle to reform the 2008 constitution, which is playing out on the floor of the new parliament. The third is the implementation of free and fair by-elections later this year. And last are the 2015 elections, which will usher in the critical second phase of the reforms. The political environment in Myanmar is uncertain and people are concerned about whether and how the country will overcome its various political divisions.

What Can We Learn from Political Theory?

Noted political scientists have provided various formulas for analyzing the transition of countries from authoritarian rule to democracy. Phillipe Schmitter and Carsten Schneider postulated in 2004 that countries tend to go through three stages – liberalization, transition, and consolidation – but that not all transitions are linear movements. They found that democratization can take four basic directions:

Outstanding: Of some 86 countries in transition, only 17 percent can be considered successful transitions to democracy.

Back Wave: Many of the authoritarian regimes seeking democratic change encountered fatal backlashes and were forced to make u-turns.

Uprising: Nearly half of those transitioning to democracy fell prey to political instability, popular uprisings, and civil conflict.

Status quo: Some 24 of the 86 countries in transition were able to avoid political backlash once democratic changes had been initiated, but after decades they still had not reached the stage of consolidation.

As Brian Joseph of the National Endowment for Democracy argues, democratic transition is a road to uncertainty. No one can predict which transition will succeed, especially in a small country with great diversity and complicated roots such as Myanmar. Scholars studying Myanmar’s transition have come up with various models.

Stanford University’s Francis Fukuyama, for example, has compared Myanmar’s transition with Mongolia’s transition to democracy. While acknowledging that state building must be based on the rule of law and social mobilization to achieve a democratic foundation, he warns that in the early phases, the rise of nationalism can pull a country in the wrong direction. Unfortunately, Myanmar has not been able to avoid a wave of nationalism. Fukuyama recommends that, at this stage of transition, Myanmar needs a “Berkeley mafia” of economists – like those who built Indonesia – more than it needs political activists. He argues that Mongolia may be the best model for Myanmar to progress from an electoral democracy to a mature democracy through strong economic development.

Transitional democracy theorist Larry Diamond has recommended a “system of mutual security” between the government and its opponents, citing the example of South Africa, where former president F.W. de Klerk assumed the position of deputy president under the new President Nelson Mandela in 1994. Diamond believes this kind of political transition pact would help Myanmar to become a successful democracy. He also suggested that Myanmar’s electoral system should be changed from its current first-past-the-post system to a proportional representation system through negotiations between moderates from both sides to assist the journey to a sustainable democracy.

In a 2012 article, Joseph of the National Endowment for Democracy posed four possible futures for Myanmar:

Transition based on dialogue: Like with Indonesia’s transition after the fall of President Suharto, the armed forces commit to a gradual exit strategy, while opponents accept military participation during a transitional period. In this scenario, the 2015 elections will be an important step in Myanmar’s transition based on dialogue.

U-turn: The military feels threatened when political change gives rise to unanticipated circumstances such as failing health of current leaders, a serious clash between the executive and legislative branches, uncontrollable communal violence, or popular street protests such as occurred recently in neighboring Thailand.

Economic growth orientation: Like in some of the region’s emerging economic power houses, the government and opposition leaders focus on economic growth, with gradual liberalization of freedom and civil rights. Only when both sides recognize the need for rapid economic development can this scenario be realized.

Collapse of national unity: If either the military or the political opposition collapses, it will have a negative impact on the transition. As the momentum of reform speeds up, the opposition will need to relax some pressure. If ethnic conflicts cannot be resolved or the opposition presses too strongly for constitutional reform, a standoff with the military may develop. As a result, everyone loses.

Making the Right Strategic Choice

Myanmar must strike the right balance between stability and freedom to avoid the kind of backlash experienced in Egypt. The political transition should include negotiated reform of the 2008 constitution between the government and the opposition, along with the steps President Thein Sein is taking to set up an all-inclusive political dialogue after a nationwide ceasefire agreement is concluded. This dialogue will include not only the “big four” (President Thein Sein, parliamentary speaker Shwe Mann, National League for Democracy leader Aung San Suu Kyi, and Commander-in Chief Min Aung Hlaing) but also the ethnic leaders, political parties, and civil society from all parts of the country. This move represents a concrete commitment from President Thein Sein and the best political course to guarantee success for the reforms.

President Thein Sein and Commander-in-Chief Min Aung Hlaing have revealed a gradual exit strategy for the military from the political field. Their timeframe for a complete exit is based on the prospect that armed ethnic groups would be disbanded throughout the country. But if the opposition parties win a majority of parliamentary seats in the 2015 elections, ethnic conflict may return to the country.

The international community, including the United States, needs to make the right strategic choice at this historic juncture in Myanmar. If it is focused only on short-term goals, it doesn’t need to adjust its calculations. However, if it wants to promote a long-term transition in Myanmar, it will need to start adjusting its policies with an eye focused beyond 2015. This may be difficult, but it is essential if the international community wishes to ensure sustainable democracy in one of the most important frontiers of democratic transition in the 21st century.

Mr. U Zaw Htay is director of the President’s Office in Naypyitaw, Myanmar, and a political analyst and writer on Myanmar politics.


2 comments for “Hard Choices Posed by the “Myanmar Spring”

  1. August 26, 2014 at 10:19

    An astute analysis. I think the issue of timing is crucial when it comes to the peace and political process. There is a lot at stake in the current ceasefire negotiations and a lot hinging on what electoral system is in place ahead of the 2015 General Election. Depending on the choices made (Plurality/FPTP vs. a PR system), one could expect different outcomes in terms of the political party make-up in Parliament. The military and opposition will need to come to a political “understanding” based on compromise, one which addresses both their interests. Indeed, a negotiated pact may be the only way to ensure stability in the long run, beyond 2015. In the meantime, international elections experts like Larry Diamond, Peter Erben of IFES, and others, can promote a deeper understanding by lending experiences and lessons from other countries that have embarked on paths to democratization.

  2. Aye Aye Thant
    August 28, 2014 at 04:39

    Under current prevailing situations, better and stronger bilateral relations with both US and China can be expected in near future. All the stakeholders accept democratic values can survive under which conditions. They all should emphasize long-term goals.

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