The Challenges to Democracy in Myanmar

Priscilla Clapp is the former chief of mission at the US Embassy in Myanmar. In an extended report for the Washington, DC-based Council on Foreign Relations, she analyzes the results of the November 2105 elections and recommends the steps the United States and other western powers must take as they seek to bring the country out of a long isolation and onto the world stage as a viable democratic nation.

The ultimate success of democratization in Myanmar will be judged by the country’s ability to shed its authoritarian traditions, adopt pluralistic democracy, provide space for its diverse cultures and religions, and ensure a decent living standard for the entire population. The challenges to success are immense and contain the seeds of failure if they cannot be addressed in time.

The NLD victory is in itself no guarantee of stability because the party inherits a huge burden of problems from its military predecessors. More than five decades of military rule have left large parts of the country in a near feudal condition, beset by an overly large national army, a multitude of armed ethnic forces, and hundreds of militias. Rule of law is almost nonexistent, and the competition for resources and wealth is a virtual free-for-all.

The past five years of political transition have had the perverse effect of exacerbating the competition for resources with the rapid influx of foreign investment and the promise of economic growth. The early years of the transition also gave rise to new threats to the civilian population in the form of economic displacement, religious tension and communal violence, and a rapid increase in narcotics trafficking and drug addiction, which add to the continued warfare between the army and armed ethnic groups along Myanmar’s borders with China and Thailand.

Economic Inequity and Obstruction

One of the major obstacles to the country’s democratic transition is the legacy of patrimonial governance created purposely to concentrate the country’s wealth in the hands of a small military-oriented elite class. This process accelerated rapidly during the final decade of military government, with the result that the top generals from the former State Peace Challenges to Stability in Myanmar Challenges to Stability in Myanmar 9 and Development Council (SPDC)—which was dissolved by Thein Sein in 2011—and their families and friends still control the levers of economic power.

Some of these former SPDC officials have encouraged Thein Sein’s economic reforms, but others have deliberately obstructed them by opposing the liberalization of foreign investment, equitable land distribution, transparent banking and revenue collection, and streamlining of government regulations and controls over economic activity.

Although the NLD gain in the 2015 election has largely displaced the wealthy elite—both civilian and ex-military—from positions of power in the parliament and the upper echelons of the executive branch, the elite still maintain control of the economy and much of the country’s land and resources. It will be difficult for the new government to confront this problem head-on without alienating some of its important sources of political support.

Yet the unequal concentration of wealth in the hands of a few individuals and their hold on land and resources is central to the country’s social and economic problems, often erupting in public protest and local conflict. Despite efforts to legislate against corruption and misuse of wealth, the situation can be corrected only gradually by developing incentives for wealth to be repatriated from foreign banks and channeled more productively into national development, by creating more efficient business processes that drain the rampant corruption out of the economy, and by making government more transparent.

Both the US government and US businesses can help significantly with this task, but it will require substantially revising how US financial controls are managed, especially the SDN list, and relaxing the stringent restrictions on US business practices in Myanmar. Given that US businesses are required to observe US law when operating overseas, they could become a powerful vehicle for instilling modern business practices in their foreign partners.

Fortunately, a few promising signs indicate that some of Myanmar’s “crony” businesses are beginning to adopt greater transparency and fiscal responsibility in their practices, so it is clear that some members of the elite understand the need for reform.

Excessive Military Control

Myanmar is a highly militarized country at both the national and local levels and will remain so for years to come. Uniformed military leaders 10 Securing a Democratic Future for Myanmar believe that democratization in the country has not yet matured to a degree that civilian leaders can prevent society from descending into chaos and conflict. Military representatives made this argument vehemently when vetoing a majority vote in parliament in July 2015 that favored constitutional amendments to reduce the military’s hold on political power.

The military has indicated that it will be prepared to step back only when peace has been achieved with Myanmar’s many armed ethnic groups and they have been disarmed, demobilized, and reintegrated. In order to uphold the popular desire for civilian government evidenced in the 2015 elections, it is imperative that the NLD government and military leaders agree sooner rather than later on a timetable for reducing military control over the political system as enshrined in the 2008 constitution. As much as military leaders see this system as necessary to maintain stability during a long transition, it can easily become a source of instability and conflict if undemocratic restrictions and repression of the civilian population continue under an NLD government.

At a minimum, the NLD parliament should remove outdated laws, and the military and other security forces should exhibit greater tolerance of public criticism and protest to deal with the inevitable pressures that come with democratization. Furthermore, now that military leaders have facilitated a smooth transfer of power to elected civilian leadership in Naypyidaw, the United States should, in consultation with the NLD, begin regular discussions with Myanmar’s military about the role of the military in a democracy, reorganization of the military, disaster relief, and other forms of military assistance to the civilian population.

The United States needs to maintain a regular dialogue with military leaders to encourage and underpin its commitment to reform.

Promised Reforms Slow to Materialize

Relaxing government controls over the population during the past five years has seriously strained government capacity. Although civilian government institutions have attempted to transform from an authoritarian command structure that prioritizes military objectives to one more responsive to the people’s needs, they are not keeping pace with popular expectations. Some policy analysts who have worked to reform government ministries over the past five years have concluded that efforts to retrain and build capacity of civil servants will fail until the government itself is fundamentally restructured.

The current structure of government in Naypyidaw, for example, does not allow middle and lower levels of the bureaucracy to participate actively in policymaking and implementation.In taking over the reins of government, the NLD has an enormous opportunity to begin reversing the authoritarian legacy and making the ministries more responsive and effective in implementing new policies.It is therefore encouraging that the NLD intends to consolidate and restructure the existing ministries at the outset of its government.

Land management is one of the most critical sources of social conflict that the government has so far failed to address adequately. The Thein Sein government introduced a new land-management policy, but was unable to reach agreement on its implementation, given that land ownership and management was spread widely across several ministries headed by ex-generals who were unwilling to cooperate.

Meanwhile, land grabbing has accelerated with the growth in economic activity stimulated by new investment and with the continuing conflict between the army and armed ethnic groups. This, in turn, has triggered widespread public protest, which is likely to become even more intense under the NLD government because of heightened public expectations.

Communal Violence

One of the most troubling fractures surfacing recently in Myanmar society has been the Buddhist-Muslim divide, giving rise to communal tension and violence in a number of urban areas. Most but not all of the country’s Muslims arrived from what was then India during the British colonial years and are not considered by the Buddhist majority to be a native population. One Muslim minority group, the Rohingya, has resided for generations in Myanmar’s western Rakhine State on the border with Bangladesh. Although there are also many Rohingya in Bangladesh, most do not have citizenship in either country and have been kept isolated in poverty by the local Rakhine Buddhists.

The sources of communal tension between the Rakhine Buddhists and Rohingya are a combination of religious, demographic, ethnic, and economic factors, fueled by ignorance and falsehoods amplified by radical voices on both sides.

The Thein Sein government pandered to a group of radical Buddhist monks, agreeing to marriage laws and election restrictions designed to marginalize the Muslim population, and the USDP welcomed the monks’ support against the NLD in their election campaigns. However, this strategy failed to diminish the NLD’s popularity. Buddhist, Muslim, and Christian voters all turned out in large numbers to vote for the NLD.

Thus the NLD may have an opportunity to translate its popular support into legal and policy measures to restore and protect the rights of the country’s Muslim population. Given the level of poverty in Rakhine State, which is at the heart of the problem, substantial international assistance will be required for a long-term solution to the sectarian division.

The United States has a strong humanitarian concern for the plight of the Rohingya and should help the new government urgently address this situation so that it does not become a flashpoint for further social and religious destabilization.

Armed Rebellions

Since the end of the colonial period in 1948, the eastern portion of Myanmar has been plagued by widespread armed warfare between the national army and various small armies representing ethnic groups seeking greater autonomy. This has mired the country in the world’s longest-running civil war, seriously impeding economic development and providing the army’s rationale for more than fifty years of military governance.

The Thein Sein government’s effort to forge a viable peace negotiation with these armed ethnic groups has been one of its most significant achievements. It was the first time in the country’s history that negotiations had been attempted on such a comprehensive scale. Negotiators produced a considerable base of agreement on both the terms of a national cease-fire and a framework for political dialogue, despite the fact that only eight of seventeen armed ethnic groups participating in the negotiation agreed to sign the national cease-fire document in October 2015.

Despite the limitations of the cease-fire, the outgoing government proceeded with political dialogue before the end of its term in March 2016. Meanwhile, Aung San Suu Kyi made the achievement of peace with ethnic minorities an immediate priority for the NLD government and declared her intention to bring the remaining groups into the cease-fire agreement and to restructure the political dialogue. Ethnic-minority leaders have welcomed the NLD victory and are urging the NLD to revitalize the peace process. Because the NLD itself now contains a large contingent of ethnic-minority political leaders, the conditions for new breakthroughs may exist; it would be a mistake to lose the momentum and progress already achieved.

Military cooperation will also be vital to the achievement of a peace agreement, but the NLD will have to bridge the gap between the armed groups’ desire to maintain their identity as autonomous armies and the military’s insistence that there can be only one national army, as enshrined in the constitution. Furthermore, fighting continues between the army and large armed ethnic groups along the Chinese border, complicating peace negotiations and hardening the resolve of both sides to hold and gain territory.

Another major driver of conflict is narcotics trafficking, which provides financing for both sides. Narcotics production and trafficking have increased rapidly over the past five years and will require serious attention to achieve sustainable peace. Thein Sein’s term was plagued by tensions within the ex-military leadership, seriously complicating reforms and straining relations between the legislative and executive branches.

The results of the elections have removed this problem by taking the ex-military party out of the equation and making it possible for the NLD to work directly with the army. Furthermore, the NLD is likely to be a more disciplined political party than the USDP, united behind a clear democratic ideology and not plagued by leadership rivalries. This should allow it to coordinate more smoothly between the legislative and executive branches in formulating policy and legislation.

It will undoubtedly take some time for this new reality to sink into the political mentality in Naypyidaw and beyond, but some efforts are already under way. The first step toward an orderly transfer of power took place in cordial and productive meetings between NLD leader Aung San Suu Kyi, President Thein Sein, Commander in Chief Min Aung Hlaing, Speaker of Parliament Shwe Mann, and Senior General Than Shwe (head of the former military government).

The NLD and USDP set up a joint committee to manage the details of the transfer. Aung San Suu Kyi, for her part, pledged to form a reconciliation government, promising a role for both the ethnic-minority parties and members of the government party in the NLD government.

Nonetheless, the primary holders of power characterizing the next term will be the NLD and the army (personified by Aung San Suu Kyi and the commander in chief). Difficult issues concerning the role of the military in the political system will be at stake, and disagreement on these issues could easily destabilize the political system. The ability of both sides to negotiate these differences and find a way forward will be critical.

The United States should position itself to play a constructive role in this process, as needed, by developing channels of communication with both the political and military leadership to encourage military acquiescence to an expanding role for civilian political governance and a gradual reduction in military instruments of political control and management of the country.

Priscilla Clapp is the former chief of mission at the US Embassy in Myanmar and a senior advisor to the US Institute of Peace and the Asia Society. This was provided to Asia Sentinel by the US-based Council on Foreign Relations