Myanmar's "Guided Democracy"
|Apr 5, 2013|
Despite what appears to be the rapid pace of democratic reform in Myanmar, the sway of the Tatmadaw, the country's military, remains deceptively strong. Although it originally seemed to originate from influential monks, Myanmar's "969 movement," which has triggered important tensions and rioting against Muslim populations in central Myanmar, is actually closely monitored and fueled by individuals close to the top of the Tatmadaw who are angered by the rapid pace of the reforms.
According to sources in Myanmar, these officers are making it clear that they are capable of derailing the process of democratization if their demands are not met, effectively taking social peace hostage to their political ambitions.
This capacity of ambitious politicians to rise to the occasion by wrecking the social fabric of the country is an obvious threat to an increasingly democratic Myanmar, whose social integrity is fragile, with some insurgencies also carrying on the fight against the central government.
Aung San Suu Kyi has proven repeatedly her realistic approach to the situation, going as far as acknowledging the rule of "cronies" over large parts of the economy and the political process, which is much farther than many in her party, the National League for Democracy (NLD), want to go.
This delicate balance between an increasingly demanding population, sometimes with unrealistic expectations, and reluctant pressure groups such as the army, which is likely to keep these major segments under its control ever if the NLD were to win a majority and take office in 2015, could create conditions for dangerous demagoguery that itself could trigger yet another military takeover. Already today, the current parliamentarian debate over the changes to the constitution is taking a very antagonistic turn as the opposition simply tries to remove the tailor-made article banning Aung San Suu Kyi from running for President of the Union.
Indeed, despite the fact that President Thein Sein has repeatedly said the process of democracy is irreversible, Min Aung Hlaing, the new commander of the armed forces, is likely to answer with force to any restriction of his constitutional power, and a confrontation between aggressive popular demands for reform and a reluctant military would be the early end of what is likely to be the new Asian "success story."
Inclusiveness through meritocracy
The stabilization of the political system will have to go through a lengthy transition and the integration of a diverse selection of academic and entrepreneurial achievers. Myanmar has a somewhat promising approach to competence, a large part of the military having for example eventually recognized its incapability to develop the country and being willing to admit and appear dedicated to redeeming its mistakes.
Consider the sweeping inquiry in January 2013 into corruption within the telecommunications ministry that led to the first probe against a minister in the history of the country. After a denunciation of rampant bribery, the ministry launched an extensive transparency initiative, with the price of a SIM card falling to US$20 from about US$240 earlier. Thein Sein also went as far as acknowledging in a critical speech in December the fact that in Myanmar "good governance is still very weak [?] and still falls short of international norms."
Myanmar also has a long tradition of intellectual excellence, even going through very symbolic gestures to honor seminal figures like U Thant, the former Secretary General of the United Nations, who has a large mausoleum next to Yangon's largest pagoda. The willingness of the country to encourage competence in public governance is extremely promising and needs to be permanently encouraged by the international community, even though the current weakness of the education sector, because the junta closed the universities for years, will make the creation of a civilian administrative body a delicate task. Indeed, Myanmar still has an important educational gap to bridge and considerable time will be needed to achieve an acceptable level of penetration of the underprivileged classes of the country in the administration. The diaspora - including those exiled in Thailand - may for some time contribute its expertise after the projected election of Aung San Suu Kyi, but it will never be an alternative to homegrown elites.
There is still a long way to go for Myanmar to become a reliable middle-income country; especially since it is still far from being a safe shelter for foreign investment. The 2015 general elections will be a reliable litmus test of the real willingness of the Tatmadaw to allow real change to occur.
But beyond that point, it will be up to the new regime to ensure that the political system that will be built from the current military-engineered constitution will be solid enough to pass the test of the social and ethnic unrest that will undoubtedly threaten the stability of the country in the future. Myanmar's history, which has often seen violent confrontation as the only mean to dialogue with an autocratic political power, is not exactly encouraging. It remains to be seen if that trend will persist despite the presence of a democratic government.
Contrary to Thailand next door, which to this day refuses to ask painful questions about its identity and its political system - preventing it from reaching regional prominence - the NLD could effectively, - but prudently - enforce meritocracy and political inclusiveness as a mean to prevent the rise of populist rhetoric.
Those policies must walk a fine line between scaring the Bamar (sometimes called Burman) ethnic majority, who make up 60 percent of the population, and seeing them walking away from the new consensus, and making the minorities feel like they have been played once again. Yet, most Bamar recognize that they will have to forfeit some of their political power so as to secure their economic development.
Only by going through these necessary steps can Myanmar stabilize its growth and start its long way towards real nation-building.
(Quentin Gollier is a graduate student from SciencesPo (Paris) School of International Affairs pursuing a Master's degree in International Security. He is currently doing consulting between Myanmar and Thailand in the fields of legal and economic assistance as well as political risk analysis.)