With changes going on inside the country which would have seemed impossible several years ago, the last 18 months have been a tumultuous one for the Republic of Myanmar and this has generated a great deal of optimism within the West that the government is serious about becoming a truly democratic and accountable society. No longer is there any talk of Burma as the authoritarian state which has presided over fifty years of repression, isolationism and economic stagnation and is notorious for its’ militaristic state practices. Rather, the buzzwords of choice within the country and the wider media have become optimistic and proactive terms such as ‘reform’, ‘reconciliation’ and ‘engagement’. Myanmar for the first time in over fifty years has a civilian president who seems genuinely committed to liberalisation, as evidenced by the country’s, ‘nascent transition to democracy’. However, in spite of these encouraging signs there is a problem which looms large and has the potential to massively impinge upon the country’s democratic prospects. This article is an attempt to highlight this problem, namely the problem posed by an inherently divided society and the ways it can be overcome.
Within Myanmar over the last 18 months, much progress has been made toward democratisation by the new government following the ending of 50 years of military dictatorship. Despite originating in controversial circumstances from elections in 2010 which were widely condemned by the wider world, the nominally elected government has led an unexpected and ‘startling liberalisation’. Whilst the elections were denounced by UN secretary general Ban Ki Moon as being, ‘insufficiently inclusive, participatory and transparent’, president Thein Sein and cabinet have defied the sceptics and taken many positive steps towards the establishment of a more inclusive society. They have released Aung San Suu Kyi from house arrest and allowed her to reengage with the political process, re-established diplomatic ties with the US and the UK, released over 600 political prisoners and allowed the opposition party National League for Democracy to run in the upcoming by-elections.
Nevertheless, whilst the actions of the government have been promising to Western observers looking in, it seems to me that they have focused too much attention on surface level factors to the detriment of more longstanding issues. Rather than attempting to reconcile its’ ethnic minorities to the democratic project and in so doing achieve an internal peace that would be extremely conducive to further reform and liberalisation, Myanmar has focused on political factors at the expense of societal factors. The civilian led government has focused on issues where there is more likely to be an immediately tangible return without realising that it is those issues beneath the surface that are more important to the long term success of their project. Although the release of 600 political prisoners is certainly a welcome event that exemplifies the NDSP’s commitment toward a democratic future, it is a relatively simple and instantaneous act. Whilst that is not to belittle the achievement, it can be argued that this step was easy and it is the more difficult issues that now need to be addressed.
Myanmar is a heterogenous society and yet it is a society which as a result of the flagrant persecution of its’ ethnic minorities by the junta over many years, is united only by common heritage. Divided both ethnically and geographically between the dominant, ‘Burmans, concentrated in the central valley of the river Irrawaddy’, [and the] Karens, Shans, Mons, Chins, Arakanese, and numerous other ethnic minorities… scattered around the peripheral region’, there is no overarching identity. Due to the brutal subjugation by the junta of the country’s minorities, Myanmar’s sense of collective identity has been fractured and relations between the government and the various ethnic groups are extremely strained. Correspondingly, it can be remarked that the success of the democratic reforms taking place in Myanmar are dependent on how effectively the new government is able to promote a more encompassing national identity which unifies its’ people under one banner. Instead of papering over the cracks and focusing on those actions which are more likely to appease the wider international community, there should be a shift in emphasis within the government which recognises Myanmar’s diversity and endeavours to promote a more conciliatory approach to its minorities. While disparities between groups can be effectively articulated and institutionalised in a democracy, Myanmar’s burgeoning democratic ambitions have yet to be realised and there is a lot of suspicion among the margins over whether the ruling elite is really committed to change. Consequently, the government should recognise this and engage socially with all groups.
On a recent trip to Kachin state, Aung San Suu Kyi spoke to the Kachin about the need to rediscover the ‘Panglong spirit’, a phrase utilised to bring back memories of an agreement between the government and its’ ethnic groups that granted autonomy within an internal administration. With the Kachin being the last minority group still in open conflict with government forces, the speech hinted at a more conciliatory future for the country. Arguing that, ‘the basis of peace is understanding each other, trusting each other and respecting each other’ Aung San Suu Kyi’s words seem to signal a willingness at least on her part to engage openly with those who have been suppressed. Whilst her words are not the words of the government, the very fact that she was allowed to deliver such a speech suggests that the ruling elites are beginning to come round to the idea of engagement and domestic unity.
The problems with the reforms taking place within Myanmar at the moment are twofold. Firstly, the current regime seems to be focusing on those reforms that are readily achievable and where there is some immediate return. Secondly, the reforms taking place are primarily political and systemic. The nominally elected government of Myanmar must recognise the fragility of its’ present position and endeavour to deliver internal peace and accord between its’ divergent groups before the reform process is hampered. In attempting to incrementally establish a democratic society, the government of Thein Sein must differentiate itself from its’ less than illustrious path and openly acknowledge the facade of unity that attempts to disguise the deep disparities that run between its ethnic groups. If it truly wants to actualise accountable, legitimate and all encompassing reforms then it would be wise to begin this process at home. Although there is an argument that the recent reforms taking place within the country are marked by a desire to see Western sanctions lifted in order to increase investment within the country, this goal should not be pursued at the expense of reforms elsewhere. Indeed, in the same way that it is important not to place all your eggs in one basket, it is integral that the civilian led government of Thein Sein doesn’t simply premise the transition to democracy on the lifting of economic sanctions. In dealing with the problem of a divided society, internal peace, unity and the need to rediscover the ‘Panglong Spirit’ are integral to the success of this nascent democratic transition.
Dickinson, Daniel. (2010) Conditions for elections in Myanmar were “insufficiently inclusive”: UN. [online] Available at: http://www.unmultimedia.org/radio/english/detail/106200.html (Accessed 27 February 2012)
Lin, Zinn. (2010) Burma junta bids to quash the ‘Panglong spirit’. Asian Correspondent. Available at: http://asiancorrespondent.com/43481/burma%E2%80%99s-junta-blame-on-the-coming-of-second-panglong-conference/ (Accessed 26 February 2012)