Troubled transition: An update on Burma’s difficult road to democracy

30 Jun 2016




Transition to democracy in Burma (known officially as “Myanmar”) was inevitably going to be fraught with difficulties and setbacks. The resounding victory of Aung San Suu Kyi’s National League for Democracy (NLD) in November 2015 was progress enough, but the acceptance of this result by the ruling military was seen as an even bigger step towards rebuilding the country’s democratic institutions. However, the rapid rewriting of the constitution by the Thein Sein ministry, which effectively barred Suu Kyi from the presidency, demonstrates the difficulties Burma still faces if it is to fully embrace democracy. This, coupled with continuing ethnic discrimination and the painfully slow progression of government transparency points towards a nation struggling to accept its new identity.



In recent months, Aung San Suu Kyi’s style of leadership has come under increased scrutiny. The recent publication of the The Lady and the Generals: Aung San Suu Kyi and Burma’s struggle for freedom by Peter Popham, which describes the new leader as a “ravenous egoist” has only served to fuel western anxieties regarding the direction of Burma’s new leadership. Even many of her sympathisers are reportedly dismayed at her authoritarian and centralist running of the NDL and the creation of a “prime ministerial” role which she is to fill will allow her to extend this style of leadership beyond the confines of the party.



Her seemingly authoritarian leadership style has also sparked worry and even condemnation internationally. Initially admired by western leaders as a proponent of liberal democracy, Suu Kyi has recently adopted a more populist tone with regards to Burma’s ethnic minorities. She reportedly instructed the US Ambassador not to use the term “Rohingya” when describing the minority Muslim population, preferring the term “associate citizens” – a statement that attracted widespread international condemnation. Furthermore, the recent rise of nationalism in Burma, clearly manifested by the protests outside the US embassy in Rangoon (officially known as “Yangon”) and the “No Muslims allowed overnight, no Muslims allowed to rent houses, no marriage with Muslims” signs that are being erected in towns across the country are eerily reminiscent of the systematic racism that took hold of Britain in the 1960s. Seen as a reaction to the election of a supposedly “liberal” government, the inability of the NLD to appropriately challenge this discrimination suggests the emergence of a dangerous duality of reactive nationalism and institutional complacency.



Of course, Suu Kyi’s party was elected on the platform of ending racial and ethnic tensions in Burma and it would therefore be unjust to suggest she has no concern for the protection of ethnic minorities. The NLD pledged during the election to put a stop to the civil unrest in the west of the country between the majority Buddhist population and the Rohingya minority, who are considered to be Islamist insurgents from Bangladesh.  However, she seems unable to implement any policies to deliver this pledge primarily because of the continued influence of the military, who automatically hold 25% of the seats in the national parliament and maintain control of many important government departments. However, as Suu Kyi arrives in Thailand for her second official visit as “state counsellor” the mass emigration of Rohingya from Burma to Thailand is unlikely to be discussed, an absence that is difficult to justify and will undoubtedly attract further international condemnation.



Having assumed the role of Foreign Minister in March of this year, Suu Kyi has also faced the challenge of persuading western governments, notably the US, to lift sanctions on Burma and allow international investment to stimulate the economy. As part of her wider aim to reduce income inequality and poverty in the country, Suu Kyi hopes to open up the Burmese economy to international investors, allowing the country to experience the rapid growth many of its neighbours have enjoyed in recent years. However, the reluctance of the US State Department to completely abolish economic sanctions in the country is demonstrative of the progress Burma still needs to make in order to be considered a democratic nation compatible with western economic interests. Indeed, only 3 state banks and 7 companies have been taken off the US blacklist and 6 companies have in fact been added since the NLD assumed power. This painfully slow normalisation of economic relations between Burma and the west is a clear reflection of the challenges the country is facing in its slow transition from an oppressive military dictatorship to a fully-fledged liberal democracy.



The progress Burma has made in recent years has been remarkable - no one can dispute that. In five short years, Burma has transitioned from being an autocratic militarist state to a country that holds regular democratic elections, respecting the will of the people. However, the challenges posed by continued military influence and the rising nationalist sentiment amongst the Buddhist majority poses a new and possibly dangerous raft of threats to this fledgling democracy, challenges which must be confronted head-on if the hope of a free and democratic Burma is ever to be realised.


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