Democracy: A Distant Vision in Myanmar?
Myanmar’s 2021 coup d’état saw the country’s military leaders forcibly remove the democratically elected government led by Daw Aung San Suu Kyi’s National League for Democracy (NLD) party. Yet after more than a year, however, the military regime have been unable to gain control over the country's governance in the way they had hoped. Through the popular Civil Disobedience Movement (CDM), the reach and control of the regime is heavily curtailed. Yet despite widespread resistance and their deep unpopularity, Myanmar’s military leaders are proving difficult to dislodge. In the short term, it is challenging to envisage a comprehensive victory for either the military leaders or the widespread opposition movement. This sadly leaves Myanmar politics in a brutal stalemate where poverty continues to deepen for many.
I began research for my book Narrating Democracy in Myanmar in 2013, and at that time many of my Myanmar activist and NGO friends had a guarded optimism about the rate of change in the country. Daw Aung San Suu Kyi and many political prisoners had been released in previous years and were reengaged in public life. The press had new freedoms, and there was a flowering of new journals covering everything from fashion and sport to national politics. For activists, there were also new breakthrough shifts in government decision making – such as President Thein Sein’s suspension of the Myitsone dam project – which gave hope for advocacy efforts. The military-aligned and much maligned USDP party still controlled parliament, but there was optimism that the upcoming 2015 elections would be an opportunity, the first in decades, for the people of Myanmar to participate in a relatively credible election.
Whilst there were many troubling issues in the country at that time, including growing violence against Muslim minorities, the anticipation of change and use of the word ‘democracy’ was increasing. Yet the more the word ‘democracy’ was used, and the closer it was perceived to be, the more complex and indeterminate it became. At this time, new fractures emerged between activists, democratic leaders, and their donor supporters. New questions were raised about the practices and values of democracy. As a set of more imminently achievable practices and values, ‘democracy’ now entailed many potential points of difference. Rather than there being one way to conceive of Myanmar’s democratization, there were in fact many contrasting stories being told. My own research - with urban activists in Yangon, members and leaders of the NLD (Aung San Suu Kyi’s political party which held government from 2016 to 2020), and European and North American donor representatives - revealed distinct narratives of democracy in Myanmar
The most obvious narrative about democratic change – within European or North American donor programs on governance and democracy – was a liberal one. This focused on the development of new institutions and the promotion of liberal values of rights and minority protections. Yet at the time, many Myanmar activists and democratic leaders that I spoke to narrated a very different story of Myanmar’s democratization, focusing instead on the problem of self-interested and dictatorial leadership and the need for a benevolent leader who could unite the country. This was democratization primarily through the fostering of goodwill and selflessness. The development of formal institutions was also important, but it was not considered by these activists and party leaders to be at the center of the process of democratization. Meanwhile, other groups of Myanmar activists and intellectuals stridently critiqued this common focus on benevolent leadership and sought a cultural reform toward equality in society.
Across Myanmar, it was clear that the word ‘democracy’ did not always mean the same thing. The widespread perception that democracy was imminent in the leadup to the 2015 elections brought the differences in these contrasting narratives to the fore, sparking deep controversies over issues such as the rights of Muslim minorities, the political role of Daw Aung San Suu Kyi, and the freedom of the press. After the 2015 elections – and during the period of NLD governance – these policy contests continued, revealing deeper contrasts in visions of democracy.
A unifying vision, from a distance
In 2006, I was living in Yangon and working for an NGO. I enjoyed going to local galleries and looking at the work of Burmese artists. Once I saw a stunning watercolour of a downtown Yangon streetscape. In the image, rain was falling, and the buildings seemed to close in on the street. I noticed, though, that the painting had a different impact depending on how far away you were standing. When viewed from a distance, the painting looked like a coherent street scene, but when viewed from close up, it was a complex mess of colours.
In 2006, democracy seemed a far-off vision in Myanmar. Power was continuing to centralize under Senior General Than Shwe. Daw Aung San Suu Kyi – along with hundreds of activists and NLD party members – remained in house arrest or prison, and civil wars continued around the periphery of the country. Opposition to the brutal governance of the military leaders was a common cause for civil society organization leaders, ethnic political party members, urban activists, and members of the NLD . Donor agencies from Europe, North America, and Australia also sought ways to support these groups in their efforts to promote democratic change. At a time when democracy seemed far off to most Myanmar people, it was relatively easy for a diverse group of activists, political party leaders, and foreign aid agency representatives to see a coherent meaning for ‘democracy’ as an end to military role in governance. Seemingly disparate actors could unify around opposition to the military.
When we fast forward to 2022, activists and democratic leaders are again facing an entrenched and stubborn military leadership holding on to power. ‘Democracy’ in Myanmar is once again perceived by many to be far off. Yet opposition to military rule – and the perceived distance from democracy – has, to some degree, brought alignment and a new unity among diverse political groups. The protests of 2021 and the Civil Disobedience Movement have had broad public support. Some communities in the Burman majority areas of the country are experiencing the brutality of the military in a way that many ethnic minority areas have long suffered, therefore bringing new shared experiences of oppression. While fractures remain in the opposition, there is a newly galvanized resistance to the military, often crossing ethnic and religious boundaries.
From here, there are a range of scenarios for Myanmar, ranging from the optimistic (e.g., a breakthrough for the opposition and the formation of new democratic governance) to the pessimistic (e.g., a gradual centralization around military rule, or brutal and prolonged war). What will unfold in the comings years remains unclear.
From a personal perspective, the release of my book just after the Myanmar coup has been surrounded with sadness. The coup has been an incredibly distressing turn for those who participated in the research. Such people have devoted much of their lives to service of their country through work in political parties and NGOs or in advocating for justice. Many of them are also former colleagues and long-term friends. I hope that the book conveys my admiration for their bravery and commitment.
Tamas Wells is Coordinator of the Myanmar Research Network at the University of Melbourne. He writes on politics and development in Southeast Asia. Before entering academia, he worked for seven years as an adviser in the development sector in Myanmar. E-mail: firstname.lastname@example.org