Can Myanmar build democracy despite ethnic conflicts?

Photo: Foreign and Commonwealth Office

By Zofia Reych

In Nay Pyi Taw last Friday, an unprecedented meeting took place. State Counsellor Suu Kyi and General Min Aung Hlaing met with the United Wa State Army and the National Democratic Alliance Army, the two most powerful ethnic insurgence groups in Myanmar.

For Suu Kyi and her NLD government, leading the country through the process of democratisation is definitely the primary concern, but it is only one of two burning issues. As Myanmar aspires to become a democratic state, it seems that the majority of its people lean towards nationalism and ethnic hatred.

Is a common Myanmese identity possible? If so, championing ethnic diversity must be at its core, but before that can be achieved, Suu Kyi must make her country stop fighting.

Ahead of the 21st-Century Panglong Peace Conference planned for late August, both the government and rebel leaders are preparing their visions of Myanmar’s future as a federation.

A divided nation

In 1962, in a country recovering from war and decades of colonisation, a coup-d’etat

placed power in the hands of General Ne Win. The Burmese way to socialism involved Soviet style nationalisation, and so the plight of ethnic minorities begun.

In 2011 the military junta nominally gave up power, and the 2015 elections created a government led by NLD and Suu Kyi. In her first public speech last year, the State Counsellor made her priorities clear.

“The first responsibility of the next government is to build peace. We will organise an effective peace conference to improve the recent ceasefire agreement and we will urge widespread participation,” said Suu Kyi.

At present, the dominant ethnic group of Bamar makes up only 60% of the Myanmar population, but minorities, such as the Kachin, or the Rohingya, are denied many rights. In fact, the Rohingya, are the world’s biggest stateless group, and Amnesty International also calls them “the most persecuted refugees in the world”.

In 2015, the newly formed government stated that aiding the situation of the Rohingya Muslims is not a priority, and it should be dealt with by Bangladesh. Just last month Suu Kyi banned the term ‘Rohingya’ among her officials. For diplomatic reasons, the 1.1mln minority is to be referred to as “people who believe in Islam in Rakhine State”.

Democracy and national fragmentation 

A seminal article by Benjamin Rilley (2000-2001) suggests that ethnic fragmentation doesn’t undermine prospects of democratic transformation. In the past, it was frequently viewed as causing the failure of countries newly democratised after decolonisation. However, in the years following World War II, the political turmoil in Burma was owed in equal measures to ethnic insurgencies, as it was to economic instability caused by colonial exploitation.

There are many examples that contradict the common belief that ethnically diverse democracies are less stable: in the Philippines, Indonesia and India, central policies are shaped by shifting multiethnic coalitions, rather than allowing for a complete dominance of a single group. (This doesn’t mean there’s no political discrimination present in those geographies, but rather that the dominant group can’t afford to ignore the needs of the minorities.)

Moreover, small, geographically concentrated ethnic groups are likely to focus on their local policies, taking pressure off the centre. Given opportunity to flourish, localised minorities  might actually aid democratic processes and contribute to building a modern, democratic society.

Reorganising Myanmar into a federation of self-governing states could allow the country to make huge strides towards a stable democracy.

Recent developments

The upcoming conference must not only bring peace, but allow for Suu Kyi to learn about the expectations of the minority groups, some of which have never in their history fallen under central government. Building a federal state that can support all of its citizens, regardless of their ethnicity, is the only hope for Myanmese democracy.

Last month, members of 17 armed ethnic groups met in the Kachin state to discuss their vision.

“We have studied and prepared the kind of federal union we are going to build, although we don’t know what kind of federal union the government intends to build,” stated Naw Si Pho Ra Sein of the Karen National Union.

The meeting was conducted in the absence of 4 of the country’s ethnic armed groups, including the largest, the United Wa State Army. However, both the Wa, as well as the Shan, met with Suu Kyi last week and held “positive” talks, seen as an “important first step” in building mutual trust.

A ceasefire agreement between the previous government and the rebels was signed only by 8 groups. Hopefully, more will be willing to put down their arms if the State Counsellor can offer a compromise with the government during the August peace conference.