Myanmar’s narrative of democratic transition is holding the country back

National League for Democracy supporters decked out in the party colours. Photo: mohigan / CC BY-SA

A narrative of ethnic Burman state-building and junta rule has left Myanmar with structural flaws in its new democracy, severely limiting the possibilities for November’s election.


In central Yangon, the fabric printing shops that line the streets of the Shwegondine neighborhood are awash in a sea of red as shops print flags, t-shirts and paraphernalia of the ruling National League for Democracy (NLD) party ahead of the upcoming general election in November.

Printing shop owners are seeing a spike in demand for NLD merchandise, according to a recent report from The Irrawaddy, but the shops aren’t working on orders for the party—they’re simply responding to demand.

This would suggest that the government enjoys across-the-board support from voters who consider the NLD’s five years in power to have been a success.

But the current government is marred by its failures to deliver: on constitutional reform, on curtailing the military’s power, on establishing a democracy to represent Myanmar’s diverse body politic. These may be tall orders but the NLD’s missteps—from questionable appointments of ministers, to the circus that is now the peace process—alienated many who supported the party in 2015.

Myanmar’s democratic transition has now left behind many ethnic groups and those living outside the country’s central lowlands. Lacking significant representation in the government or influential political parties of their own, ethnic minorities are forced to jump on the bandwagon or be excluded from the political process in the flurry of support for State Counsellor Aung San Suu Kyi and the NLD.

That printing shops are running batches of flags emblazoned with the faces of Aung San Suu Kyi and her father, Burman independence hero General Aung San, points to how the national story of democratic transition is now placing severe limitations on Myanmar’s current election and the prospects for progressive reform.

Myanmar is a democracy for some, seeking to become a democracy for all

Myanmar’s democratic transition is held back by severe inequality—as in many countries—along ethnic and class lines.

The state narrative of triumph over both British colonial and Japanese occupation, as well as over decades of rule by military junta, centers on primarily ethnic Burman heroes and the country’s lowland population.

But the “ethnic states”—Shan, Wa, Karen, Kachin, Rakhine and others—played key roles and newly-independent Burma was founded as a multiethnic state with relatively diverse leadership. Whatever the possibilities for lasting equality may have been, they were paved over with the coup by General Ne Win in 1962.

Source: Minority Rights

Myanmar’s post-independence growth was thus predicated on a process of Burmanization that essentially persisted through decades of dictatorship. This cemented Myanmar’s independence story as one in which General Aung San and the Anti-Fascist People’s Freedom League (AFPFL) found a state where ethnic Burman groups hold power while the periphery remains in its place.

The country’s recent civilian governments have done little to change this. Many ethnic parties are fielding candidates this year with significant local support but they stand little chance of gaining clout at the national level. This inequality severely undermines the possibilities for a pivot to a more representative or progressive government in the November election.

Major political parties also continue to trade in tropes of Burmese ethnic nationalism. In one case, a recent Facebook ad by the opposition Union Solidarity and Development Party (USDP), a military proxy, showed party president U Than Htay proclaiming the ethnic purity of his family, saying “there are ‘no long noses or blue eyes or curly hair or charcoal-colored skin in my family.’”

The reference to blue eyes is likely a jab at Aung San Suu Kyi, whose husband was British and whose children are UK citizens. The manufactured narrative of Burman state-building continues to serve its purpose.

Aung San Suu Kyi speaking. Photo: Htoo Tay Zar / CC BY-SA

The inequities under Myanmar’s juntas continue today

One of the key impacts of decades of junta rule is the creation of a country where nascent democracy inevitably serves only some. Power was concentrated among the Burman elite and the country’s economy benefited the few at the top.

As one ethnic leader put it to political economist Lee Jones, “When the people became poorer and poorer, they became more apolitical… because they were only [focused] on their survival.”

As a result, the country’s narrative of democratic transition is now couched in and dependent on a specific liberalized capitalist path, pitched as the only way to mend the damage done by Ne Win’s Burmese Way of Socialism.

As in many contexts, state-building and development driven by the central government have served to concentrate control over land and resources—and therefore wealth. Ethnic groups have seen their natural resources exploited as they bear the negative impacts of dangerous industries but see few benefits. From Kachin State’s jade mines and rivers to the Salween River in Karen and Shan states, local ethnic communities are excluded or exploited in order to extract wealth from their land.

This process has been driven largely by the military, known as the Tatmadaw, and military-linked or state-owned companies—though foreign investment now plays an equally large role in defining the development agenda.

“[The] Tatmadaw’s persistent hold on power results from its continuous elimination of democratic forces, its substantive involvement in the national economy, and its management of longstanding center-periphery conflicts over the course of a half-century of military rule,” wrote Yatana Yamahata from the London School of Economics and Political Science recently in Tea Circle.

Myanmar’s last military junta—the State Peace and Development Council, dissolved in 2011—laid out a “roadmap to democracy” in 2003. They more or less told the country their plans to preserve the military’s political power, and then followed through with it.

“Political change has been a top-down transition in the system—from military rule to electoral authoritarianism—not in the military’s dominance in politics,” wrote Yamahata.

The 2020 election is a continuation of this dynamic, dominated by the dance between the military or the USDP and the NLD. In some ways, the election offers the country a new roadmap as seen through the country’s continuing struggles to overcome the structural flaws in its new democracy.

As U Bo Kyi, a former political prisoner under Myanmar’s junta, wrote, “Our economic policies should be systematic, and not casual; the focus should be equality, not charity. Myanmar’s developmental model should be focused on its benefits to you, the people, not the cronies and business elite.”

Despite the NLD’s best efforts, Myanmar’s military retains a lock on politics and social divisions, primarily ethnic, undermine much-needed solidarity between groups pushing for reform. For Myanmar’s new roadmap, people across the country will have to look away from Aung San Suu Kyi or the generals—to ethnic parties, labor leaders, farmers running as independents and others.

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