How did Burma go from a military-dominated authoritarian state to a quasi-civilian government so quickly while avoiding a backlash by hard-liners and recruiting oppositionists into legitimating the reforms? This is no doubt one of the questions that will be raised in tomorrow’s session on the role of civil society in Burma’s transition at the World Movement for Democracy’s 7th assembly.
The same question is addressed in the latest issue of the Journal of Democracy in which the National Endowment for Democracy’s Brian Joseph (one of the assembly panel speakers) and Min Zin, a doctoral researcher at the University of California, argue that the shift that now appears to be underway in Burma raises questions not only of motivation and timing but also of management.
Key to the reforms’ success (or at least survival) have been constitutional guarantees for the military and hard-liners combined with a series of shrewd personnel assignments that have placed ex-generals in competing positions of institutional authority.
Those competing positions exist because Thein Sein’s predecessor Than Shwe had been anxious to forestall the kind of power concentration and palace intrigues at levels just below the top that had led to the imprisonments and eventual deaths of both his immediate predecessors.
For a half-century after the military took over in 1962, the prospects for political change in Burma appeared remote at best. The regime was one of the world’s most rigidly authoritarian, and it oversaw one of the world’s least developed countries. On virtually every index by which human development is measured, this country of 56 million people has lost ground and now sits near the bottom of world rankings.
As if to make the picture even gloomier, Burma’s soldier rulers have long followed isolationist policies that have guaranteed continuing economic and political stagnation, even as many other nondemocratic countries in Asia have embraced economic reforms and foreign policies that have helped to integrate them into the global community and in some cases made them less authoritarian. Despite the efforts of a prodemocratic opposition movement and its best-known figure, Nobel laureate Aung San Suu Kyi (above), Burma seemed fated to remain unfree and poor in the military’s iron grip.
Much to the surprise of observers, however, that picture began to change in early 2011. Despite retaining a firm hold on power and facing no urgent domestic or international threats, the military began to shift course. Oddly, what turned out to be the curtain-raiser to the new direction was more of the “same old same old”: On 7 November 2010, presidential and parliamentary elections had taken place under highly fraudulent conditions, and had produced resounding wins for 65-year-old premier and former general Thein Sein and the military-backed Union Solidarity and Development Party (USDP).
The success of the reform effort will also depend in large measure on how Burma’s political leadership—including the current government, the military, the NLD, and ethnic leaders—handles the structural and political issues that have eroded any sense of national unity or identity and led to a highly contested state. The old question of the state’s fundamental nature cannot be avoided. Is it a Burmese-speaking Buddhist country with a large minority population but with ethnic Burmans more or less in the driver’s seat? Or is it a multiethnic country in which everyone has an equal claim on what it means to be Burmese? Failure to face this question will not only guarantee more human-rights abuses in the ethnic areas, but also undermine any prospect of creating a just and enduring democratic state.
The main challenge now, therefore, is less democratization per se than the building of a state in which democracy can take root and grow. For the substantive democratization process, the real test will be how the transition proceeds in the aftermath of the 2015 elections.
Those elections, unlike the April 2012 by-elections, have the potential to significantly alter Burma’s basic power structure. Thus they represent a far greater threat to the military and other hard-liners than the by-elections did.