Burma’s transition: ‘yet to give substance to strategy’


A senior Myanmar government official on Tuesday denied there was ethnic cleansing against Rohingya Muslims in the troubled northwestern state of Rakhine, where a military operation aimed at the minority has forced 75,000 people to flee to Bangladesh, Reuters reports.

Meanwhile, police are going above and beyond to find Aung Win Khaing, the suspected conspirator in the assassination of National League for Democracy (NLD) legal adviser U Ko Ni (above), chief of police Maj-Gen Zaw Win told The Irrawaddy.

A year ago, citizens of Myanmar – also referred to as Burma – saw their first civilian president take office in a government led by pro-democracy icon Aung Sang Suu Kyi, FSRN’s Lena Odgaard reports:

This major step toward a representative government came after more than half a century of brutal military rule. While for decades, any talk of human rights was banned, the country is now seeing hundreds of civil society organizations mushroom – but human rights advocates say not everyone is benefiting from the new freedoms.

The record of Daw Aung San Suu Kyi’s young government, which succeeded decades of military rule, already is disappointing some ethnic groups and outside observers, notably when it comes to human rights, notes Carine Jaquet, an associate researcher at the Research Institute for Contemporary Southeast Asia in Yangon. But these shortcomings also reflect the staggering challenges of pursuing the country’s transition to democracy, and some of the unexpected side effects, she writes for the New York Times:

Consider the conflict in Kachin,* a northern state nestled between India and China. I last was in Myitkyina, the state capital, in February. Valentine’s Day was quiet in the city. Couples had gathered in tea shops for strawberry juices. Teddy bears wrapped in plastic were being sold in front of gift shops and churches. Yet just a few miles away, the Myanmar Army, known as the Tatmadaw, was conducting a major offensive.

A small skirmish between the military and the Kachin Independence Army (K.I.A.) in June 2011 has degenerated into the most widespread and intense armed conflict in Myanmar. Since then, the fighting has killed hundreds of people and displaced some 100,000 people in Kachin and neighboring Northern Shan State.

Moreover, observers say Suu Kyi’s imperious approach alienates potential allies and contributes to the country’s growing crises, The Times adds.

“She’s Mary Poppins without a sense of humor,” said David Scott Mathieson, an independent analyst. “She has a schoolmarmish way where instructions are given and obedience is observed. She takes that approach with government, and it is highly misplaced. Politics is compromise.”

While some analysts say the government has yet to give substance to strategy in areas such as economic liberalization, others note that Suu Kyi is heavily circumscribed by the power of the armed forces, the Tatmadaw.

Myanmar is unique in facing all three challenges on a significant scale, analyst Nigel Gould-Davies writes for Open Democracy:

  • First, how does power work? This question covers two issues: the constitutional design that defines how the country is governed, and the role of the military. In most democratic transitions the constitution is part of the bargaining process, or is promulgated by the new democratic regime as part of its ‘founding moment’. Either path confers democratic legitimacy on the constitution and ensures that it reflects the wishes of the new government. Unusually in Myanmar, the constitution was written by the military regime in 2008, before the transition began. The NLD has had no say in the design of the institutions through which it now governs. Nor can it obviously change them. The constitution is designed to remain amendment-proof without the consent of the military – not least by granting it 25% of legislative seats….
  • Credit: IRI

    Second, how does wealth work? Economic failure is the most common cause of the performance and legitimacy crisis that forces an authoritarian regime to open up. In Myanmar’s case, chronic misrule (the country has been designated by the UN as a “least developed country” since 1987) was compounded by international isolation. This is a difficult point of departure for the new government: few countries as poor as Myanmar have undergone a successful transition, while the transition itself has generated rising popular expectations….

  • Third, how does society work? Recent experience shows that identity conflict can present the most severe challenge to the stability of a new democracy. In many emerging democracies new freedoms of speech and expression have allowed the celebration and revival of long-suppressed or discouraged national, religious and other bases of belonging. But this has a dark side: an immature information market, and ‘ethnic entrepreneurs’ seeking new bases of political support, can mobilise identities against one another, playing on historic distrust or past conflict. The ability to spread rumours and ‘fake news’, rapidly and on a mass scale, greatly magnifies this problem. RTWT

* The National Endowment for Democracy supports the Kachin State News and Information Service and programs to enhance democratic awareness in Kachin State as well as programs which monitor and build awareness of human rights abuses committed against Burma’s Muslim minorities and to promote international support for greater respect for minority rights in Burma.

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