x Abu Dhabi, UAEWednesday 13 December 2017

Will democracy take root in Myanmar?

After five decades of brutal military rule, Myanmar has been slowly shifting in the direction of legitimate democratic governance, but many serious obstacles still have to be overcome.

Workers at a clothing factory in Myanmar's northern Sagaing region. AFP
Workers at a clothing factory in Myanmar's northern Sagaing region. AFP

For nearly two decades, the house at 54 University Avenue in Yangon, Myanmar, a crumbling old Victorian home, appeared more like a fortress than a residence.

Along the road leading to Aung San Suu Kyi's family home, groups of soldiers and military intelligence men, armed with radios and machine guns, blocked its entrance, which was so far from the actual house that no one on the road could see inside.

Citizens foolish enough to travel to the roadblock were often detained and roughly interrogated. Foreigners (including myself) who wandered towards the residence, seeking any glimpse of the famous opposition leader and Nobel Peace laureate, were turned away. Suu Kyi herself stayed inside. Except for a few brief periods of release from her long house arrest, her main contact with the outside world was through her radio and a maid who came and went. Other leaders of her National League for Democracy (NLD) party, which won a free election in 1990 but was never allowed to take office, could not visit, if they themselves were not in jail.

Today, the situation could hardly be more different. The house is open and NLD members, academics, foreign journalists, diplomats and governmental advisers come and go for meetings with Suu Kyi when she is not travelling around the country holding rallies, as she has been doing for much of the past six months. Foreign tour groups often stop by to take pictures of the residence, while state security men stand aside. Suu Kyi has also now ventured abroad for the first time in decades, visiting the Nobel Institute in Oslo last weekend as part of a broader European tour.

The changes at University Avenue are symbolic of the dramatic shifts that have occurred over the past two years in Myanmar, which outside of North Korea was probably the most repressive and isolated country in the world, ruled for five decades by a military regime. Under the watchful eye of a new president, Thein Sein, Myanmar's military officially ended its rule, handing power to a civilian parliament. Thein Sein then inaugurated rapid reforms: he freed many of the country's political prisoners, launched efforts to achieve permanent peace with many insurgent armies, began opening up the media and the economy, and publicly called for exiles to return and rebuild the country, a tacit admission that years of military rule had impoverished what was once a promising economy. In April, Suu Kyi's party was allowed to compete in by-elections for a handful of parliamentary seats, for the first time since 1990. The party dominated the voting, winning 44 out of 46 seats. Suu Kyi herself took one seat, and now sits in parliament, a shocking development given that only two years ago she was locked in her home.

In response to this surprising shift, most western nations are re-engaging with the country. The US, European Union, Australia and Japan have already dropped some economic sanctions, and many companies are laying plans to invest heavily in Myanmar. Coca-Cola, General Electric and other big multinationals have already launched exploratory plans to get into Myanmar. In April, David Cameron, the British prime minister, became the first major western leader to visit the country in two decades. And yet, the pace of reform after so many years of repression, and the absence of any public explanation for why the military now decided to cede power, has left some citizens, and outside observers, both wary and thrilled.

If Myanmar could change so rapidly, what lessons might it offer for the world's other most repressive nations, countries with seemingly intractable problems and dictatorial rulers like North Korea, Uzbekistan, or Eritrea? Or, perhaps this Myanmar spring is as false as other brief periods of hope the country enjoyed. After all, despite the dramatic changes some nagging questions remain. Why has the military maintained the right to step back into power if need be? Why is the country seemingly intent on building a nuclear and missile programme? Why, as politics opens up has the military stepped up its war against several ethnic militias, leading to a refugee outflow from the country's north?


Despite the fact that she is one of the most famous women in the world - the subject of the new Luc Besson film The Lady and lionised in songs by U2 and others - Aung San Suu Kyi, daughter of the Burmese independence leader Aung San and leader of the democracy movement since the late 1980s, has never been well captured in a biography.

Her status as the country's beloved beacon of democracy, known to many as "Ma Suu" ("Auntie Suu") made it tough to find anyone to provide balanced and critical assessments of her. In his recent book The Lady and the Peacock, Peter Popham, a long-time foreign correspondent for the The Independent newspaper in Britain and frequent traveller to Myanmar, comes closest to writing an insightful biography, even though his work occasionally verges on hagiography.

When Suu Kyi was growing up in Myanmar in the 1950s and early 1960s, the country seemed to have unlimited prospects. Rich in natural resources including petroleum, timber, gems and extremely fertile land, and possessed of a well-educated middle class and a highly literate population, it was viewed by the World Bank as one of the most promising economies in Asia. Though Suu Kyi's father Aung San was assassinated by rival politicians before the country gained independence from Britain in 1949, Burma (as it was known then) built a vibrant democracy, and held regular, free elections throughout the 1950s.

By the time Suu Kyi returned to the country in the late 1980s to care of her ailing mother, after decades spent abroad as a student and housewife (she married an academic in Britain and had two children) the Burma of the post-independence era was all but gone. Though the 1940s and 1950s witnessed a flourishing of democracy, the country never resolved its deep ethnic divisions. In 1962, with those tensions rising, army chief Ne Win launched a coup, ended parliamentary democracy and essentially closed the country to the world. He threw out many foreign organisations, nationalised most industries, exiled many ethnic minorities, shut down media organisations and crushed all political opposition.

By the late 1980s Burma had regressed to least-developed-nation status and its currency was nearly worthless. Protests over inflation, corruption and poverty spiralled in 1988 into massive anti-government demonstrations, which coincided with Suu Kyi's return. Feeling compelled to become politically engaged, Suu Kyi made an inaugural speech at the Shwedegon Pagoda, an enormous glittering gold structure that dominates the skyline of Yangon; she drew hundreds of thousands and dazzled the crowd with her steely style. Though Ne Win officially stepped down in the face of the protests, the army essentially launched a coup against itself, and crushed the demonstrations by machine-gunning civilians in the streets of Rangoon (now Yangon), killing at least 3,000 people and probably many more.

Still, in a strange move, the army allowed national elections in 1990, confident its favoured parties would win. When Suu Kyi's NLD party swept the vote, winning an overwhelming majority of seats, the military refused to recognise the result, and jailed hundreds if not thousands of party members. Over the next two decades, the army, led by dictator Senior General Than Shwe, moved the country away from Ne Win's socialism to a kind of crony capitalism, fuelled by growing petroleum exports and trade with China and other Asian countries, which (other than Japan) did not impose sanctions. The government changed the country's name from Burma to Myanmar, in an attempt to make a superficial break with the past. The families and favoured allies of Than Shwe and other top military men became extraordinarily rich. The military continued to repress all dissent. Even when thousands of Buddhist monks, the most revered figures in a devout society, travelled to Yangon in 2007 to protest, the military had little compunction about beating and shooting the holy men. Meanwhile, though Myanmar's economy grew strongly, most of the gains went to a small elite and the country's development indicators, such as infant mortality, fell to levels comparable to poor countries in sub-Saharan Africa.

That was where Myanmar stood until 2010. The army seemed firmly in control. Suu Kyi remained locked in her house. Much of Myanmar still looked like it had 50 years ago; Yangon's pavements crumbled, and electricity flickered on and off. The West had little contact with the government. As Andy Heyn, the current British ambassador to Myanmar, told reporters before Cameron's visit, "When I arrived here in July 2009, the prospect of such a senior visit was so far-fetched as to be absurd." And then, beginning in 2010, everything seemed to change, so fast that many domestic democrats and foreign rights activists struggled to adjust their thinking.

In November, after passing a new constitution, the military held a national election for the supposedly civilian new parliament. The army claimed that this was the first step towards "democracy", but the rules of the vote were so rigged that the NLD boycotted the process and the military's favoured parties dominated the election.

Most Myanmar experts I met believed the ballot was of no consequence, like one of Saddam Hussein's old "elections" where he garnered 99 per cent of the vote. Yet, a shift did seem to be occurring. Burmese officials said that Than Shwe and his longtime number two, Maung Aye, truly did retire, no longer providing direct input into policy-making. The new leaders of parliament, themselves former senior military men, including many involved in past atrocities, pushed to make the legislature a centre for debate, discussion and real policy-making. The head of the national censorship board suddenly announced that Myanmar should launch a new era of free press. Former officers, now members of parliament, who had once competed to heap invective on the democratic opposition now embraced many former rivals, asking them for advice and guidance.

Meanwhile, the man selected by the military as the new president, Thein Sein, seemed to be far different from any of his predecessors. He had been a military man, but according to a lengthy account of his life in The Irrawaddy, a leading Burmese exile publication, he'd recognised how the generals' misrule was impoverishing the country, and had personally taken a softer approach to those under his command.

He soon welcomed Suu Kyi, and allies of the democracy leader said that, in private, she came to trust Thein Sein and believe that he was a true reformer at heart. In fact, she so fully embraced his changes that some worried that "Ma Suu" had legitimised his new government.

She and Thein Sein have proved a formidable team. Before April's by-elections, Myanmar allowed international observers to monitor the ballot for the first time, and although there were some irregularities, the voting was regarded as free and fair. Taking seats in parliament, Suu Kyi and other NLD members have vowed to improve the country's lack of constitutional law, to focus on the continuing divides between ethnic groups and to build truly representative politics. The party also plans to rebuild its network across the country in order to run in the 2015 national elections, when all of the seats in parliament - and thus control of the government - will, in theory, be up for grabs. Just having Suu Kyi herself win a seat in parliament seemed, to many of the country's citizens, like a wonder. On election day, supporters of "The Lady" gathered near her house and near party headquarters, dancing and crying ecstatically, as if redemption had finally arrived.


Still, even the most astute observers in Myanmar are left wondering why these changes have occurred. No country was likely to invade Myanmar, the regime was sitting on piles of cash, and with Suu Kyi ageing, the NLD's leadership had been shattered by years of repression. What's more, the previous economic and financial sanctions imposed by the West had achieved little. Yet several Myanmar officials suggest that world events did have an impact, that the generals realised that, by working with Suu Kyi, they could avoid a troublesome fate.

"The events around the world [the Arab uprisings], the generals saw this," said Priscilla Clapp, a former US diplomat in Myanmar. In fact, by overseeing a managed transition, the generals could keep the vast wealth they had amassed illegally, and often deposited overseas - a lesson, potentially, for other dictatorships like Syria, where leaders are very reluctant to leave the scene. "We may want a process of justice and accountability [for the former military leaders] in Burma [Myanmar]," said one senior US official, "but they may feel they just want to move beyond the past."

Indeed, the generals seem to have made a wise move. Suu Kyi herself, despite her credentials as a critic of the regime, has reciprocated their trust. In a speech to the Council on Foreign Relations, she played down the idea of severe punishment for the military rulers' past abuses, and called for forgiveness for their crimes, including those perpetrated against her.

In addition, the world around Myanmar began to change, helping, in a backwards kind of way, to create political change in the country - and perhaps in other long-standing dictatorships in Asia as well.

For nearly two decades, Myanmar had been dependent on China, even though many senior generals actually had little love for Beijing. Over time, as China became Myanmar's largest trading partner, and hundreds of thousands of migrants moved to Myanmar for business, average citizens also started to have second thoughts about that relationship. When I travelled through Mandalay, a city whose central business district is now dominated by Chinese guesthouses, Chinese-built malls, and Chinese vendors, I found resentment running very high. Some locals accused the Chinese of dumping products on the Myanmar market, or pushing locals out of flats and office spaces; others angrily complained that big Chinese companies were exploiting Myanmar's resources.

Beijing has also shed its hands-off foreign policy and adopted a much tougher approach. In the 2000s, China, still trying to win the friendship of its neighbours, lavished aid on countries like Myanmar, Cambodia, Pakistan, Sri Lanka and others in the region, all the while insisting that China, unlike the bad old western powers, would respect other countries' concerns.

In a book of the same title, I called this winning Chinese diplomacy of the 2000s a "charm offensive". But, by the late 2000s and early 2010s, that charm had begun to fade. With the West reeling from economic downturn, China was no longer willing to simply play the noninterventionist card. Instead, it began to claim larger areas of disputed waters in South East Asia, to jostle with India over borders, to build dams on the upper portions of rivers that flowed into other countries, and to demand greater fealty from friends, asking that the Myanmar government crack down on cross-border refugee flows and drugs, offer China more favourable trade deals, and essentially carry China's water in regional organisations.

Increasingly worried about being so dependent on China, Myanmar's regime began to open up in order to court the West as a counter balance to Beijing. In a strange way then, since sanctions pushed the Myanmar government into the hands of China, and then the generals tired of their relationship, sanctions began to foster a rapprochement with western nations. Across Asia, the US government has taken advantage of countries' concerns about a rising, increasingly aggressive China, and the White House has used that fear to build stronger relationships with Vietnam, the Philippines and Singapore. Myanmar was another obvious choice, and from early in the Barack Obama years, the White House began calling for a new engagement, one that would eventually lead to closer ties and, US officials argue, helped push the reform process forward in Myanmar.


But like Ali Abdullah Saleh in Yemen, the Burmese generals have not exactly left the picture. In fact, with the recent outbreak of ethnic violence in western Myanmar's Arakan State, between Buddhists and Muslims, Thein Sein has declared a state of emergency in that region, given vastly more powers to the security forces there, and created the possibility that this same group will once again gain vast powers over the entire country. Though some Burmese liberals, and some human rights groups, have praised Thein Sein's move for trying to stem the ethnic bloodletting, which in recent weeks has resulted in at least 20 people being killed and thousands of homes burned, they have also expressed concern that handing any powers back to the security forces is an extremely dangerous move in the reform process. Still, for now, many Burmese are jubilant, and the political and economic worlds of Yangon, Mandalay, and other towns have become almost irrepressible with excitement. The political shifts, and the lifting of sanctions, will surely mean a windfall.

Although Myanmar is one of the poorest countries in Asia, with a relatively uneducated workforce and serious infrastructure problems, it has a large population (60 million), a strategic location between China, India and Southeast Asia, vast untapped reserves of oil and gas, and a consumer market that has mostly been cut off from technology for decades - only around four per cent of Burmese own mobile phones.

In the past six months, tens of fund managers, venture capitalists and large multinationals have called me, seeking advice on how to get into the Myanmar market. One prominent investment adviser, who assists some of the wealthiest people in the world in investing their money, spoke to me before he made an exploratory visit to the country earlier in the year.

"It could be a major opportunity, if you play it right," he said. "A lot of people won't understand [how to operate in Myanmar] but if you do you have a totally untapped market, one of the largest populations that has been cut off, it is going to be massive." Indeed, most of the luxury hotels in Yangon and other cities are now booked months in advance, full of potential investors and donors seeking meetings. At a recent conference, several nations pledged the country some US$500 million in aid: "Myanmar is a gold mine, any way you look at it—natural resources, gas and oil deposits, spatial dimensions, location between China, India, Southeast Asia," Craig Steffensen, Burma manager for the Asian Development Bank, told reporters.

But even while pushing reforms, Thein Sein's government has upped its attacks against the Kachin Independence Army, a major ethnic insurgent group in the country's north. Both sides have been accused, in a new Human Rights Watch report, of massive atrocities including killing civilians, forcing children to fight and using forced labour for portering. The Kachin appear to be buying up arms, and Thein Sein himself appears to have limited control of how the military fights the war, a worrying sign if the country is going to be a democracy in the future.

Meanwhile, the government has done little about another powerful ethnic insurgency, the United Wa State Army, which has tens of thousands of men under arms and also is believed to be among the biggest narcotics trafficking organisations in the world. Instead, the government, which long simply ignored - or made money from - the UWSA's huge heroin and amphetamine sales, appears to be still taking a hands-off approach. And now, the fighting in Arakan State threatens to put more power in the hands of the military as well.

Meanwhile, just because many top generals have formally retired does not mean they are not still pulling some strings. Several close observers of parliament, like the analyst Larry Jagan, say that Than Shwe has seeded parliament with hardliners who will make sure that any reforms proposed by Thein Sein or Suu Kyi never get too far, too fast.

And while Suu Kyi's party won the by-elections, military-backed parties still control nearly 80 per cent of seats in parliament and nearly every ministerial job.

"By any international standard, there remains a massive amount to achieve to come anywhere close to real constitutional democracy," noted The Irrawaddy. The government may also find a way to delay or cancel the 2015 elections. After all, as Popham notes, back in the mid-1990s and then in 2001 and 2002, Myanmar's military pulled much the same trick, beginning to open the country and releasing Suu Kyi from house arrest, before rolling back its reforms. Don't count against such a scenario happening again.

Joshua Kurlantzick is Fellow for Southeast Asia at the Council on Foreign Relations in Washington.