Optimism on Myanmar’s transition

Published on March 19, 2014

By Nehginpao Kipgen

The Myanmar Times – March 19, 2014

I recently made a month-long (February 5 to March 4) research trip to Myanmar, also referred to as Burma by some countries. I had the opportunity of meeting elites from diverse political spectrum.

Among others, I sat down with the country’s former Prime Minister General Khin Nyunt, the ruling Union Solidarity and Development Party (USDP) Vice-Chairman Htay Oo, the former Vice-Chairman of National League for Democracy (NLD) Tin Oo and the party’s spokesperson Nyan Win, and diplomats from the United States, Great Britain, Canada and India.

The conversation with elites centered around the question of what have triggered the democratic transition and the prospect of peace and reconciliation in the country. I specifically analyzed the role of democratizing agents such as civil society, elites, external agencies or foreign governments, and institutions.

One question frequently asked during my lectures and the same I raised to the elites was: can the ongoing democratic transition be sustained and successful? The general impression among different political stakeholders is that the process is unlikely to revert back to an authoritarian regime or another military coup.

There are, however, two groups of people – one group which has greater optimism on the success of the democratization process and the other group which is cautiously optimistic. While the first group sees that there is no chance of retreating back, the second group questions the sincerity of the government, particularly the role of military.

Though the two groups recognize the importance of resolving minority problems, there still remains an element of mistrust between the majority-Burman population and the country’s minority groups.

For example, Htay Oo, who is the Vice-Chairman of the ruling USDP and a former cabinet minister in the military-led State Peace and Development Council (SPDC) government, stated that the government is not turning back.

On the other hand, minority leaders such as Sai Nyunt Lwin, General Secretary of the Shan National League for Democracy (SNLD), and leaders of Nationalities Brotherhood Federation (NBF), an umbrella organization of 20 ethnic-based political parties, are not fully convinced that some in the military leadership is sincerely committed to establishing a genuine democracy that would address the concerns of ethnic minorities.

There is also a lingering concern among some ethnic minorities that the Myanmar military may use nationwide ceasefire to neutralize ethnic armed groups and then to occupy their territories and later exploit the natural resources.

Though there still is lack of trust toward the majority-Burman group and the military institution, there has been a visible shift in the general perception among the Bama or Burman population, including the military, that there cannot peace and progress without the cooperation and participation of ethnic minorities.

There is also a gradual realization among the majority-Burman population about the need for greater representation of ethnic minorities in all branches of the government – legislative, executive and judiciary. One other positive development is that the military-backed USDP government has also expressed its willingness to work toward achieving ethnic minorities’ demand for a federal union.

For a political dialogue to begin, government representatives and ethnic armed groups have been meeting a few times to first reach a nationwide ceasefire agreement. To this end, the ethnic groups’ Nationwide Ceasefire Coordination Team (NCCT) and the government’s Union Peace Working Committee (UPWC) announced in Yangon on March 10 that they would form a committee to draft the text for the ceasefire pact.

As much as nationwide ceasefire and political dialogue with ethnic armed groups is necessary, equally important, if not more, is the amendment of the 2008 constitution. For example, Article 261(b) of the present constitution gives the country’s president the power to appoint sate chief ministers. And the state and region chief ministers are responsible to the president.

While there is a common interest to addressing the long-standing issues of ethnic minorities, evidently there are also military hardliners who would like to retain their inherent power and influence for as long as possible.

It is evident from the nature of political transition that the government is pursuing a gradual or incremental change systematically through its seven-step-roadmap which the former Prime Minister General Khin Nyunt introduced in 2003.

There is also immense curiosity as to how the 2015 election will play out and how the military would react to if the NLD and other opposition parties win a landslide victory and vice-versa.

Before the election, the NLD, in particular, wants the amendment of Article 59(f) which prohibits party chairperson Aung San Suu Kyi from becoming the country’s president due to her children’s foreign citizenship.

There are still security and safety concerns within the rank and file of military elites, which suggest that the military would still be hesitant to transfer absolute power to a democratically elected civilian government.

Though there is optimism that the ongoing democratic transition would be successful, it is still premature to draw a firm conclusion before a concrete solution to ethnic minority problems emerges. There is also a challenging task to be sorted out as to how resources would be shared between state governments and the federal government.

Moreover, accommodation of different political parties and groups in the run up to the 2015 general election will be crucial for the success of democratic transition. A nationwide census which begins at the later part of this month will be an important step toward the upcoming elections.

For Myanmar to see a smooth and successful democratic transition, and possibly consolidation of democracy, there needs to be mutual trust between the government and the opposition groups, particularly ethnic minorities. In order to build such trust, the government and the military must demonstrate its sincerity and seriousness.

Meanwhile, ethnic minorities and other democratic forces must extend all possible support and cooperation to the government’s initiatives. If this unprecedented opportunity of reconciliation and peace is missed, it will be a tremendous loss for Myanmar and its people.

Nehginpao Kipgen’s research focuses on the politics of South and Southeast Asia with specialization on Burma/Myanmar. His book titled “Democracy Movement in Myanmar: Challenges and Problems” is scheduled for publication in April 2014.

Editor’s note: The release date of the book has been rescheduled for July 2014.

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