Expert Speak Raisina Debates
Published on Nov 04, 2016
Myanmar's seemingly peaceful transition from military dictatorship to democracy has raised hopes of it becoming a model of political transition.
Is Myanmar's political transition a model?

Myanmar's seemingly peaceful transition from military dictatorship to democracy has raised hopes of it becoming a model of political transition. An assessment of the transition that was set in motion in 2010 suggests that the country has made rapid progress and by all accounts it is likely to move forward incrementally, albeit with major challenges. If this transition is to be seen as a model, a fundamental question that needs to be asked is: How peaceful is the transition?

There is no consensus among analysts on when the process of change began in Myanmar. Some trace it back to 2003 when the then military government under Sr. Gen. Than Shwe unveiled a "seven-step roadmap to disciplined democracy" that outlined "drafting a new constitution through a national referendum" and "holding of free and fair elections" among other steps. Five years after the announcement of the roadmap, a new constitution was adopted in 2008 through a referendum.

Myanmar constitution

While the constitution is considered better than the previous constitutions of the country, it has been criticised for mandating huge powers to the military, including 25 percent reservation of seats in parliament and bestowing in the Commander-in-Chief of the armed forces the power to pick ministers for three important ministries — defence, border and home affairs.

Under the new constitution, the first "free and fair" elections were held in November 2010 in which the military-backed Union Solidarity and Development Party (USDP) won the controversial polls. Activists and world leaders welcomed the holding of the elections, but criticised the way in which it was conducted. Pro-democracy icon Daw Aung San Suu Kyi (Suu Kyi) was released six days after the elections.

Proving its sceptics wrong, the USDP government under President Thein Sein soon embarked on wide-ranging reforms. But in the 2015 elections, the USDP lost to Suu Kyi’s National League for Democracy (NLD) that made a historic victory by obtaining about 60 per cent of the votes share and winning more than 70 percent of seats in both houses of parliament.

Any appraisal of the transition focusing on the two major political forces of the country would give a sense that both the military and the pro-democracy forces have accommodated each other for the larger good of the society. Thus, Suu Kyi’s NLD government has not been seeking criminal retribution for the long suppression and persecution under the military rule and on its part the previous Thein Sein administration released thousands of political prisoners in the early years of the reform era.

The political accommodation between the key political forces in Myanmar surely opened the door for democracy to grow. This is admirable if one looks at the political transitions in the Middle East. Even in neighbouring countries like Bangladesh, its political past continues to haunt present-day politics and in recent years Thailand has been embroiled in a series of political crises that have allowed the military to take centrestage at the cost of democracy.

Myanmar’s transition to democracy is certainly a model for others to emulate. However, this story — the more popular and with more positive outcomes — is only one aspect of the democratic transition process.

If one shifts the focus to ethnic and religious minorities, the assumption that Myanmar's democratisation is peaceful may need to be reassessed.

A peaceful transition?

In 2012, a couple of years after reforms were initiated by the USDP administration, the country witnessed one of the worst communal violence between Rohingya Muslims and Rakhine Buddhists that left hundreds dead and several thousand displaced. According to the Burmese authorities, the conflict claimed seventy eight people, injured eighty seven and displaced 140,000 people.

Rohingya Muslims in the Rakhine State, numbering about one million, are considered "illegal immigrants" without cultural roots in Myanmar and are seen a "threat to race and religion." Communal mistrust between Rakhine Buddhists and Rohingya Muslims had been in existence for long. Rights groups criticised the government for not preventing the incidents in the first place and for failing to act assertively and impartially.

Myanmar, cost of democracy, ethnic minority, religious minority, Rohingya Muslims, non-assertive, partial, Muslim ethnic groups, nationwide ceasefire agreement, NCA, rights groups, democratisation process, humanitarian crisis, Yangon, Rakhine Buddhists, Kachin, human rights violation Courtesy: European Commission/CC BY-SA 2.0

The incident soon triggered a series of violent clashes between Buddhist and Muslim ethnic groups in various cities such as Meiktila and Lashio. Some 120,000 Rohingyas still remain in camps for internally displaced persons in the Rakhine State. Reacting to the continued violence in the Rakhine state, Adama Dieng, Special Adviser of the UN Secretary General on the Prevention of Genocide on 25 March 2013 warned that failing to address the immediate consequences and root causes of violence could have "serious consequences which the international community has solemnly promised to prevent."

Some 120,000 Rohingyas still remain in camps for internally displaced persons in the Rakhine State.

If the reform-era is a period of continued discrimination and violence for the Rohingya Muslims, for many ethnic minorities the situation is no better. Under Thein Sein, government initiated an ethnic peace and reconciliation process to find a resolution to the decades-old ethnic conflicts in the country. Even as the government undertook the peace process with ethnic armed groups, military offensives continued unabated in many ethnic areas.

On 15 October, the Thein Sein government signed a nationwide ceasefire agreement (NCA) with eight armed ethnic groups. However, more than half of the country’s rebel groups did not sign the NCA. Since then, the military has stepped up operations and offensives against those who stayed out of the ceasefire. In November 2015, a military offensive against ethnic rebel groups forced tens of thousands of civilians to flee their homes. Rights groups in Shan State accused the army of firing on civilians and raping women.

From the perspective of ethnic and religious minorities of the country, conflicts and violence have been part of the democratisation process. Humanitarian crisis as a result of military operations in ethnic areas and systematic persecutions in the Rakhine State against the Rohingya Muslims remained a major concern during this period.

Suu Kyi and the NLD administration

After coming to power, the NLD government set up a Central Committee on the Implementation of Peace, Stability and Development of the Rakhine State with the objectives of bringing "peace, stability and development to all people in Rakhine State." The NLD government also established an advisory commission with former UN Secretary General Kofi Annan as its Chair to provide recommendations on the complex challenges facing the Rakhine state. However, not many people are confident that these mechanisms will find a solution to the problem. A Yangon based senior journalist recently told this writer that these mechanisms are only to "manage" the crisis and are unlikely to find lasting solution to the problem.

The NLD government held the "21st Panglong Conference" in August this year and has made the ethnic peace process its priority. However, there are doubts if the civilian government will be able to control the military in dealing with ethnic rebel groups. While the NLD government and the military seem to have built a workable relationship in many areas, the stability of this relationship will be tested in dealing with the ethnic armed groups. A senior USDP functionary who had held important positions in the previous administration confided to this writer in Yangon late last month that tension is brewing between the NLD government and the military over conflicts in ethnic areas. The NLD government has sought restraint on the part of the military, but the military wants the NLD government to first moderate the ethnic armed rebels.

Myanmar, USDP, history, overshadow, judge, Myanmar’s transition USDP campaign parade in 2015 | Photo: Baron Reznik/CC BY-NC-SA 2.0

Seven months in office now, the NLD government faced new challenges last month following renewed conflicts in the Rakhine state. This was triggered by the killings of six policemen by armed groups suspected to have links with international terror groups. According to aid agencies, the violence has displaced another 15,000 Rohingya Muslims and 3000 Rakhine Buddhists. Also, renewed clashes between the military forces and the ethnic rebels have forced thousands to flee their homes in the states of Kachin, Shan and Karen.

For many ethnic and religious minorities, the transition has been a painful process so far. UN High Commissioner for Human Rights Zeid Ra’ad Al Hussein in June this year urged the NLD government to take concrete steps to put an end to the "systemic discrimination and ongoing human rights violations against minorities" while releasing a new report that highlighted the plight of the minorities in Myanmar, in particular the Rohingya Muslims in the Rakhine State.

Myanmar’s transition is still an unfolding story. With more than four more years to go, Suu Kyi and her NLD government should not allow military offensives and violation of human rights against the minorities to overshadow the much praised transition. If Myanmar were to be a model of peaceful transition from military rule to democracy, Suu Kyi and her government should act now. History will judge Myanmar’s transition in its totality.

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K. Yhome

K. Yhome

K. Yhome was Senior Fellow with ORFs Neighbourhood Regional Studies Initiative. His research interests include Indias regional diplomacy regional and sub-regionalism in South and Southeast ...

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