Inexperience with democracy leaves Myanmar’s reforms on shaky footing

By Bi Shihong Source:Global Times Published: 2014-1-19 21:07:22

The sweeping amnesty issued by Myanmar President U Thein Sein for political detainees at the end of 2013 was a recent demonstration of efforts by the reformist government to continue political reforms, despite denunciation from human rights groups that not all political prisoners have been freed. Nay Pyi Taw has won international praise by propelling political reforms, especially since August 2011, but faces further challenges in the future.

The government has loosened its control over politics and society in recent years, through such actions as ending pre-publication censorship, relaxing its previously tight grip on private media, publishing the accounts of parliamentary meetings and allowing critical voices against the government decisions and actions. 

New regulations announced by the Myanmar government in December 2011 permitted a total number of 54 publications including business journals, magazines and books to circumvent censorship before publication. Nay Pyi Taw also lifted its blockade on foreign news websites, which made social networks and websites of foreign media outlets such as Facebook, Twitter, YouTube and the BBC accessible to Myanmar Net users.

In addition to significant changes in Myanmar's media landscape, the government has made relatively great endeavors to improve human rights conditions including lowering the sentences of or pardoning prisoners, especially renowned opposition leaders. In August 2011 Thein Sein called on all exiles to return home and contribute. The right to strike was guaranteed in October 2011 when a new law put an end to the draconian 1962 Trade Unions Act.

Generally speaking, the government is shifting its governing philosophy to the rule of law, with 15 laws being revised or newly enacted. But as a country where most citizens have neither grasped the essence of democracy nor are familiar with the practical operation and application of democracy, Myanmar faces sharp challenges.

The country lacks cultural traditions of modern democratic politics. Democracy is a game, and everyone abiding by the rules is key to whether a democratic regime could function. However, the Myanmar public is now split on major issues like economic and political development, democratization and foreign investment introduction. Society is saturated with idealism and ideology due to a lack of market awareness and a superfluous number of NGOs. 

Modern politics is a compromise based on rule of law, but in today's Myanmar, radical ideological trends make earnest debate and consensus impossible. The possibility that political elites will fail to institutionalize the democratic transition and that unrest will serve when people resort to violence as a solution to social conflicts cannot be excluded.

Besides, Myanmar's middle class is weak, while the military and the ruling Union Solidarity and Development Party, which have absorbed most Myanmese talents, have an absolute advantage. It is unfavorable to democratic transition.

It will take a while for Myanmar to foster the middle class as the social mainstream, even if its economic growth rate can be up to 8 percent annually as the government has planned.

Reforms have advanced swiftly because the public long for a speedy development of the country rather than ceaseless political wrangles. They have high expectations of the government improving their living standards by implementing more open and effective economic policies. If the Myanmar economy proves hard to improve, then public confidence and interest in democracy will see a slide.

Many activists and social groups in Myanmar are calling for Western countries led by the US to impose greater pressure on the Thein Sein government. But for these countries, democracy and human rights are merely tools in exchange for interests.

Since the end of the Cold War, the US has spared no efforts in instigating democratic changes in Myanmar. Nonetheless, the US chiefly aims at establishing a pro-US regime in Myanmar rather than really caring for democracy and human rights conditions there.

So far, Myanmar has responded well to the US requests, but Washington has failed to provide considerable assistance and fully lift sanctions against Myanmar, which is unsatisfactory to the Thein Sein government. If Western investment and assistance cannot rise steeply, the initiative of Myanmar to deepen reform could be affected.

The author is a professor at the School of International Studies, Yunnan University.

Posted in: Asian Beat

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