As Monday’s coup in Myanmar demonstrates, democracy is often fragile and subject to setbacks, says former U.S. ambassador to Myanmar and Stanford visiting scholar, Scot Marciel.
Here, Marciel discusses how in a country like Myanmar (formerly Burma), which was under military rule from 1962 to 2011, establishing a democracy takes time. Despite democratic reforms over the past decade, the military in Myanmar has held onto a considerable amount of power, said Marciel, noting that it is difficult to build not only a representative parliament but other democratic institutions including an independent judicial system, a fair police force and a free press.
While Monday’s coup is a major setback in Myanmar’s fight for democracy, Marciel said that there are many people in the country who will do what they can to restore their elected government and build the foundations of democracy.
Marciel is a visiting scholar at the Walter H. Shorenstein Asia-Pacific Research Center (APARC), Stanford’s hub for interdisciplinary research, education and engagement on contemporary Asia that is run under the auspices of the Freeman Spogli Institute for International Studies. Marciel served as U.S. Ambassador to Myanmar from March 2016 through May 2020. From 2010 to 2013, Scot Marciel served as U.S. Ambassador to Indonesia.
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What do people who have not spent extensive time studying or living in Myanmar need to know about its history to better understand Monday’s coup?
A couple of things. First, as historian Thant Myint-U has written, Myanmar is an unfinished nation, in the sense that the diverse communities that make up the country have never truly solidified as a unified nation. The country has been in near-constant conflict, mostly between the majority Bamar ethnic group and the many ethnic minority communities that inhabit much of Myanmar’s border areas. Second, the military staged a coup in 1962 and ran the country for nearly 50 years before allowing some movement toward representative democracy beginning in 2011-2012. So the military has long been a dominant force in the country, and – even after the reforms of the past decade – retained substantial power.
Is there anything that is often misunderstood about its history and its people?
In the West, many people have tended to view Myanmar mostly through the prism of a struggle for democracy between the military and the civilian opposition, led by Aung San Suu Kyi. That is a critically important part of the story, for sure. Perhaps equally important, however, has been the struggle of the many ethnic minority communities for equality, a degree of autonomy, and respect for their own histories, cultures and languages. This struggle has produced widespread conflict, significant human rights abuses, and large numbers of refugees and displaced people for decades.
What are some of the difficulties in establishing, and maintaining, democratic rule in a country like Myanmar?
First, persuading the military to give up power, depart from politics, and play a more appropriate role in the country. Second, it is very difficult to build the institutions of democracy, including not only parliament, but also a strong, independent judicial system, an effective and fair police force, and respect for the critical role of civil society and the independent media. In Myanmar, another essential aspect is to shift from historically centralized rule to a federal structure that would allow the various communities across the country to have more of a say in how they are governed.
As ambassador to Myanmar, what was it like working with not only the country’s policymakers but also its people? What did you learn from them about how democracy is established? And how did those experiences shape your perspective?
In Myanmar, I met so many people, all over the country, from many different walks of life, who had sacrificed and continued to sacrifice to try to build democracy and respect for human rights. Some operated at the national level, others at the local level. It was a good reminder that democracy isn’t just imposed from the top; it requires careful building at the community and state level, with intensive involvement by the various communities. It also takes time and, as we have seen this week, is often fragile and subject to setbacks. In other words, it is a long-term effort that requires persistence, courage, and participation by large numbers of people. Establishing a democracy is a lengthy, painstaking effort that can be upended, particularly if the armed forces are politicized and pursue their own agenda.
Is there anything else you would like to add?
This week’s military takeover constitutes a major setback, but the story of Myanmar’s struggle for democracy is not over. Many people there will continue to do what they can to restore elected government and build, brick by brick, the foundations of democracy.