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Stability, reform and democracy in Myanmar

Myanmar has made tremendous strides in its political and economic reform efforts since Thein Sein assumed the presidency in March 2011. But how stable is the country today, and how much has democracy taken root?

Donald K. Emmerson, director of the Southeast Asia Forum, recently discussed Myanmar’s path to democracy within the context of the country’s history, the current unrest in Rakhine State, and looking ahead to 2014 when Myanmar chairs the Association of Southeast Asian Nations and prepares for its next presidential election.

How committed is Myanmar’s current leadership to democratization?

We should understand that rather than a transformation to a true liberal democracy we are seeing political and economic reform, and also that there is a lot going on below the surface of the government that we cannot see.

President Thein Sein does appear genuinely committed to reform. During a meeting in August 2011, he and Aung San Suu Kyi worked out the plan in which she would run for election. That plan was critical for the reforms that have happened since, even if Aung San Suu Kyi and the National League for Democracy have no real legislative power.

At the end of the day, Myanmar’s critical institution is still the Tatmadaw, the military. The constitution grants the military a quarter of the seats in parliament and the right to nominate the most important of the country’s two vice presidents. In July, when the first vice president, long known as a hard-liner, stepped down due to “health reasons,” the president replaced him with an ostensibly more moderate vice admiral. In making this transfer, Thein Sein may have wanted to ensure a smooth continuation of the reforms.

Although public figures in Myanmar are politically diverse, nearly everyone now claims to be a “reformer" (considered good) as opposed to a “spoiler." This even applies to individuals from more conservative military backgrounds who may have taken part in past repression. If the country’s stability comes under serious threat, such men could revert to harder-line views.

Ultimately, apart from the balance of forces between reformers and spoilers inside the military, national stability is and will remain a key requisite to further liberalization and the consolidation of democracy.

How stable is Myanmar at present?

It depends on where you are. If you are in Naypyidaw, the capital, or in Yangon, caught up in the influx of investors, fortune-seekers, and diplomats, things probably look pretty good—opportunistic and venal, but dynamic and potentially beneficial. However, if you are in the restive north or in clash-ridden Rakhine State, which borders Bangladesh, then things probably look really bad.

Myanmar's many ethnic minorities tend to live on the periphery of the country. These border areas have been marked by endemic unrest and violence for a very long time. The latest flare-up in Rakhine is particularly unfortunate because it implicates a group that is identified both by ethnicity and by religion: the Rohingya. They are Muslims, and they have long been subject to discrimination at the hands of the Burman-Buddhist majority. According to some estimates, as many as 200,000 Rohingya have fled across the border to escape the latest violence. The government in majority-Muslim Bangladesh, unwilling to alienate Nyapyidaw by appearing to harbor the refugees, has begun to push some of them back into Myanmar.

Assuming that Bangladesh does not champion the Rohingyas’ cause, the violence in Rakhine State is unlikely to disrupt Myanmar’s stability on a national scale. But it will reinforce the “need” of spoilers in the Tatmadaw to enlarge the military’s presence and its budget to prevent the clashes from getting further out of hand. And that could strengthen the nationalist legitimacy of the military and its rationale for retaining a political role.

How could reform change Myanmar, and what are some potential challenges to that process?

The urgent priority for Thein Sein is performance. It is vital that he be able to point to the positive results of reform. In aid, investment, and trade, Western countries, China, India, and other outside powers can facilitate meaningful economic growth, or be seen as abetting cronyism and corruption. If the reforms foster a high-performing economy in which incomes start to go up and a middle class begins to form, one can be more optimistic about the future. But if official repression of the Rohyingya intensifies, if other ethnic-minority grievances are reignited, if fighting spreads, and the Tatmadaw regains its former clout, disillusioned Westerners will be less willing to work with a regime they no longer trust.

As we move toward 2015, the stakes for reform are rising. Myanmar is scheduled to hold elections in that year. Thein Sein will be 75 years old, and so will Aung San Suu Kyi. He has said that he will not run, although he could change his mind. She is constitutionally barred from running, and her party is not currently strong enough to push through an amendment. What if neither one is available to run? Who will continue the process of reform, if it is still under way?

If 2015 bears watching, so does 2014. For the length the latter year, Myanmar will chair the Association of Southeast Asian Nations (ASEAN). The authorities in Naypyidaw will host all of ASEAN's major meetings in 2014. Some of these gatherings will involve the United States and other countries at ministerial and head-of-state levels. In 2015 ASEAN will inaugurate a first-ever, Southeast Asia-wide ASEAN Community encompassing economic, political-security, and socio-cultural cooperation. In 2014 Myanmar will oversee the Community’s final preparation. If in the meantime an intra-military coup occurs and the winner cracks down, the leaders of democratic countries will think twice before agreeing to lend legitimacy to such a regime by attending its events.

Despite these uncertainties, there is a real chance that reforms will take root. Myanmar is not likely to become a fully stable and liberal democracy, at least not soon, but it could, with skill, help, and luck, become a “good enough” democracy of sorts.