Road ahead for Myanmar

On the cards is a variant of managed democracy

Written by Rahul Mishra | Published: January 23, 2012 3:59:39 am

With the release of a thousand political prisoners,including U Gambira and Min Ko Naing recently and Aung San Suu Kyi earlier,Myanmar is all set to witness a new phase in its domestic politics and foreign policy. After half a century of self-imposed isolation,it is opening up to global concerns on issues of human and individual rights.

Often criticised as “nominally” civilian,Thein Sein-led government,which is backed by the military,has taken steps towards providing greater freedom and rights to its people. Among other things,it has inked ceasefire agreements with ethnic rebel groups and allowed people to hold peaceful protest marches. Strengthening of provincial legislatures also showcases that piecemeal changes are being put in place. Workers also have the right to form unions.

These policy moves of the Sein government have been received well by the international community. While the US has decided to restore full diplomatic ties,Australia has partially lifted sanctions and ASEAN has permitted it to hold the 2014 summit. Other countries such as Philippines have urged the international community to lift economic and political sanctions. France has also promised to make sure that the European Union rewards the government in “concrete terms”.

While Myanmar and its leadership are being applauded,it is also evident that the country sitting at the junction of China,India and Southeast Asia,has to go in for more decisive steps on the domestic front — and soon. Manifestly,there are three roads Myanmar could choose from in terms of setting its future course of action.

First,and perhaps the most familiar road for Myanmar,is the Chinese way of governance,which it had followed for decades. However,it is quite clear from the past several months that Naypyidaw was finding it inconvenient to carry on with its brand of authoritarian rule. Therefore it is inching towards a more democratic system. The Thein Sein government’s quick-wittedness in sensing the implications of the Arab Spring and the rising sensitivities of ordinary Myanmarese towards China seem to have played a key role in that. One may argue that the government has also realised the flipside of over-dependence on China. This seems to have sufficiently motivated it to reach out to the international community and domestic dissidents.

The West,led by the US,has also been quick in receiving the frail yet positive signals from Naypyidaw. Realising the ineffectiveness of sanctions and isolation,the West is now responding to Thein Sein’s moves. Considering the widening and deepening nature of reforms,it is difficult to argue that Myanmar will remain the same old system.

Taking a quantum leap towards an Indian style of fully functional democracy is a second possible road,but a long and winding one,for Myanmar. This seems a little too ambitious,considering that military still rules the roost. Coupled with factors such as Myanmar’s limited exposure to democracy and ethnic divisions,this seems farther from reach as of now. International intervention is neither desired nor advisable as only reforms from within the system can ensure a peaceful transition — that is in the best interest of all domestic and international stakeholders,including India.

Third,and perhaps a more predictable way for Myanmar,at least in the short run,is a tightly controlled democratic system — a halfway house between democracy and authoritarian rule,which has been witnessed in Southeast Asia before. Indonesia and Thailand took years to give democratic rights to their peoples. Particularly interesting is Indonesia which has,over the years,evolved in a phased manner into a democratic system.

Though crystal-gazing Myanmar’s future is quite difficult at this stage,a variant of managed democracy with “Myanmarese features” seems on the cards. Power-sharing between Aung San Suu Kyi and Thein Sein will ensure such a mechanism. However,there are no two views on the point that Suu Kyi will remain one of the most important reference points for democracy in the near future.

A number of challenges lie ahead for Myanmar. Indications are that US will not lift sanctions before the by-elections slated for April. Therefore,the government has to ensure that the domestic reform process and rapprochement with the international community move ahead. Abject poverty,rampant corruption,ethnic divisions,miserable educational and health conditions of millions of its people pose enormous challenges to the government. It also has to take bigger steps to improve the human rights record of the country. Legal reforms and greater freedom to media are linked to such an agenda. The government is now working on doing away with political censorship as a follow-up step to the revoking of ban on news websites

The biggest challenge,however,lies in peaceful transition and national reconciliation — in managing the masses and bringing the ethnic minorities back to the mainstream. All the stakeholders,the government,the military,Suu Kyi and her party members,ethnic leaders and the international community have to develop a greater mutual understanding and be more flexible and accommodating in envisaging a roadmap for Myanmar.

The writer is at the Institute for Defence Studies and Analyses

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