Written by Maitrii Aung-Thwin.

Questions surrounding Myanmar’s political future have brought the current Constitutional impasse, ongoing cease-fire initiative, and this year’s national census under sharper scrutiny. For most external commentators, these issues remain embedded within a discussion about Myanmar’s democratic prospects.

For over twenty-five years, much of the world has come to understand developments in Myanmar as a struggle for democracy. Following the political transformations that took place in Eastern Europe and in East Asia during the mid-to-late 1980s, political observers expected that the ‘winds of change’ had blown into Myanmar after demonstrations erupted in 1988.[1]

It was easy to see why: A small student-led protest spawned into a larger urban movement that spread to other cities in the country. A crackdown by security personnel temporarily restored order in the streets, but in doing so implemented direct military rule for the following two decades.

The movement’s heroine, Daw Aung San Suu Kyi, captured the world’s attention as she rose in prominence, eventually winning the Nobel Peace Prize. Under house arrest for over a decade, Suu Kyi’s singular experience came to represent Myanmar society itself.

When her political party, the National League for Democracy (NLD), won the constituent assembly elections in 1990, many observers expected a transfer of power to occur.  Although the polls were in fact intended to form a constitutional convention, such details apparently did not matter: winning elections at the end of the Cold War meant the mandate to form a new government.[2]

The decision by the military to retain control of the state despite the election results evoked images of Eastern Europe or Cuba. The government was portrayed monolithically as a paranoid police state whose self-imposed policy of isolation deprived the people of the natural progression towards democracy and development.

When Thein Sein’s administration came to office in March 2011 and initiated a series of liberalization measures, it came as a surprise to those who were convinced that democratic change was only possible through particular actors. Commentators were understandably reluctant to consider more long-term, internal dynamics that complicated Myanmar’s entrenched democracy narrative.

Beyond Democracy: Internal Dynamics

Until the last twenty years or so, when a number of key cease-fires were secured, the nation had been embroiled in a protracted and multi-centered civil war. Since 1948, various ethnic groups, armed militias, communists, foreign troops (remnants of the KMT), civil servants, politicians, students, and the military have been competing, and often fighting, for control of the state and its resources.[3] 

At stake has been the authority to define citizenship, determine systems of governance, and decide who should lead. Given the diversity of experiences that have shaped the country’s many communities, reaching a consensus on these questions has been difficult to say the least.

The ensuing civil war, and the security priorities it engendered, has informed the controversial actions taken by the authorities since 1962. Within this context, decisions concerning the country’s neutralist foreign policy, its adoption of the “Burmese Way to Socialism”, and the state’s fixation on unity and unification are then seen in a different light.[4]

Even those signature events that have reinforced Myanmar’s democratic narrative reflect an alternative rationale when placed within a security context. The guarded response to Cyclone Nargis, the reaction to the “Saffron Revolution” and the preservation of the military’s role in the Constitution reveal that preserving domestic security was likely the top priority—not in opposition to civil rights—but as an alternative to anarchy and unrest.[5]

As one presidential adviser recently put it, the policies taken in the past were concerned with avoiding the type of situation that we are witnessing now in Syria. These decisions were not made for their potential effect on democracy but with the aim of avoiding another civil war that could mire the country in greater instability. Different priorities were in play.

Contemporary Dynamics, Alternative Metrics

One irony has been the military’s use of democracy to articulate its own reform agenda. The controversial “Roadmap to Disciplined Democracy”, understandably dismissed by most Western governments at the time, was the very process that enabled Thein Sein and his reformist administration to take office.

By incorporating democratic principles into its policies, the government has gained political capital that was formerly reserved only for opposition groups, while its reformist agenda has placed Naypyidaw in the political driver’s seat. With Suu Kyi and other opposition groups no longer able to differentiate themselves on strictly democratic criteria, the political landscape has begun to take on a more complex character.

The government has combined political reconciliation with socio-economic reform in order to secure support from rural Myanmar where trust is lacking. While issues of democracy certainly resonate with some sectors of Myanmar society, seventy percent of the population lives in rural areas where their worldviews are more likely shaped by bread-and-butter issues.

Resistance to Naypyidaw’s administrative expansion, such as the violence in Rakhine state or the continuing conflict in Kachin state, is often construed as an indicator of the government’s democratic mandate. What also needs to be considered is how these incidents reflect the ongoing struggle between and among central and local authorities over resources, manpower, and territory.

The success of Naypyidaw’s efforts to integrate the country will depend on its ability to facilitate social and economic cohesion. The ability of the government to accommodate local interests while overcoming traditional center-periphery tensions, clientelism, and factionalism among stakeholders will determine the success of its broader reconciliation program.

The various sub-conflicts that characterized this civil war reveal many of the challenges facing the current peace process.  Rather than dealing with a single opposition party, a single ethnic group, or a shared political agenda, peace process mediators face a range of competing interests that often stem from multiple stakeholders within a single ethnic group.

Ethnic groups have their own majorities and minorities, affecting consensus building among themselves and certainly with other stakeholders.[6]  These internal dynamics complicate the simplistic view of a struggle between “Naypyidaw” and “the opposition”.

With the 2015 elections on the horizon, the end game for some parties will be to attain particular visions of democracy. Others may prioritize socio-economic, stability, or other concerns.  The question remains as to which narratives will ultimately resonate with Myanmar’s electorate.

Maitrii Aung-Thwin is Associate Professor in the Department of History/Department of Southeast Asian Studies at the National University of Singapore.  


[1] Clark Neher, Democracy and Development in Southeast Asia: The Winds of Change, Westview Press, 1997.

[2] Derek Tonkin, “The 1990 Elections in Myanmar: Broken Promises or a Failure of Communication?” Contemporary Southeast Asia, Vol. 29, No. 1, 2007.

[3] Robert H. Taylor, The State in Myanmar, NUS Press, 2009.

[4] Mary P. Callahan, Making Enemies: War and State Building in Burma, Cornell University Press, 2005.

[5] Michael Aung-Thwin and Maitrii Aung-Thwin, A History of Myanmar Since Ancient Times: Traditions and Transformations, Reaktion Books, 2013.

[6] Mandy Sadan, Being and Becoming Kachin: Histories Beyond the State in the Borderlands of Burma, Oxford University Press/British Academy, 2013.