ARTICLE | Myanmar: Democratisation and the Internal Contradictions of Ethnicity and Religion

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Dr. Jonathan Bogais, Associate Professor (Adjunct), Department of Sociology and Social Policy, School of Social and Political Sciences, University of Sydney

SDN associate, adjunct associate professor Jonathan Bogais wrote a timely article on Myanmar for the German-Southeast Center for excellence for Public Policy and Good Governance based at Thammasat University, Bangkok exploring democratisation and the internal contradictions of ethnicity and religion.


Civilianising the state

The overwhelming victory, on 8 November 2015, of the National League for Democracy (NLD) headed by Aung San Suu Kyi was not the end, but rather a waypoint for democratic development in Myanmar. Strategic thinking on the part of the NLD must now shift towards the broader question of how to civilianise the state while governing Myanmar with its subterranean forms of military influence. True civilianisation will begin when governing is no longer conditional on the military’s acquiescence or on ideas related to the role of the military as the saviour of Myanmar, but on such processes as elections, parties and coalitions. The NLD, however, still needs the support of the military to address the long-lasting ethnic and sectarian conflicts, some of which are still raging. Civilianising Myanmar requires that the security sector transformation be embedded in a broader set of political reforms, whose success is essential for the new government to address the multilayers of conflict. Failure to resolve these will impede the democratisation process.

The essential question now is how the military can rebuild itself in a new political system – with other political forces – that is likely to involve a federalist model, an option it rejected outright in 1962 and has fought against since.

The Tatmadaw: A unique form of public organisation

The Tatmadaw (Myanmar military) has been the most powerful and influential actor in Myanmar since its independence from British rule in 1948 by being the sole longlasting pillar of authoritarianism. Since the reform process was announced in 2011, it has managed to maintain some organisational coherence and legitimacy and has served as the convener for various and changing forces that are the crux of the NLD. It has contributed to seemingly free elections and has recognised the overwhelming success of its opponents. Short of a small number of hardliners, most members of the Tatmadaw have accepted that full-blown military regimes have become something of the past and it is reasonable to assume now that the Myanmar military no longer represents an existential threat to the establishment of democracy.

Two characteristics are pivotal to understanding the Tatmadaw. Firstly, it is a large body that creates an equilibrium of power among key constituencies with a strong corporate sense of its interests. It is a unique form of public organisation that can create a virtual enclave, with its own rules that encroach on the civilian sphere. In fact, one of the most debated issues about Myanmar is the so-called ‘military economy’. The military’s most conspicuous encroachments are its economic enterprises in the civilian market and its huge real estate ventures. There are few enterprises in Myanmar today that are not directly or indirectly controlled by the military, or by businessmen affiliated with the military. The political economy of the country is such that the armed forces control most of the economic activities. Unlike in Thailand and Indonesia, where the military became involved in business as they consolidated their political control over time, when the Myanmar military seized control in 1962, most private property was confiscated and handed over to a number of military-run state corporations.

Secondly, the Myanmar military is endowed with a strong sense of government. It has assumed full authority in nationbuilding since in power, using all available means to propagate its unequivocal role in all matters of state among military personnel, in the controlled media, in numerous militarysponsored events, even in schools. This sense of legitimacy among officers can veer towards a sense of superiority over civilians, making it evident that it has always been the responsibility of the military to ensure that the country was in safe hands – and this by virtue of the constitution. It also allowed the military to amend or impose a new constitution to suit its needs in changing environments as it did in 2008 to prevent Aung San Suu Kyi from contesting the elections. In 1962, the Tatmadaw seized power from an elected government – which had amended the constitution in response to a strong ethnic federal movement – claiming that federalism would break up the country.

Federalism and ethnic conflicts

The significant discussion of federalism in Myanmar goes back to when the country’s modern statehood emerged from the late British colonial administration. The formation of the Panglong Accord and the 1947 draft constitution laid down the basic federal principles of governance integration between the Burman heartland and non- Burman ethnic frontiers areas. This accord was negotiated by Aung San Suu Kyi’s father, Aung San from the predominant Bamar ethnic group. After gaining independence on 4 January 1948, however, neither genuine federalism nor a highly decentralising governance system had been established or implemented in Myanmar’s political structure. The balance between state integrity and local autonomy – which ethnic leaders considered essential – could not be reached and led to calls for secession from disillusioned indigenous and political group leaders who did not trust the Bamar. Faced with a state that refused to listen and address their grievances through dignified mechanisms and credible processes, ethnic leaders resorted to armed struggles and warfare which have been ongoing throughout the country’s political landscape.

Myanmar’s lack of pre-colonial statehood made it prone to fragility because its legitimacy rested on actors and institutions that had their roots in a stateless pre-colonial past rather than with the institutions of a newly independent state. Its population of about 52 million is made up of about 135 ethnic groups with unique indigenous identities. The eight main ethnic groups are Burman, Shan, Kayin (Karen), Kashin, Arakanese, Mon, Chin and Kayah (Karenni). Among these, the Burman – or Bamar – represent about two-thirds of the population while the remaining groups, including their sub-clans and other fragmented minority tribes (such as the Wa, Pao and Kokang), number about one-third.

These antecedents are significant in today’s democratisation paradigm as Aung San Suu Kyi and her party need to create a trustworthy environment to rectify the errors of the past as part of the national dialogue and to give legitimacy to the reconciliation process. Expectations from the ethnic groups will be high.

Sectarianism: An intractable challenge

Another intractable challenge the NLD faces is the religious conflict in the state of Rakhine between Buddhist nationalists and Muslims. Sectarian-based conflicts in Myanmar – or at any rate, spasms of inter-communal violence characterised as such – are not new and have claimed many lives, mostly Muslim. Ironically, democratisation worsened the problem, as the lifting of a long-standing ban on protests paved the way for major and often violent anti-Muslim demonstrations – and also served to put pressure on politicians to become pro-active. During the election campaign, Aung San Suu Kyi, under pressure from the international community to take action to recognise the rights of the Rohingya, had to tread carefully between showing “pro- Muslim” compassion for their struggle on the one hand, and being perceived as indifferent to religious violence and the suffering of nearly 800,000 marginalised people on the other. The Rohingya have been described by the United Nations as one of the most persecuted minorities in the world. Until now, Suu Kyi has refused to acknowledge the term ‘Rohingya’, refering instead to the people she calls “illegal immigrants from Bangladesh” as Bengalis.

Two days before the elections, Ben Rhodes, Assistant to the US President and Deputy National Security Adviser, said that the world was witnessing the opening of a country that had been entirely closed for decades and that, “it could be easy to overstate the problem”, referring to the plight of the Rohingya. Taking a similarly pragmatic approach, Aung San Suu Kyi said that “It is very important that we should not exaggerate the problem in this country.” Both, it seems, are trying to downplay what appears to be an unsolvable problem at the moment. Successful democratisation will be less about speedy democratic reforms than about whether the reformists are able to maintain political stability throughout the transition process, even though it may delay the advent of full democracy. This commitment to pragmatism would explain Suu Kyi’s and Rhodes’ unwillingness to advance an issue they cannot resolve for fear of inflaming an already volatile environment. Such pragmatism, however, is no doubt of little comfort to the many Rohingya living in constant fear for their safety – at times for their lives – and wondering where their future lies.

Addressing the Rohingya issue requires a rethinking of the ‘Race and Religion Laws’, instigated by Ma Ba Tha (the organisation for the Protection of Race and Religion), a body of ultra-nationalist monks campaigning aggressively against Muslims in the name of the people whose faith is Buddhism to protect the ‘purity of the race’. The laws – that experts say discriminate against people based on religion and gender – were passed in September 2015 with the support of the NLD. Soon after the elections, Ma Ba Tha and the Myanmar military announced that they would not accept any change to the laws, removing hopes of an end to the discrimination and violence against the Rohingya.

This crisis is not only about religion, it is an ethno-cultural conflict, where violence is condoned by local governance leadership and involves land dispossession, internally-displaced people (IDPs) and forced migrations, the impact of which can be felt throughout the region. The stateendorsed disenfranchising of so many people of one faith – Islam – in the midst of a democratisation process is a contradiction that the new government must address by means more sophisticated than a reductionist approach or a Western simplification of a complex environment.

Against the backdrop of the violence and tragic loss of lives, there are significant questions begging for answers that the new government needs to address: Are religious doctrinal differences primarily responsible for stoking inter-communal fear and hatred? What roles have states, local authorities and transnational actors played in fomenting sectarian discord? And, importantly, what mechanisms and approaches could be employed to avert further sectarian violence, to foster understanding of differences and peaceful coexistence and to promote reconciliation?

Overhauling the national dialogue

The conflicts in Myanmar are too diverse, multi-layered, deep-rooted and complex for a single mediation mechanism. To end the violence, the new government must overhaul the national dialogue process and involve all of the country’s ethnic and religious elements – and other key stakeholders – to give legitimacy to key political reforms. This can only be achieved if the dialogue is based on national ownership and political inclusion. These conditions are essential for the national dialogue to serve as an agency to engage stakeholders into a deep dialogue, and create a mechanism to regulate and legitimise interreligious and ethnic relationships aimed at protecting minorities’ rights.

Legitimacy is context-specific. To succeed, peace processes and initiatives need to work with the grain of local cultures, traditions and sources of authority, which abound in Myanmar. Domestic and international experts can help build capacity of multiple local stakeholders and help facilitate dialogue between each stakeholder group but international actors must facilitate conditions that empower and raise the productivity and economic inclusion and contribution of the bulk of the population, rather than imposing an overall ‘development solution’, which is predicated on a false belief that economic development and investment is the only formula to achieve successful democratisation.

Conclusion: Myanmar needs good governance

Any transition to democracy is difficult – Myanmar’s transition will be especially difficult. The key to successful democratisation is managing political stability and order. Aung San Suu Kyi faces a formidable challenge to reconcile the wide-ranging expectations of the people who still consider her as a political activist and the imperatives of being a constructive politician with no other option than selective pragmatism. Her charisma contributed to the NLD’s overwhelming victory in the election, but this alone may not suffice. She has become the (unofficial) leader of a country that has been at civil war for 60 years, where poverty is endemic and some of the wealthiest business people are tied to illicit trades – and where hundreds of thousands of people have been displaced by fighting, many of whom are now refugees.

In this complex environment, geopolitics plays an important role. Myanmar’s key geographical location makes it a strategic space coveted by both the United States and China for their own geostrategic objectives. With its large potential untapped markets and abundant natural resources, competition for control of the anticipated revenues intensifies pressure on all sides. While economic development can quickly generate enormous wealth, the extractive, agricultural and infrastructure-building industries are at risk of being concentrated in the hands of privileged elites with the potential to create or increase local grievances over social injustice and environmental damage. This, should it happen, could disrupt fragile cease-fires in conflict-sensitive zones and compromise the future stability of the new federation.

To prosper, Myanmar needs good governance. It needs the national capacity to transform itself into a democratic state in the foreseeable future. It needs political parties that can articulate the interests of the people, craft programs and policies in complex environments and perform integrative functions in resolving internal contradictions of ethnicity and religion. For the democratisation process to retain legitimacy, Myanmar must find the appropriate balance between the needs and vision of the state and the rights and freedoms of all individuals.


The German-Southeast Asian Center for Excellence for Public Policy and Good Governance (CPG), is a common institute of Thammasat University Bangkok and Goethe-University Frankfurt am Main, Westfälische Wilhelms-University Münster, and Passau University in Germany. It is funded by the German Federal Foreign Office and supported by the German Academic Exchange Service (DAAD). The CPG is located at Thammasat University, Bangkok.

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