Academic journal article Contemporary Southeast Asia

Political Transition in Myanmar: A New Model for Democratization

Academic journal article Contemporary Southeast Asia

Political Transition in Myanmar: A New Model for Democratization

Article excerpt


Despite appearances to the contrary, the outlook for political transition in Myanmar is not entirely bleak. However, observers and activists must consider a broader range of strategies for democratization.

The past year has seen a flurry of political activity in and on the country, including the government's "road-map" to democracy. However, the openings for change that have emerged are quite limited. Given the oppositions' lack of leverage, and the ineffectiveness of sanctions, the military junta will probably continue to determine the course of events. Opposition groups have generally responded to the regime's democratization initiatives in one of two ways: either by seeking some room for manoeuvre within government-controlled forums (such as the current National Convention), or by boycotting these--reinforcing a polarization of Myanmar politics which began in the 1960s, and has served the entrenched military government better than it has the increasingly marginalized opposition forces.

Opposition groups have focused on elite-level regime change, and the need to install a more accountable government in Yangon. Such approaches are based on an assumption which is shared by the military regime: that political transition in Myanmar must come from the top, that is, directed by the central government. (Even in a best-case scenario, the government-controlled National Convention will only concern elite-level transition.)

This notion ignores the role of civil society, which will be essential to any process of sustained democratization. While change at the national level, whether revolutionary or gradual, is urgently required, sustained democratic transition can only be achieved if accompanied by local participation.

In the current political climate, with only limited options available for national-level transition, re-emergent civil society networks represent an important vehicle for long-term, "bottom-up" democratization in Myanmar, especially in ethnic nationality areas. Furthermore, civil society actors often have access to conflict-affected areas which are out-of-bounds to international agencies. Local NGOs can implement community development and humanitarian projects in border areas, in ways which build local capacities and human capital.

Although Myanmar-watchers (particularly overseas-based activists) often assume that there is no civil society in the country, this far from true. The tentative re-emergence of civil society networks within and between ethnic nationality communities has been one of the most significant--but under-examined--aspects of the social and political situation in Myanmar over the past decade. Efforts to build local democracy are already underway in government-controlled areas, in some ethnic nationality-populated ceasefire and war zones, and in neighbouring countries. Although these local initiatives will not bring about national-level change in themselves, any centrally-directed reforms are unlikely to succeed unless accompanied or even preceded by such grassroots participation.

This article argues that a combination of "top-down" and "bottom-up" strategies for democratization are necessary, but that neither is sufficient. It examines the strategic challenges facing political leaders and communities, and particularly the ethnic nationalities, who constitute 30-40 per cent of the population. It also addresses the role that foreign aid can play in supporting the re-emergence of civil society in Myanmar.

The promotion of civil society in Myanmar should be a priority for international donors. Rather than sitting on the sidelines while the situation goes from bad to worse, the international community (the United States, European Union and United Nations) should engage with Myanmar in a constructive, if selective, manner. In this case, humanitarian and development aid are not substitutes for political intervention--but a way into political action. …

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