What the world should know about Myanmar’s regime change

Author: Nicholas Farrelly, ANU

There is no one template for democratic change. Myanmar’s ongoing democratic transformation, for example, has been driven by a dizzying number of factors: internal forces in the military, democratic activism, domestic struggle and both soft pressure and hard sanctions from countries abroad.

Aung San Suu Kyi pays her respects to her father General Aung San and eight other leaders, who were assassinated on July 19, 1947, as Myanmar marks the 66th anniversary of Martyrs Day at the Martyrs

Questions about the motivation and ambition of the country’s top leaders have dogged analysts since a clearly rigged general election in November 2010 was followed by the release from house arrest of pro-democracy heroine Aung San Suu Kyi and the gradual unravelling of military rule. Political prisoners were released, media restrictions incrementally lifted, and long-simmering border-area civil wars taken in new directions by renewed government negotiations. Such rapid change in a country that’s been under the military’s heel since 1962 took many analysts by surprise.

There was never any doubt that the military leaders, organised as the nominally civilian Union Solidarity and Development Party (USDP), would hold power after the November 2010 election — the rules were written in its favour — the real question was: what would they do next?  

The answer continues to surprise the world. Aung San Suu Kyi embraced her new freedom and quickly discovered that President Thein Sein would seek compromise and collaboration. She was allowed to campaign and re-energise her National League for Democracy (NLD). Many key pro-democracy leaders were soon freed and travel restrictions lifted.

The results in the April 2012 by-elections were remarkable. USDP-dominated seats were lost to Aung San Suu Kyi’s NLD by huge margins. The former generals, while surrendering no meaningful power, were providing powerful symbolism for their commitment to reform.

The battle to claim credit for Myanmar’s breathtaking transformation will continue for years. There is a general reluctance to accept that ideologically polarised positions could have worked together so effectively. Future opportunities to draw grand conclusions from Myanmar’s experience must be carefully judged. Many relevant aspects to this story deserve full analytical treatments. But the conclusions will not result in any simple playbook for engaging dictatorial regimes. The factors that led Myanmar into its current phase of increased openness are varied and often unique.

What emerges is a case where an unwieldy and haphazard process, fuelled by dissonant and often-distrustful political players, operating at every level from villages and refugee camps to the highest global offices, came together to achieve positive outcomes where any single policy approach would have failed. It was this medley of different engagements with the old military regime, some warm and considerate, others harsh and critical, that gave Myanmar a chance to find a new political arrangement.

But after many decades of entrenched military rule, Myanmar’s current transformation cannot be considered permanent. It will be many years before the prospect of a coup, renewed ethnic conflict, further sectarian battles, or all three, can be completely dismissed. In the meantime, Myanmar’s democrats must be patient, and its military leaders will require courage and vision to surrender their remaining authority to an emerging civilian government.

Managing this process is ultimately the job of the people of Myanmar, but there will be plenty of opportunities for the international community to offer support.

First, the world should not be shocked when things do not go according to plan. Myanmar will experience turbulence as it comes to grips with the opportunities ahead. The best bet is that a disproportionate amount of the hardship, and future violence, will occur in ethnic-minority regions. Humanitarian and other assistance will remain essential.

Recent anti-Muslim violence suggests that there are dangerous new social fault-lines. Such violence taps into long-festering resentments and prejudices, including the idea that Myanmar is an innately Buddhist society that must repel other creeds and peoples. While there are strong pronouncements of concern, and regular commitments of humanitarian aid, the international community still isn’t quite sure how best to respond.

Second, Myanmar’s neighbours, especially India, China, Thailand, Singapore and Indonesia, will have a hefty influence on the country’s future success. All of these nations were enmeshed, to some extent, with the old military dictatorship. They must now develop new protocols for the rapidly changing political and economic realities. Their positive involvement has been warmly welcomed, but direct meddling, or any perception of fomenting disruptive influences, will cause unpredictable problems. The chance of a more free, prosperous and peaceful Myanmar should be sufficient compensation for any loss of earlier influence these countries had.

Here, China has perhaps the most to lose. Its tight relations with the former regime quickly soured under Thein Sein’s government, and the security and economic nexus that reinforced Sino-Myanmar interactions for a generation is unwinding. A reconsolidation of relations may yet happen, but right now the Chinese have to work harder than ever to maintain their residual influence. Some assert that the Chinese lost favour with nationalist elements in the Myanmar armed forces that are looking to hedge their bets with stronger links to Western militaries. The Chinese, for their part, remain active players along the mountainous border the countries share. Their support for ethnic armed groups has not gone unremarked in Naypyidaw nor in Washington. China’s future engagement with Myanmar may not prove a benign prospect.

Third, at some stage the realisation that Aung San Suu Kyi alone cannot save the country from itself will need to be publicly recognised in foreign capitals. Aung San Suu Kyi herself has been forced to take awkward positions now that she is facing the reality of political life. She is now challenged by former supporters who query her rapprochement with the former military leadership and others who say she has not done enough to stop the anti-Muslim violence.

Efforts to bolster the NLD are crucial, but the need to work closely with former military officers, and their allies still in uniform, is a more immediate concern. The undoing of recent reforms is most likely to come from within the army than anywhere else. Until the chance of a coup is removed, this probably requires more attention than it has received.

With these suggestions and observations in mind, the world can move on in its productive engagement with Myanmar mindful that there are no simple lessons to be drawn. Myanmar will continue to infuriate those who want to impose a template for planning political futures. But the country gives us hope that even implacable dictatorships may retain within themselves the seeds of a peaceful transformation.

Nicholas Farrelly is a Research Fellow at the College of Asia & the Pacific, Australian National University.

This is a condensed version of an article first published here at Global Asia.