The Myanmar story doesn’t end here

Author: Nicholas Farrelly, ANU

The story of Myanmar’s transition to a more democratic political system, and a more productive economy, is far from over.

Myanmar had a big year in 2014. The country held its first census in 30 years. The lead-up to the national count was plagued by criticism and uncertainty. Many predicted that efforts to quantify the population, and determine its ethnic, religious, socio-economic and geographical characteristics, would end in disaster. As doomsday scenarios proliferated it was easy to lose sight of the fact that in Myanmar new things need to be done, and that they all carry some level of risk.

Admittedly the census was inadequate for many reasons. It may not have generated an accurate headline number about who lives in the country, and it failed to get a clear picture of different ethnic and religious cohorts. The counting in Rakhine State was especially poor, but its failings merely amplified patterns apparent elsewhere in the country. Even in posh areas of Yangon the census hardly lived up to expectations. Basic socio-economic data is likely wrong.

But the census was a good example of how the country handled the pressures of 2014, and was clearly worth the investment. It helped drive a new conversation about who lives in Myanmar, what they’re doing, and how they think of themselves.

The signposts that sprouted in every state and region around the country in the lead-up to the count were one of the first national efforts to spread a consistent message since the military government was unwound in 2011.

The hundreds of thousands of government staff, mostly school teachers, deployed to enumerate local people often did their jobs with professionalism and patience. Of course there were areas where their duties were not executed to a high standard.

This is partly because the census, like so much of what happens in Myanmar nowadays, is a learning process. Few people were around the last time a national population count was conducted, and even if they were it was undertaken in profoundly different political conditions. The entrenched and isolationist socialism of 1983 and the budding democratic ambition of 2014 have little in common.

The 2014 census nudged Myanmar further down the road to building a functional state apparatus to support a resilient and multi-faceted society. Without better statistics on the people of the country it is impossible to make good policy and to decide on how resources can be best allocated. The census provides a foundation for more confident efforts to create positive change in Myanmar.

Myanmar was also chair of ASEAN in 2014. The ASEAN summit season peaked in November when President Barack Obama made his second visit to Myanmar. Years of investment in Naypyidaw have been required to ensure that the city was ready for the influx of high-level visitors. Not everything went smoothly but, then again, hiccups and missteps are inevitable in such endeavours.

The next time Myanmar hosts a series of high-level international meetings things will be done differently. But for now, the confidence and capacity of the Myanmar bureaucrats who managed the high-profile events has increased significantly. They have set a standard for others to follow, and exceed.

While it is easy to criticise Myanmar’s reforms, the basic point is that new foundations for success are being put in place.

It won’t be long until we see whether these efforts have paid off. A general election is scheduled for 2015. This will be the biggest test of Myanmar’s fragile electoral system and the multi-party landscape that has emerged since the transfer of power in 2011. Many will want to assess the story on a pass-fail basis.

But that will be a mistake. The process will remain unsatisfactory, and there is still a chance that the entire effort to create a more participatory and peaceful politics will topple over entirely.

Still, there’s a good chance that Myanmar could muddle through 2015. Perhaps a new political compact could emerge, fusing the interests of democrats, conservatives, militarists and sub-nationalists. With negotiation, compromise and conciliation, some of Myanmar’s rolling tragedies could be consigned to history.

The experiences of 2014 show that this will not be easy. Some are already fed up with waiting for the promised democratic glory to finally arrive.

Without a revolutionary spark, the reality is that hard yards and careful compromise are required. And the simple fact is that Myanmar’s 2015 election, whatever its outcome, will not be the end of the story.

Dr Nicholas Farrelly is the co-founder of New Mandala. He holds an Australian Research Council fellowship at the Australian National University for a study of Myanmar’s political cultures ‘in transition’.

This article is part of an EAF special feature series on 2014 in review and the year ahead.

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