Myanmar: The Meaning of ‘Democracy’

By Tamas Wells - 29 January 2014
Myanmar: The Meaning ‘Democracy’

Tamas Wells unpicks the layers of meaning of ‘democracy’ in Myanmar and what they may mean for Western engagement.

Western agencies wanting to promote democracy in poor and fragile states are faced with two broad questions. The first is the question of how and why democratisation happens in a particular context. The second – which receives far less attention – is the question of what ‘democracy’ itself means.

In the case of Myanmar, the first question has recently been in the international spotlight. Following the 2010 elections, Myanmar has seen a cascade of changes in political, social and economic life. A new Parliament has been formed, media censorship lifted, and ceasefires signed to end most of Myanmar’s mess of long running civil wars. Democracy icon and Nobel Peace Prize winner Daw Aung San Suu Kyi has been released from long term house arrest and – in what was inconceivable only a few years ago – has taken up a position as a Member of Parliament. In his State of the Union speech in 2012, President Obama glowingly said that ‘a new beginning in Burma has lit a new hope’.

There has been much speculation about how and why this seemingly sudden turnaround has happened. Some people point to the role of longstanding international sanctions and pressure in squeezing the military regime out of their isolation. Others more plausibly point to local catalysts for change - like government fear of an Arab Spring style revolution or discontent that the economy was at a virtual standstill. Or even that democratisation was part of a long term plan to protect the family of former leader Senior General Than Shwe. (It is no secret in Myanmar that the families of former dictators tend to fare rather badly under subsequent regimes).

And within this rush of changes, international donors – such as USAID, DFID or the European Commission – see an obvious role for themselves to play in helping to craft the institutions of the emerging democratic state. Donors can send Myanmar parliamentarians to Westminster or the German Bundestag to observe how a modern democracy functions. They can give trainings to judges in rule of law, or give advice on modern international standards for media laws, association laws or parliamentary procedures.

Yet while a vast amount of attention has been given to this first question of how and why changes have happened, there has been little consideration of what democracy may actually mean to Myanmar people, or to the fact that there may be multiple different, and perhaps conflicting, understandings.

More than one narrative of democracy

When approaching a country like Myanmar, Western donors unsurprisingly view ‘democracy’ mostly in formal institutional terms – the role of parliament, executive and judiciary, the place of elections and so on. And through this lens, the new government of President Thein Sein is seen to have made significant progress. However, a focus only on formal institutions may obscure other potent narratives within Myanmar about what democracy means.

For example, for many ethnic minority leaders - who in some cases have seen more than half a century of civil war - the idea of democracy is inseparable from increased cultural recognition and political autonomy. Most of Myanmar’s civil wars arose from long standing divisions between the majority Burmese - who have traditionally controlled the fertile Ayeyawaddy valley - and over a hundred ethnic minority groups based in the surrounding uplands. These divisions were deepened – at times intentionally – during the British colonial period from the mid-19th century to 1948 and then developed into a brutal array of overlapping civil wars after Myanmar gained Independence.

So it comes as no surprise that many ethnic leaders see ‘democracy’ as an end to Burmese dominance and a deep recognition of cultural and political rights of minorities. These democratic aspirations could be partly captured through formal institutions – such as increased recognition within the constitution or a more federal political system – but for many Karen, Kachin or Shan ethnic minority leaders, democracy is much wider than that.

In contrast, within the dominant Burmese culture, issues of ethnic reconciliation often take a back seat and ‘democracy’ can present itself as a debate about the place of obligation, respect and hierarchy in society. In Burmese culture - with its Buddhist foundations - relationships are commonly seen to be embedded in a set of mutual obligations, for example between parents and children, teachers and students, monks and lay people, or leaders and citizens. On one hand these hierarchical relationships can be viewed as fostering responsibility, stability and respect, or on the other hand, as allowing paternalism and unchecked power.

Therefore, ‘democracy’ – when viewed through this lens – presents some controversy. Are these deeply ingrained sets of Burmese values a platform for democracy, or an obstacle to democracy? And in this sense, ‘democracy’ is not only something to be designed and debated in the capital Nay Pyi Daw, but something which seeps through all aspects of Burmese life from the monastery to the workplace and to the family.

Giving the West what they want

Within this context, it is unclear what the impact of Western efforts – in giving aid and promoting the institutions of the democratic state – will be on these narratives about democracy.

For example, some Burmese activists now express concern that while the ruling Union Solidarity and Development Party may soon be able to tick off nearly all the institutions of a ‘modern democracy’, they may also continue to foster a deeply paternalistic and unaccountable culture of governance – a culture supposedly backed up by Burmese Buddhist values of obligation, hierarchy and respect. In other words, there is concern that military elites may be able to give the West what they are looking for – and enjoy the associated benefits - yet at the same time continue to act out their own brand of ‘disciplined democracy’.

Meanwhile, author Ashley South argues that large scale international aid to former conflict areas may be strengthening the Burmese elite view of peace and democracy – one which assumes that the primary driver of Myanmar’s ethnic conflicts has simply been economic inequality. Donors want to see progress on humanitarian issues, and the Thein Sein government are more than happy to keep the focus narrowly on post conflict livelihoods. However, this leaves limited space for the perspective of many ethnic minority leaders, which sees cultural recognition and increased political autonomy – rather than economic development - as critical for Myanmar democracy.

Painting the outside of the house

So while Western agencies primarily see democratisation through an institutional lens, there are other vast and complex undercurrents about democracy within Myanmar society. And ultimately, these undercurrents will likely determine more of Myanmar’s democratic future than, for example, how closely parliamentary procedures align with those of modern Westminster or the Bundestag.

The institutional lens on democracy also leaves Western donors with an unreliable yardstick. When institutional reforms do go to plan – as it currently may appear in Myanmar - it allows only limited recognition of the underlying threats. And when they don’t go to plan, it often leaves donors with rather shallow explanations – such as leaders’ lack of democratic maturity.

It is understandable that Western agencies focus on painting the institutional outside of the state in Myanmar. As that is what outsiders can most easily see. Yet within the house a new frame is being built – one which goes to the core of Myanmar ethnic and religious identity. And unless this can be better understood and engaged with, Western efforts to promote ‘democracy’ in Myanmar will always miss the mark, or worse still, do harm.

The question of why Myanmar took such dramatic steps toward reform after the 2010 elections is an intriguing one - and one which has rightly captivated international audiences. Yet in guiding the future work of Western donors, the more important question may be about what ‘democracy’ itself means.


Tamas Wells is a PhD candidate in politics at the University of Melbourne and editor of the Paung Ku Forum – an online discussion site focussing on issues of international aid and development in Myanmar. He worked in the development sector in Myanmar from 2006 to 2012.

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