Myanmar: The Misfit between Democratic Hopes and Domestic Realities


Robert H Taylor

January saw a spate of excitement in the international media over the question of the political future of Myanmar. Was the international community finally going to do something to force the military to hand over power? High on the attention scale following the informal briefing of members of the UN Security Council, came the postponement of the planned visit of the Malaysian Foreign Minister to Myanmar on behalf of ASEAN and the announcement of the decision of Ambassador Tan Sri Razali Ismael not to ask for his contract as the UN Secretary-General's Special Envoy to Myanmar to be renewed. Domestically, the continued shift of government ministries from Yangon to the new capital near Pyinmana and even the changing of the traffic control arrangements near Daw Aung San Suu Kyi's residence became causes of speculation. Claims that the generals were divided amongst themselves or that the regime was on its last legs were even advanced though without evidence to support them.

There is more wishful thinking than hard reality to much of this speculation and prediction. While one can never know what will happen next in terms of policy making and personnel shifts within the secretive military government of Myanmar, the hope that major change is imminent if the West or ASEAN just turns the screw of condemnation and criticism one more notch has been heard many times before during the past 17 years. So far, despite personnel changes and policy adjustments, the military regime has remained remarkably consistent in its overall approach to the question of democratization and the making of major concessions to either the National League for Democracy (NLD) at home or its major critics abroad.

Much of this misfit between hopes and realities emanates from more than mere wishful thinking, however. It is derived from a different calculus as to what the priorities for the government of Myanmar should be. To the Burmese exile community and Western and Western-oriented governments in Asia, the release of Daw Aung San Suu Kyi and the handover of power, either fully or in a power sharing deal with the military, to an avowedly civilian regime, is the central issue at stake. To the army, the main issue is avoiding the recurrence of the civil war between the central government, civilian or military, and the country's numerous and still armed ceasefire or peace groups. These essentially private armies, and the other remaining armed groups that have yet to enter into ceasefire agreements, have still the capacity to return the country to the conditions of insecurity that marked it for so many years prior to the early 1990s.

The massive expenditure that the army government has made to develop transportation and other infrastructure in the ethnic minority areas is evidence of that concern. The fact that the peoples of the remote areas of the country have felt cut off from and ignored by the central government was one of the bases of the previous civil war. The current constitutional convention, which has been criticized for being slow and undemocratic, is designed to draw the ceasefire groups into a political process that will give them sufficient confidence in the government to disarm their troops while ensuring a continuing political role for the military. The army has seen the disarmament of its former opponents as a precondition for finalizing any constitutional deal that can lead to the return of a civilian role in the government.

As long as the United Nations and other international actors concerned about the political future of the country prioritise democracy over peace, they will have little way of establishing any degree of influence with the regime in Yangon. The army officer corps feels it understands Myanmar's fundamental issues better than any other group of persons and they will continue to act on their priorities regardless of whatever criticism and sanctions are imposed on them. To their critics, this demonstrates their withdrawal into isolationism. To them, this is facing reality as they see it on the ground within the country.

WATCHPOINT: Will the constitutional convention find a way to establish trust between the central government and the armed minorities? Will the international community find a way to engage with the army regime on the issues they believe to be important for the future of the country?


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