The Real Threat to Democracy in Myanmar

by Morten Pedersen on February 26, 2013

The decisive move by Myanmar’s new government over the past two years to liberalize one of the world’s most repressive regimes has led to a near-normalization of relations with the United States and other Western countries. Human rights groups and other critics have decried the lifting of sanctions as premature. They want the international community to keep the stick in place to ensure that the new leadership does not backtrack on its promise to democratize. The real threat to reform, however, is not backtracking by the quasi-civilian government but a military coup to unseat it, and what is required is not more stick but greater incentives.

Critics are right to highlight the importance of calibrating international policy toward Myanmar, first and foremost, to support democratic reforms. Although democracy often disappoints, there is no other way to break the vicious cycle of conflict, repression, and human rights abuses fed by fifty years of unbridled authoritarianism. But critics are wrong in seeing the present government as the obstacle to reform. Ever since taking office in March 2011, Myanmar’s new leaders, led by President Thein Sein, have demonstrated a clear commitment to remake the country. While much remains to be done, this aim has crystallized over time into a genuine push for democratization. Indeed, the president has effectively staked the legacy of his government on delivering not only further liberalization but also free and fair elections in 2015 and, before that, an end to ethnic armed conflict. As senior members of the old regime, Thein Sein and fellow reformer, speaker of the lower house of the new parliament Shwe Man, are uniquely placed to manage a difficult transition and, in that respect, are the best friends democrats could wish for at this time.

Any related concerns that the ruling Union Solidarity and Development Party (USDP) will morph into another Cambodian People’s Party and monopolize the new political space can also be put aside. Neither the president nor the speaker has shown any inclination to try to build a dominant-party system under their control. And as the by-elections in April 2012 clearly demonstrated, the USDP is simply too feeble and fragmented—and opposition leader Daw Aung San Suu Kyi far too popular—to marginalize the opposition as occurred in Cambodia and a number of other new “democracies”.

The concern in Myanmar is not, as sceptics have recently suggested, that the new government is pulling the wool over our eyes, but rather (to change the metaphor) that the rug could be pulled from under it by rival power holders whose intentions are far less upright. While there appears to be no immediate threat of a military coup, there are too many corrupt ex-generals with still-strong influence over the armed forces (Tatmadaw) for comfort, not to mention younger active commanders for whom reform could mean losing out on their turn to get rich. The risk of a backlash coup needs to be taken very seriously in a country where military involvement in politics runs deep and military disdain for civilian politicians even deeper.

Countering this real threat to democracy in Myanmar requires not sticks but additional positive steps to help consolidate recent reforms and minimize the risk that spoilers reverse them. Democratization in a country like Myanmar is a difficult and necessarily long-term process that has the best chance of taking root if it happens incrementally and does not threaten too many vested interests before the new system is robust enough to withstand serious challenges. Rather than try to force the pace of change, as many human rights activists advocate, the United States and like-minded countries should redouble their efforts to support the current government’s reform program and thus help prove to anyone still sitting on the fence that democratization “pays.”

This is not the place for detailed analysis or policy recommendations, but since potential spoilers would need broad military support to successfully execute a coup, concrete incentives for the Tatmadaw to back the reform process must be high on the list of international priorities. Key steps to this effect would be further expanding military-to-military relations, opening access to Western military academies (and, eventually, arms markets), and inviting Myanmar to participate in international peacekeeping operations. Clearly, this is a sensitive area, not least in light of the ongoing brutal fighting in Kachin State. But these are specific things we know the Tatmadaw covets that would help give it a stake in a new democracy. They would also greatly strengthen international influence with an institution that will remain the most powerful in Myanmar’s politics for the foreseeable future.

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