Myanmar’s democratic transition; the risks of complacency in the post-election period

26 April 2017

Rachel Carlile Senior Essay Entry – 1st Prize

In 2015 Myanmar experienced significant political development, as free and open elections were held across the country. Following years of repressive military dictatorship, the National League for Democracy (NLD), led by Aung San Suu Kyi, came to power. Whilst this shift from military to civilian leadership undoubtedly signifies positive political progress, offering levels of freedom and opportunities for political participation unknown in the country’s recent history, Myanmar’s democratic transition is far from complete. The Council on Foreign Relations enumerates the challenges facing the NLD, highlighting the need for Myanmar ‘to shed its authoritarian traditions, adopt pluralistic democracy, provide space for its diverse cultures and religions, and ensure a decent living standard for the entire population’. Given that the military retain 1 significant power, ethnic conflict persists, and economic inequality and humanitarian issues abound, these elections are merely the first step in what will surely be a lengthy process of political development, which will require perseverance and commitment from both the national government and the international community.

The most effective management of democratisation in developing countries has been much debated. Whilst some advocate hasty political development, Mansfield and Snyder, in their study on the relationship between democratisation and violence, present a compelling argument for ensuring a secure social context prior to the establishment of official democratic processes. Democracy enables diversity, but this must also be underpinned by sufficient stability and unity that difference does not erupt into fragmentation and violence. Failure to achieve this risks, they argue, ‘the rise of belligerent nationalism and war’.2

These theories seem particularly pertinent in relation to Myanmar’s current situation, where, despite hopes for an end to ethnic violence following Suu Kyi’s election, Rohingya Muslims continue to suffer persecution at the hands of Buddhist majority groups. Indeed, a shocking new spate of ethnic violence has been reported in recent months: Human Rights Watch has revealed destructive arson attacks on Rohingya villages in Rakhine state3 and in a recent article in The Independent, anonymous UN workers spoke of thousands of Rohingya deaths.4 Such human rights abuses undoubtedly demand a rapid response not only from the Myanmar government, but also from the international community, who must fully utilise its political influence to end these assaults on such a victimised community.

However, if political developments are to be sustained in a way that truly benefits the country’s citizens, including minorities such as Rohingya Muslims, short term conflict prevention must be complemented by an extensive understanding of the links between violence and political development. Whilst the development of democracy and diminished control of the military have, to a certain extent, provided increased civil liberties, they have also shown a potential to unleash further instabilities and outbreaks of violence. The sudden removal of the stability and restrictions enforced by the military regime risks the emergence of a power vacuum, where majority groups use their new found influence to exert power in undesirable ways. Indeed in a recent article, The Independent newspaper claimed that since the end of military rule, ‘Increased freedom of speech…has allowed for the unleashing of long-held anti-Muslim sentiment in Burma’.5

To combat this, as Mansfield and Snyder’s understanding of nationalistic violence during processes of democratisation highlights, the development of a stable and inclusive civil society that allows for peaceful coexistence and equal participation is necessary. Holliday, in his study of Myanmar’s transition to democracy therefore envisages a constructive, long-term nation building project, ‘drawing many actors both elite and mass, into a transition articulated around…themes of peace and democracy’ in order to ‘build a thick network of bonding civic institutions 6 to function as a social safety net for democracy’.7 This type of work will require ambitious and sustained engagement from both the national government and international community.

This type of nation building project will surely be successful only with increased economic prosperity; inclusivity and an active national polity will be difficult to achieve when over 25% percent of Myanmar’s population lives below the poverty line.8 Suu Kyi has recognised this, urging that international businesses invest in Myanmar to ‘advance its democratic transition’.9 Indeed, many have responded to this, focusing investments in particular on natural resource extraction. Lintner describes this as ’Something of a gold rush…as Myanmar’s natural resources….are seen as one of the last “investment frontiers”.10

However many fear that, if unmanaged, this type of economic development will fail to provide tangible benefits to the majority of citizens, and could instead undermine any previous political progress. Professor Turnell invokes the ‘resource curse theory’ in reference to Myanmar, warning that often ‘Resource revenues…promote corruption and underinvestment in human capital, and…allow governments the wherewithal to be unresponsive to the needs of their …citizenry’.11 This is particularly concerning given that, despite the election of the NLD, Myanmar remains controlled by military-era laws and socio-economic structures. This imbalance of power is especially problematic in the land sector, with land grabs for natural resource extraction leading to increasing rural displacement and unrest, provoking what Global Witness has described as ‘gangster capitalism’.12

In this context, suggestions that foreign investment will further democratic development are questionable. Instead, the economic development model being pursued seems to be eroding democratic rights and values before they have even evolved. Even if extractive industries provide employment, it seems that this will come at the cost of land access, and risks further marginalising the large rural population who rely so heavily on land.13 If, the Myanmar government pursues the path of many resource-rich developing countries, and allows, or even promotes, unchecked extraction by foreign companies, it is likely that, far from promoting democratic development, this ‘resource curse’ theory will become increasingly relevant.

Clapp recognises this link between economic and political development, stating that ‘One of the major obstacles to the country’s democratic transition is the legacy of patrimonial governance created purposely to concentrate the country’s wealth in the hands of a small military-rented elite class’.14 Whilst investment can aid democratic development, the current situation underlines the importance of responsibility and transparency, with, at the very least, companies ensuring proper consultation with local communities prior to resource extraction. Economic growth must not be achieved at the cost of local democratic rights, but rather in conformity with them.

It thus becomes clear that a democratic transition is not secured with the establishment of democratic elections, but is an ongoing process that requires sustained attention; social and economic issues can quickly disrupt and impede any previous political progress. Despite political development in Myanmar, the lack of improvement to the socio-economic situation is therefore concerning. Complacency from the national government or the international community at this time would not only constitute a failure to address the extreme hardships faced by many Myanmar citizens, but could also prove particularly damaging to the country’s political development. This is not to say that there is not much to be optimistic about in Myanmar’s future. But if Myanmar’s young democracy is to have a chance of flourishing, a comprehensive and sustained approach, which recognises this link between socio-economic and political development, will be necessary to ensure both the prosperity and the political rights of Myanmar’s citizens.



1) P. Clapp, Securing a Democratic Future for Myanmar. Council on Foreign Relations Press [online] (2016) [accessed January 24th

2017] p.8

2) E Mansfield & J Snyder, ‘Democratization and the Danger of War’, International Security, 20(1), (1995)

5-38. [accessed January 12th 2017] p.6

3) Human Rights Watch, Burma: New Wave of Destruction in Rohingya Villages

2016/11/21/burma-new-wave-destruction-rohingya-villages [accessed January 28th 2017]

4) A. Withnall, ‘Burmese government ‘kills more than 1,000 Rohingya Muslims’ in crackdown’, The

Independent Online

crackdown-campaign-reuters-un-report-a7570116.html [accessed 2nd February 2017]

5) A. Buncombe, ‘Aung San Suu Kyi pledges to uphold minority rights – but refuses to use the word

‘Rohingya’, The Independent Online

aung-san-suu-kyi-pledges-to-uphold-minority-rights-in-un-speech-but-a7322051.html [accessed 5th

February 2017]

6) I. Holliday, ’Voting and violence in Myanmar: Nation building for a Transition to Democracy’ in Burma or

Myanmar? The Struggle for National Identity, ed. by Lowell Dittmer (World Scientific Publishing Company,

2010) ProQuest Ebook Central,

[accessed 5th January 2017] p.44

7) Ibid., p.49

8) Asian Development Bank, Basic Statistics 2016.

[accessed 15th February 2017]

9) Buncombe

10) B. Lintner, ‘The Ex-Pariah’, Politico.

103887 [accessed 10th February 2017]

11) S. Turnell, ’Burma’s Poverty of Riches: Natural Gas and the Voracious State’ in Burma or Myanmar? The

Struggle for National Identity, ed. by Lowell Dittmer (World Scientific Publishing Company, 2010) ProQuest

Ebook Central, [accessed 5th

January 2017] p.223

12) Global Witness, Guns, cronies and crops.

and-crops/ [accessed 20th January 2017]

13) Ibid.

14) Clapp, p.8

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