Is Democracy in Myanmar’s Future?

By Sarah Buckingham || Contributing Writer

The Southeast Asian country of Myanmar, also known as Burma, is rated a 3.01-4 on the Economist Intelligence Unit’s rankings, which falls under the category of an authoritarian regime. In 2003, the former prime minister, Khin Nyunt ignited a plan to diverge from authoritarianism. Despite these efforts, the military still maintains significant government control, hindering progress of transition. The most recent Constitution of 2008 is the product of a flawed creation and includes exclusive articles that affected the election in 2010. Leaders from the National League for Democracy were excluded from the election, so those advocating for human rights and democracy did not take the election seriously. Through assessing both the historical and current political context of Myanmar, the question whether it is becoming more authoritarian or more democratic is on the table. Although there is a strong consensus that the Myanmar citizens and political leaders want to become more democratic, after considering the opposing factors, Myanmar is backsliding to authoritarianism based on the significant military power, the current Constitution, and the repression of human rights. 

The 2008 Constitution was established on flawed ground. Although a constitution is an important asset to democracy, the way they created theirs was not democratic. The State Peace and Development Council decided to draft a 194 page constitution in April, then continue to vote on it in May, not allowing all citizens the opportunity to read it and offer input (Institute of Peace and Conflict Studies). This process hindered democratic transition in the short and long term, considering that articles included in the Constitution affect the current politics in Myanmar. Military power was granted in the document, thus extenuating their thoughts to the political decision making table. Their power allows the Commander in Chief of the Myanmar Defense Services to “appoint a quarter of all the seats in the country’s parliaments at the national, regional, and state level” (Contemporary Southeast Asia), demanding military presence in the government thoroughly. 

Article 40C in the Constitution gives additional power to the Commander in Chief: “If there arises a state of emergency that could cause disintegration of the union, disintegration of national solidarity and lost of sovereign power or attempts therefore by wrongful forcible means such as insurgency or violence, the commander in chief of the defense services has the right to take over and exercise state sovereign power” (Contemporary Southeast Asia). Hence, during the democratic transition, the military has the right to step in at any point they feel disruptive.

There are over one hundred ethnic groups that live in Myanmar. In this predominantly Buddhist country, the military seeks to “ethnically cleanse” by targeting the Rohingya Muslim group that lives in the Rakhine state. In 2017, victims of abuse by the security forces began to take refuge in Bangladesh (Human Rights Watch), and there has been little to no action done by the National League for Democracy because the military has political control in this realm. According to the 2018 World Report, 14,000 of the refugees in Bangladesh reported abuses from the Myanmar military such as: “killings, extortion, arson, enforced disappearances, lack of food and healthcare” (Human Rights Watch). Those who remain in Myanmar are subject to control of the military, possible arrest, and continued inhumane treatment. This issue is a human rights violation and a significant factor in the backsliding into authoritarianism. 

On the other hand, others have hope that the democratic transition in Myanmar is still possible. Human rights activist Yanghee Lee has been visiting Myanmar bi-annually and reporting for the UN. Although she recognizes that the government is ignoring the issues that are currently happening with the mistreatment of the Rohingya population, she is faithful that the government has time to fix their mistakes and stay on course with their plan to transition. Lee is hopeful for the upcoming elections and took measures to “call on the government to ensure the vote is peaceful, credible, free and fair, and that all people can participate in the process” (United Nations). Beyond that, the Myanmar government has shown economic improvement as their poverty levels have declined from “48 percent to 25 percent between 2005 and 2017” (World Bank Group). According to the World Bank Group, the government is committing to the reforms necessary to maintain this economic success; an example being their “Myanmar Sustainable Development Plan”, which lays out their hopes for democracy.  

Despite hope for a successful transition, considering the implications of their current constitution and drastic human rights violations, they are moving towards an authoritarian regime. The Constitution is restricting other political parties than the military from having a significant say in decisions and the future of their country. So, along with the current human rights violations occurring that are impacting the Rohingya Muslims, Myanmar is not moving closer to democracy.

Junior Sarah Buckingham is a Contributing Writer. Her email is sbucking@fandm.edu.

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