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Survey Reveals What Myanmar’s Citizens Think about Government, Reforms, and 2015 Elections

December 17, 2014

By Kim N. B. Ninh

Myanmar’s recent transition to a quasi-civilian government in 2011 under President Thein Sein has brought about many social, economic, and political reforms, but 2014 has also seen rising concern both inside and outside of the country that the reform process has stalled, or worse, is backsliding. On the eve of the upcoming general elections in 2015, one in which all political parties will be able to participate fully for the first time, what do the people of Myanmar actually know about their government structure and institutions? What do they see as the most important issues affecting the country and where they live? And what do they expect from the 2015 elections? These are some of the key questions that we asked 3,000 respondents from diverse ethnic and religious backgrounds across the country in May and June 2014 in our just-released report, “Myanmar 2014: Civic Knowledge and Values in a Changing Society.” [View a slideshow from the December 16 launch in Yangon.]

Myanmar Daily Life

The Asia Foundation’s new survey results show that in these early stages of Myanmar’s transition to democracy, people are generally hopeful about the future, with 62 percent of the population believing that the country is moving in the right direction, citing school construction and economic development as main reasons for optimism. Photo/Geoffrey Hiller

The survey results show that in these early stages of Myanmar’s transition to democracy, people are generally hopeful about the future, with 62 percent of the population believing that the country is moving in the right direction, citing school construction and economic development as main reasons for optimism. When it comes to the 2015 general elections, 93 percent of respondents indicate that they plan to vote, and 80 percent say that voting will bring about positive change in their lives. Sixty-eight percent of all respondents said that they believe the 2015 elections would be free and fair, with significantly more optimism in the regions (72%) than in the states (56%). The regions are where the Burman majority reside, and the states are where the different ethnic groups are concentrated.

When asked to compare their personal economic situation to a year ago, about half of respondents said their situation has remained the same, while 35 percent reported improvement and 14 percent indicated that they are worse off. People said they generally feel free to express their political opinions, with 66 percent answering in the positive, but almost a quarter still feel that they could not. The number of those who feel that they are not free to express their opinions also increased, in some cases markedly, among the states.

These figures indicate the benefits of the reform process and a sense of optimism, but that optimism is tempered by a number of challenges. People have very limited knowledge about the current structure and functions of government. They are most familiar with the national government and the lowest level of village and ward administrations with whom public interaction is highest, but otherwise know little about levels in between. Even so, it is notable that just 12 percent of the respondents knew that the president is elected by the Union Parliament, with almost half (44%) of respondents responding (incorrectly) that the president is elected directly by voters. Parliament is strongly associated with representation, but few respondents reference the legislative function or the budget and oversight functions. This is not surprising given the newness of many of these institutions, but it underscores the wide gap between citizens and government as a legacy of decades of authoritarian rule and constrained political expression.

While a majority of people say they are optimistic about the current situation in the country, survey data also suggest an underlying sense of uncertainty, with positive sentiment dropping among the states. The biggest concerns that people have at the national level are about ethnic and religious conflict, economic growth, poverty, and unemployment. The biggest concerns that people have identified at the local level relate to poor roads, access to electricity, unemployment, and poverty. Peace and economic prosperity are high on people’s minds, and the latter, in particular, serves as a key indicator of how people perceive things are going – whether positive or negative.

People express a strong preference for democracy in the abstract, but possess a limited understanding of principles and practices which underpin a democratic society. Democracy is viewed as having provided new freedoms, but there is little association of democracy with rule by the people. Social trust is particularly low, and political disagreements deeply polarizing. Gender values remain highly traditional, with both men and women expressing a similarly strong view that men make better political and business leaders than women.

The findings are rich for further analysis and have implications for all those working to support Myanmar’s development. Given the country’s long history of ethnic and religious conflict, and a traditional society that is facing the challenge of adapting to new values as the country proceeds with its opening process, it will be essential that updated knowledge in a variety of issue areas be provided in ways that a large number of citizens can easily access. In many instances, the development of new terms and vocabulary is needed to enable a base of common understanding. Weaving together a society that is open to different narratives of how groups construct their own history and see themselves as part of the country at a national level is a challenging task, but we believe this survey can contribute to the ongoing national discourse on the relationship between state and citizens in a new, post-transition Myanmar.

Kim N. B. Ninh is The Asia Foundation’s country representative in Myanmar and can be reached at kim.ninh@asiafoundation.org. The views and opinions expressed here are those of the individual author and not those of The Asia Foundation.

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