A Front Row Seat to Five Years of Rapid Change in Myanmar
March 14, 2018
In 2012, when I first started to travel to Myanmar from my base in Hanoi, where I was The Asia Foundation’s Vietnam country representative, the big question that everyone I met would raise was: “Is this transition to be believed?” The military generals who shed their uniforms to become civilians in the first government elected under the 2008 Constitution sought to convince the public at home and abroad that the transition was real. While the 2010 election that brought them to power was boycotted by the National League for Democracy (NLD), Aung San Suu Kyi’s decision to run in the April 2012 by-election transformed the uncertain political landscape. She became a politician and won a seat in parliament, and the NLD then committed itself to participate in the ongoing political transition and contestation.
As I moved from Hanoi to Yangon to re-open the Foundation’s long-shuttered Myanmar office in 2013, the overarching question of whether the transition was for real shifted to a focus on understanding the opaque country context.
For the first time in many decades, the international community and those in the NGO sector were starting to interact much more directly with the government and the bureaucracy at different levels in an effort to support the transition. The first realization was that there was so little information to go on-from a lack of understanding how the government actually functioned to what powers the military still held. The new governance institutions and structures put in place by the 2008 Constitution and established by the government of President Thein Sein in 2011, had yet to be understood, and over the next few years they began to generate new dynamics throughout the system that needed to be captured and analyzed. And it wasn’t just the international community who did not know; many in Myanmar, both inside and outside of government, did not know either.
Years of authoritarian military rule had generated an environment in which information was used as a weapon to keep society from mobilizing and bureaucrats compliant, since they could only have a partial view rather than see how the whole system was organized and functioned. The changes brought about by the reforms under the Thein Sein government further complicated a clear understanding of the system, even as they opened up the country to greater freedom and improved access to information. The Asia Foundation’s first initiative in Myanmar, which continues to be in great demand even today, was a piece of research that documented state and region governments for the first time. There followed a series of analyses that the Foundation carried out in order to shed light on critical governance institutions and dynamics impacting the country’s nascent efforts at democratic transition, decentralized governance, and achieving peace after decades of bloody, relentless ethnic conflicts. While the lack of information and analysis on the country’s governance structure and reform process has improved significantly in the past few years, this will remain a critical need for some time to come.
The early achievements of the transition-the release of political prisoners, new freedoms to assemble and demonstrate, the emergence of private media and independent trade unions, and an opening to foreign investors among others-were dramatic and hopeful. As the Foundation began to support government and civil society organizations in the difficult work to transform the country from military rule to a civilian democracy, however, it soon became clear that the capacity to carry out longer term structural changes in governance, economic development, and inclusive social transformation was also sorely lacking. The critical thinking necessary to assess and define priorities and solutions; the organizational and coordination capacity to generate coherent policies and follow through on implementation; the ability, authority, and confidence to make decisions-these fundamental requisites have been so severely constrained over the years that there was much confusion and fear within the system as to how to actually approach reform. Senior ministers might call for reform, but the bureaucracy to support and carry out such policies scarcely knew where to begin. “People-centered development” became a mantra for the Thein Sein government, but it was a challenge for government officials at all levels to figure out exactly what this would mean in practice, especially when there was no practical guidance offered from above.
Rapid reforms also underestimated the critical need to build trust in society. The first-ever national civic knowledge and value survey that we carried out in 2014 underscored how little the public knows about basic governance institutions and the values underpinning democracy, as well as mapping a deep sense of distrust, not only with government but also among the different groups in society. The legacy of weak governance capacity, deep political and social distrust, and a hybrid governance system where the military still retained significant control, was what the NLD and Aung San Suu Kyi, now the country’s state counsellor, also inherited when they won the 2015 general election.
The public euphoria stemming from the 2015 election has since been greatly tempered by the sobering reality of the challenges of governing in a context that has always been much more prone to splintering than to unifying. Successive military regimes responded by establishing centralized control through coercion and repression, but democratic governments need to find other means to govern. The crisis in Rakhine state, which became a full-blown humanitarian crisis in late 2017, with most of its Muslim Rohingya population fleeing violence to refugee camps in Bangladesh, shows just how raw and incomplete the transition is in Myanmar. But elsewhere, other ethnic conflicts also remain unresolved, and so the thorny issues of who belongs, who gets to decide, and what does it mean to belong, continue to permeate much of the Myanmar body politic.
My colleagues and friends here in Myanmar often speak about a traumatized society and individuals coming out of a dark era of global and regional isolation, a lack of information and freedom of expression, and long jail terms for political beliefs and social convictions unacceptable to those who rule. Given all this, the hope we all shared for Myanmar in the earliest years of the transition must now be moderated with the knowledge that much more time is needed to overcome the trauma—to sort through unresolved issues of identity and nationhood, and to patiently and methodically rebuild from the ground up the basic democratic institutions and values in ways that can last and persevere through the challenges ahead.
The Asia Foundation has taken part in similarly challenging and long-term processes of change in a number of countries in Asia over the last six decades, as they shifted from colonial rule to independence, and found their way through models of statehood and modernity. In a sense, Myanmar is just starting on this difficult journey, and there will be many critical moments to come in which tough choices will have to be made about the nature of the state and society that can respond to public needs and aspirations, but also bring the best out of its people. Given the work that we have been doing in the last five years to help build governance institutions and processes, particularly at the subnational level, we are seeing first-hand how the dynamics of change unleashed by the transition since 2011 are generating practical reforms that are improving lives and changing the ways in which citizens perceive and interact with their government.
Myanmar is, in effect, grappling all at the same time with the enduring legacy of colonialism which it never had the opportunity to fully resolve, the stunted dream of what could have been in the early years of independence, and the lasting impacts of decades of inward looking military rule. The challenge is now figuring out how to democratize under the conditions of a hybrid military-civilian government—at a time when the region and the world are also going through a period of great instability. Given such a complex situation, there are many different narratives happening concurrently that reflect conflicting visions and dynamics of change. Having had the privilege of re-establishing the Foundation’s office in Myanmar and observing and supporting the transition for the last five years, I hope that the efforts of many in Myanmar to rebuild their nation will not become a lost narrative amid the myriad challenges facing this extraordinary country.
Kim N. B. Ninh is The Asia Foundation’s country representative in Myanmar. The views and opinions expressed here are those of the author and not those of The Asia Foundation or its funders.
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