Tea Circle

Myanmar: Still a Disciplined Democracy?

Editor’s note: 
Dr Lee Jones is senior lecturer in international politics at Queen Mary, University of London. He has written extensively on Myanmar including in his books: ASEAN, Sovereignty and Intervention in Southeast Asia (Palgrave Macmillan, 2012); Societies Under Siege: Exploring How International Economic Sanctions (Do Not) Work (Oxford University Press, 2015); and, with Shahar Hameiri, Governing Borderless Threats: Non-Traditional Security and the Politics of State Transformation (Cambridge University Press, 2015). He tweets @DrLeeJones.


Following fieldwork in Myanmar in 2012, I wrote two articles on Myanmar’s regime transition that, due to the vagaries of academic publishing, appeared only in 2014 and 2015. These were: “The Political Economy of Myanmar’s Transition”, published in the Journal of Contemporary Asia, and “Explaining Myanmar’s Regime Transition: The Periphery is Central”, in Democratization. Both pieces tried to grapple with the rapid and dramatic changes in Myanmar since 2011, to explain the transition and how the new political regime would work in practice. My central thesis was that the new regime was not merely a charade, but would exhibit some autonomy within certain firm constraints. Now seems like a good opportunity to take stock. Following the recent landslide victory by Myanmar’s National League for Democracy, is Myanmar still a disciplined democracy? The answer, I suggest, is “yes”.

My articles had two goals. First, to rebut the facile notion, circulating among many academics and activists, that the post-2010 regime was merely a military junta in disguise, a superficial change with Senior General Than Shwe even continuing to pull the strings from behind the scenes. Second, however, also to rebut the equally facile boosterism of organisations like the International Crisis Group and the Asian Development Bank that everything had changed and glory days awaited. I wanted to recognise Myanmar’s political system as a distinctly new type of regime, while also recognising the severe political constraints operating upon it.


The core arguments made in these articles were:


In addition to these formal limitations, I identified further structural factors that would constrain the new political regime:

So, after an NLD landslide, how well does this analysis hold up?

Like many Myanmar watchers, and indeed – initially at least – Myanmar citizens, I have to admit being surprised by the sheer scale of the NLD electoral victory. As I had predicted, the 2015 general elections did not simply mirror the very clean 2012 by-elections that led to a clean sweep for the NLD and the arrival of over 40 of their legislators in parliament. Rather, there were endless “dirty tricks” in the run-up to the election. USDP figures, backed by constituency development funds, used local pork barrel spending to court popularity. The Union Election Commission released flagrantly inaccurate voter rolls and cancelled voting in 25 percent more village tracts than in 2010, disenfranchising around three million people. The campaign period was marred by allegations of vote-buying (and efforts to suppress reportage of it), intimidation and violence towards opposition campaigners, interference by the army commander-in-chief, massive state media bias, and the illegal anti-NLD, pro-USDP campaigning of Ma Ba Tha. Yet, notwithstanding the debacle of advanced voting and over 420 allegations of election-day irregularities, voting was overwhelmingly free. I had expected a greater degree of manipulation on the day that would deny the NLD a total landslide and at least preserve the USDP as a political force. But there was simply not enough bribery, coercion, ballot-stuffing and so on to override the vast personal popularity of Aung San Suu Kyi. The USDP was wiped out.

Why? Clearly, USDP elites utterly failed to build a dominant party system like the Cambodian People’s Party. There was never any real leadership in this direction. Moreover, the USDP could not rely on state forces to help them rig the election.

Why not? Because, as my articles argued, the military had designed a “discipline-flourishing democracy” that is permitted to function somewhat freely, but within certain red lines. There is no doubt that most of the army is probably not happy with the idea of an NLD landslide. The generals are not “smiling”, as Maung Zarni suggests. But they have enough faith in the constraints they have put in place to let the system run – for now. Of course, this also means that this isn’t a “Mandela moment”, as some of the more naïve commentary has implied.


So what are these “red lines”? The new NLD-dominated regime will face two main forms of constraint: formal, mostly constitutional constraints; and wider structural limitations.

In terms of formal, legal and constitutional constraints:

There are also a range of non-constitutional, informal, structural constraints that will continue to shape what is possible in Myanmar.


There are, in short, huge expectations for “the Lady”. But she will certainly struggle to deliver.