The dynamics behind Myanmar’s political consensus

Mael Raynaud looks at the factors that both impede and enable Myanmar’s politics.

Three months from now, Myanmar will commemorate a sad anniversary: ten years ago, the country witnessed and suffered from the violent repression of the so-called Saffron Revolution. Then, in May 2018, the country will remember approximately 150,000 deaths caused in one night by Cyclone Nargis, which also took place ten years earlier.

The period between these two events, ten years ago, is key to understanding the political process that has unfolded since then. Indeed, after September 2007, it had become clear to a growing number of Burmese politicians, activists, business people, intellectuals of all sorts, and even soldiers, that Myanmar had reached a point so low that something absolutely had to change.The military had killed Buddhists monks in the middle of the streets, and then chased, not to say hunted down, many others, for months on end. In Myanmar, this went beyond the boundaries of the acceptable for many, including the most powerful, in Naypyidaw. But what was also clear was that, in this context, change would not come from any movement of people power.

But maybe it did, in a way. Twice. When people elected the NLD into government in 2015, of course, but also before that, when civil society played a role in the transition with maybe no equivalent in any other transition anywhere in the world. Cyclone Nargis gave all those wondering how to bring about change without provoking a violent backlash, a way out of the crisis. By answering the very real and urgent needs of the tens of thousands in the delta, who had barely survived the cyclone, people from all walks of life and all political affinities worked together to fill in the gap created by the incompetence of the government and its unwillingness to let international humanitarian aid in.

Several years earlier, in 2005 and 2006, travelling around university towns in Myanmar, I had noted that many students sought a future as a doctor, an engineer, a lawyer, a businessman, an architect, etc, all jobs useful to rebuilding Myanmar without ending up in jail. The more courageous wanted to become journalists.

The next step was for this movement, for I will absolutely argue that it was a movement, to realize the potential offered by the upcoming elections, planned for 2010. The rest, I am tempted to say, is history. An NGO, Myanmar Egress, started delivering increasingly political training courses to an entire generation of young and dynamic activists, the very backbone of organized, professional civil society networks today. Some members of the opposition chose to participate, rather than boycott, as the NLD de facto did, in the elections, and won a number of seats that allowed them to become important players under the Thein Sein administration.

The transition, initiated by President U Thein Sein, started immediately after the new government took power, and it was fast, deep, and impressive. And many civil society leaders who had been so active in previous years became presidential advisors, or at the very least gained an unparalleled access to the government.

This undeniable success and change led the NLD to revise its position and participate in the 2012 by-elections. In April that year, Daw Aung San Suu Kyi entered the parliament as a newly elected MP. Only 4 years later, she became State Counselor. The strategy she (and her party) had chosen, and that she has developed since then, can only be described as precisely the strategy advocated by the likes of Myanmar Egress, and its leader Nay Win Maung, between Nargis and the 2010 elections. In other words, the movement I described above coalesced, politically, in what was dubbed the Third Force in 2010, and then morphed into, simply, what people call “the Burmese transition”, with Daw Aung San Suu Kyi and General Min Aung Hlaing as its two leaders.

For the military, it is far from having left the center of the stage. What has happened and is happening in Myanmar may be a political process partly defined by the role played by civil society and the fascinating movement that has agitated and driven the elites in the last decade. However, it is also clearly a process designed and still controlled by the military. At best, the military has delegated responsibilities it was not interested in handling to the civilian government, which at the moment means the NLD.

If anything, the NLD is now seen as having cozied up to the military and accepted its continued dominance, more than many of its supporters would have wished. At the same time, in an apparent paradox, the party has refused to “forgive” those who chose to participate in 2010 (especially those who left the NLD after it refused to compete), or those who were seen as too close to the Thein Sein administration. This, unfortunately, sometimes seems to extend to the entire civil society. The channels of communication, which were one of the key phenomena that defined the Thein Sein era, have largely closed down.

This has left Burmese society divided in three distinct groups, in terms of political access. At the top, the leadership of the NLD seems to have simply come back to being part of “the system”, where many of its key members sat prior to the 1988 movement for democracy. There, it shares power with the military, the USDP, and the higher levels of the civil servants corps. The links between military holdings, major business corporations, and this elite based in Naypyidaw are well known, to the point where the business elite is fully part of this “system” I describe.

In Yangon and in other major cities around Myanmar, civil society, the private sector, the media, and the educated youth form what I call the “forces of progress” of Myanmar, those with the will to bring about change, and potentially the means, intellectually, financially, and in terms of political influence, to contribute to it.

Except that, like I said, this last aspect, political influence, seems to have all but vanished, with a government, led by the NLD, seemingly uninterested in even talking to such “stakeholders”.

Then, at the bottom, socially, the population at large, probably as many as 95% of all Burmese citizens. These little less than 50 million Burmese have virtually no say in the political process, beyond the support they have showed to the NLD (and which I strongly believe they will show again in 2020), not to mention any control over it.

What I am suggesting here is only a very basic attempt at a sociological analysis of Burmese society. In terms of access to power, I have defined three groups here. In terms of wealth, Burmese society is clearly incredibly unequal, and this couldn’t help but have consequences at the political level. In a population of 50 million people, each per cent is made of five hundred thousand people. If the top 1% is made of half a million people, who are these half a million people, and frankly, how many people outside this 1% have any political access?

Here too, I would classify, broadly, and based on experience and empirical evidence, Burmese society as divided in three. The top 1%, then maybe a group made of 4% to 6% of the population, or two to three million people, the middle classes. Then come the 95% of the population that can only be described as poor.

What I believe to be both the greatest asset of the Burmese transition and its weakness, is the absolute support that the third group, i.e. the poor, the disenfranchised and people with no political access show to the NLD. It is a strength because it makes it very difficult for anyone to now stop the evolution that started in 2010 (the media, for example, started to gain a lot more freedom as early as 2010, and public debate became possible that year in ways unthinkable in earlier years). But it’s also a weakness, in the context described above, for the NLD, which enjoys such a strong support, is now part of the “system”, effectively one of the protectors of the status quo.

While, under the Thein Sein administration, civil society was acting both through its own activities and through its role as a provider of ideas for the government, it is now limited to the first aspect, its own activities. Changing Myanmar without being able to change what the government thinks and does is the new challenge facing not only civil society, but the forces of progress of Myanmar at large.

Because of the way the present context came to be, which I have tried to summarize  here, and because of the way social relations work in Myanmar, a culture of slow consensus building, rather than a culture of confrontation, has developed. Tensions do exist, and they do regularly surface, but to a large extent, politics remain, for lack of a better word, and as imagined by the military, “disciplined”.

As I wrote in an article a week after the 2010 elections: “Change, in the region, does not take place against the army. It takes places when the army is ready to participate to it, or to let it take place. This is very much the scenario we should see unfold in Myanmar as well”.

Media freedom, freedom of expression, and of assembly, and specifically the limits to them, obviously play a major role, too, in shaping Myanmar’s political consensus.

It is striking to see that, even when actual confrontation is present, as in the case of conflict in various parts of the country, conversations between the opposite leaderships, and by this I mean the peace process, remain incredibly courteous and polite, to the point where one often wishes the conversations would be less polite and the results more tangible.

In this general consensus I am describing, the players are far from all being Burmese, though. Foreign powers, United Nations agencies, international financial institutions, donors of all sorts, and international NGOs, not to mention foreign investors and business people, all have a political weight far superior to that of the 95% Burmese at the bottom of their society, politically and financially, beyond the capacity of the latter to vote in elections such as those that brought the NLD to power in 2015.

This slow consensus building effort is applied to two parallel processes. The first process is the political process, embodied by the elections, the government, the two chambers of the Pyidaungsu Hluttaw and the fourteen local parliaments and governments, as well as the local forms of government that exist in the five Self Administered Zones and the Wa Self Administered Division. And the second process is the peace process. I have long argued that these two processes were in reality not distinct from one another, contrary to what many of the political and military players think.

Many of us, people working in any capacity at the level of the forces of progress (so, say, from a small business owner to a local NGO worker to a journalist), have grown disenchanted with both the political process, insofar as it means the Government in Naypyidaw, and the peace process, insofar as it means the high level talks between powerful players. What is really happening, in Myanmar, is largely happening far beneath that surface. Not that high level politics don’t matter, they very much do matter. But they, for the most part, have come to constitute only the general context in which people operate. High level politics constitute the context of what is happening, not what is happening.

Again, this is both good and bad. It is good, because this gives time for change, and the many forms it takes, to happen. Institutions are being reinforced; the social structures of a healthy society are being built; again, from the media to civil society to the private sector, people are getting trained; a lot of work is being done, in all sorts of fields. The NLD, to its credit, has started to clean institutions from people and practices that should not be found there. It has started to fight against corruption, too. But it is also bad, because it means that at this speed, change will indeed need a lot of time to happen. Time, here, would be measured in decades and in generations. Myanmar will not look like Singapore in 20 years. It will be lucky if it does in 50 years, if not a lot more. And maybe there is no alternative to that slow, painful work of each day, one step at a time.

But also, maybe things could go faster. For this to happen, certainly those in power should listen more carefully to those with something to say, whatever it is, in whatever area, and be prepared to take on board the ideas that deserve to be implemented. Certainly a lot should be done so that it is possible for people to say what they have to say, safe in the knowledge that their rights to express themselves will be respected (the line between libel and legitimate criticism is far from being clear, for example, in the law as well as in the minds of those leading the country).

But, just as certainly, political parties, civil society, the media, the private sector, all need to learn how to express their views, their demands, their criticisms, the possible solutions to any problem they may have to offer, in clear, practical, realistic ways.

My colleagues and I are currently working on an analysis of the platforms political parties presented ahead of the recent by-elections, to give only one example. It will be hard to come up with a conclusion that would suggest that political parties do a good job when it comes to presenting their ideas and the policies they would support, promote, or implement, if elected.

And yet, such ideas do exist. Civil society does have expertise in many fields; activists know and understand the issues facing farmers, workers, students, women, the youth, ethnic nationalities, or the environment very well. Businesses know what needs to change for the business environment of Myanmar to improve. And they all understand what is wrong in the way the system works, too.

In other words, the forces of progress should not just wait for the system to move on its own, over a long period of time, and complain, as they very rightly do, that the government is not listening to them.  

The consensus and polite and disciplined politics have advantages, but they also have a cost. And as always, it is the young that will suffer the most if the country does not change fast enough. In many ways, I think young activists are shooting at the wrong target when they blame the slow pace of change on the constitution. If there is one single factor to blame, it’s not the constitution. It’s the generational gap between those with ideas and those with power.

Photo credits: Myanmar Egress. Myanmar Egress staff campaign for the 2010 elections

Author: maelraynaud

Mael Raynaud is an analyst with 15 years experience researching Myanmar politics, society, conflict, and economy. He lives in Yangon, and works as a consultant.

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