Mission impossible? Myanmar and the path to full democracy: Expert

13 August 2017
Mission impossible? Myanmar and the path to full democracy: Expert
Dr. SoerenKeil, Associate Professor, Canterbury Christ Church University in the United Kingdom. Photo: Min Min/Mizzima

A UK based expert says Myanmar has made significant progress on the path to full democracy but that several crucial hurdles remain in what some consider an impossible undertaking.
This was one of the key points to come out of a panel discussion entitled, “Stock- taking: Where is Myanmar in its Transition?”, held on the third day of the Forum on Myanmar Democratic Transition being held in Nay Pyi Taw from August 11-13.
Dr. Soeren Keil, Associate Professor, Canterbury Christ Church University in the United Kingdom had both positive points and negative points to outline in his presentation.
The following is his full speech as spoken at the forum:
One of the dangers of transition is we look ahead to see all the things to be done but sometimes forget or fail to remember some of the things that have been achieved.
Myanmar is a very unique transition, a transition that started in 2010 and resulted in quite a remarkable change in this country. We have a democratically elected government. We have decent economic growth figures, somewhere around seven percent. And generally people have become more mobile, people have become more connected, and there has been a lot of social and economic change.
So what does that all mean? Well if you read the report about Myanmar’s transition, you will find those who say Myanmar is the next Asian tiger, the next country to connect to the global economy, and to the international institutions. It is a country that is going ahead in becoming a democracy in a region that is not particularly known for its stable democracies.
However, and this is what I want to take from the first part, while I think that comparison is important and I think lessons can be learnt from other countries, we also have to take the unique situation of Myanmar into account.
Myanmar is not Thailand. Myanmar is not Indonesia. This is why when we talk about Myanmar’s transition, we need to think we are half way to democracy and to liberal economic markets. And I think the context is very, very important. Transitions are never linear and they never follow just one path. Some countries, including countries in Europe, have recently demonstrated that democracy might not be as stable as we have believed. So therefore to understand what has happened in Myanmar, and what may happen in years to come, we need to distinguish between the different transitions the country is going through.
I would like to focus on four of the dimensions of the transition, namely, the transition to democracy; the transition from war to peace; the transition from what was a war economy to an economy based on liberal principles, liberal open-market economy; and also the transition and changes that have taken place in Myanmar society, which so far we have not talked about at all, which even in the short time I have visited the country, have been rather remarkable.
Let me start with assessing what has been happening so far. When we look at democratization, I think there is some ground for optimism.
We have a democratically elected government that came out of free and fair elections. When you consider the history of this country, this is something very remarkable, something that should not be taken lightly and something that cannot be overestimated in its importance.
We also have the release of many political prisoners and prisoners of conscience. We discussed last night the substantial increase in media freedom, particularly when compared to 2009. And what has become very clear to me since travelling to this country is how strong and how vibrant Myanmar civil society is.
And this is something I find very fascinating. Again in this forum we may not have given civil society the credit it deserves, but the fact that this country does not only have a vibrant civil society in the big cities but has civil society movement in rural areas, in the ethnic states, in very remote areas, demonstrates how democratization is developing also from the grass roots.
When we look at the process in terms of ending the long history of civil war, I think the key event here is the 2015 Nationwide Ceasefire Agreement in which eight different EAOs came together to sign a ceasefire agreement with the Tatmadaw and the government to agree on a process of reform and a process of peace-building and building a new inclusive country.
This nationwide ceasefire has since resulted in the 21st Century Panglong Conference, which has been held three times so far, and has demonstrated that Myanmar is a country that has shifted from a country ridden by war to a more inclusive, more democratic, more liberal country.
What is fascinating both about the 21st Century Panglong Conference and the Nationwide Ceasefire Agreement and the discussions surrounding it is that it seems to me that this is a unique opportunity. Never has the country been that close to peace.
How does progress look in terms of the economy?
The robust figure of seven to 10 is healthy growth, although we know from other countries, including countries in this area, that they have succeeded those growth figures in liberalization phase.
However, economy change, economic growth, is particularly visible in bigger cities – Yangon and Mandalay are just examples – and it has become obvious that this country has its new middle class, a new middle class that is profiting from economic growth, that is accumulating wealth, and with it is demanding certain political freedom.
Finally, if we assess the road in terms of social and cultural changes, this country has changed a lot even in the short period I have come. Everybody has a mobile phone. Anybody in the room who does not have a mobile phone? I rest my case.
Five years ago that was not the case. Mobile phones do not only mean people are connected, mobile phones nowadays mean that people have access to global information. People find out what happens in other countries.
Internet usage has substantially increased across the country. Again, that provides access to information, it provides access to different media, that we discussed yesterday. It provides access to alternative voices, including those that might not be able to be found in print of television media.
There are more foreigners coming to Myanmar, both as tourists but also to live here, to work in international or local organizations, to support the transition. These foreigners not only bring money and investment but they also bring knowledge. They bring new cultural and social ideas, they bring different lifestyles.
Finally, more and more people originally from Myanmar are returning. People who for different reasons have left the country in the last thirty or forty years are now returning and some of them are sitting right here in this room. People who had to live abroad are now coming back. Again, they are bringing with them new ideas, they are bringing with them new social values, and most importantly, they are bringing with them the motivation to add to Myanmar’s change.
So when we look at what has happened so far, I think there is some grounds for optimism. I think we should never forget what has happened and what has been achieved and we should not underestimate because we know from other countries’ transitions – on the first day we mentioned the Arab Spring, that with the exception of Tunisia, have failed in their attempts at democratization.
So we should not assume that those things have happened by accident or things have happened because they must have. These things have happened because people have commitment and people were willing to change and we shouldn’t forget that.
Having said that, of course the road ahead seems very long. When we look at democratization key challenges remain. We have discussed on the first day the role of the military in politics in this country and the transfer of power from the military to the civilian government is clearly not complete.
The question here remains when will that happen and will that happen at all?
I am very much aware of the fact that this will take time but I am also aware of the fact that time is not an unlimited resource. Citizens in this country have expectations. International actors have expectations. Democratic elites have expectations.
Media freedom has improved but, as was discussed last night, the country is still not at a point where the media is considered fully free. Journalists still have to fear for their lives. They have to fear to be arrested. They have to use pseudonyms to publish critical ideas.
It can also be argued that there are still political prisoners and prisoners of conscience which are yet to be released.
Progress has been made to democratization but there is a lot of work to do which requires commitment, which requires consensus building, most of all it requires a lot of work from different actors. This is a process that cannot be done by political parties alone, by civil society alone, or by the Tatmadaw alone. It requires working together, finding common solutions, and thinking about where the country should go in years to come.
When we look at the peace process, progress has been made but numerous groups have not signed the ceasefire agreement.
The 21st Century Panglong Conference has been held three times but its results are rather limited. The discussions are still very general. And it remains to be seen what the commitment to a federal  democratic Myanmar really means in practice.
Most of all it seems to me, when assessing the peace conference, is that while there is a commitment to being more inclusive and to recognizing the diversity that exists in this country in terms of ethnicity, language and religion, what is not clear is how an inclusive and democratic Myanmar would look like.
What is missing, in other words, is a vision of where both the peace process and the democratic transition are going forward.
What is the Myanmar we want? What is the Myanmar the different actors see when they talk about the transition?
And we should not forget that recently there has been fighting. Different EAOs and defence forces have engaged in military action which has resulted in casualties on both sides.
The peace process might have made substantial progress and I deeply believe we are at a historical point where peace in this conflict-ridden country is possible. But peace is only one option. It is not guaranteed and it is not something that happens automatically. Peace negotiations are always difficult. They require different actors to talk to people they consider enemies, to people they would have shot on the battlefield, to people who might have killed their friends, their family.
But this country has a history of 60 years of civil war. War has been tried in this country to solve the problem. It seems to me, from the outside, that it is time to try peace.
When it comes to the economy, economic development so far has focused mainly on the big cities. The rural areas have not particularly benefited from economic development.
Myanmar remains a least developed country and it remains questionable whether it will leave that status next year when the UN will do an assessment.
Economic growth figures for any economist who works on transition are quite low. In other transition societies we have seen growth figures easily exceeding double figures.
The latest World Bank report on Myanmar and I know the World Bank is a very controversial  organization but I think in its report here it is absolutely right.
It says substantial infrastructure investment, restructuring of the economy, and more foreign investment friendly policies are needed and need to be implemented in order to have positive economic growth and overcome the development gap to the neighbouring countries.
Each one of those challenges is incredibly difficult. The infrastructure in this country requires enormous amounts of investment to be in any way fit for purpose.
Likewise, restructuring of the economy that is based on conflict and war where only a small amount of people have profited, but have profited rather substantially, is very, very difficult because it requires exactly those people to be willing to share the wealth.
Finally, developing more FDI friendly policies requires different legislation. It requires a framework in which the rule of law is safeguarded, in which investments are safe, in which foreign companies feel that not only is their investment protected, but they are protected should something go wrong.
When we look at societal change in Myanmar, we can see society is changing. We have new lifestyles emerging, we have new norms. We have a growing middle class. But that growing middle class demands further economic benefits and political participation. The question that needs to be asked, that all actors involved in Myanmar need to ask themselves, is what if the demands of the middle class cannot be met? What will be the result of that? And how can new tensions be avoided?
So when we look ahead at what has to be done the challenge seems enormous. Some might say this is impossible. Some might say that is too many things to do and all at the same time.
We have learned so far at this conference that democratization is more likely to be successful if you have a certain economic development. Myanmar does not have that economic development.
We have also learnt that peace talks are more likely when you only have two or three groups. Myanmar has more than 20 armed organizations.
All of these indicators could leave us with the conclusion that this is an impossible task. And yet it has happened in other countries.
While Myanmar is unique in its traditions the challenges have been faced by other countries. They have been faced by such countries as South Africa, India and most recently Nepal. And what those countries teach us is that compromise takes time, that compromise is difficult. Sometimes you need to take a step back before you can take two steps forward. But most importantly what those countries teach us is if you have commitment and if you have a vision of where you want to go, peace and democracy can be achieved.
Now let me come to my conclusion. Where is Myanmar? Is the glass half full or half empty?
If you study physics you will say the glass is always full, half with water, half with air.
I didn’t study physics.
We should not forget the progress that has been achieved in this country. I think very often when I speak to activists and politicians, civil society, EAOs and representatives of the Tatmadaw in this country. What I hear is how enormous the challenge ahead is. And I do agree that it is and it is not going to be easy. It is going to be difficult. It is going to require a lot of work and it is going to require a lot of goodwill on all sides.
But sometimes I think one should also look back. Look back at what has been achieved.
Twenty years ago who would have thought we would have a forum like this here in Nay Pyi Taw.
Clearly there is more to be done. And I think if we look at the road ahead, we need to distinguish between short-term and long-term progress. There are certain things that can be done in the short-term. These include, for example, more FDI-friendly policies, which can be passed by the government relatively easily.
These also include substantial progress in the peace process, commitment from all sides to substantially fill the meaning of federal democracy can demonstrate the peace process is working and therefore encourage other EAOs to join the NCA.
But I am also aware that there are elements that will take more time.
More time is needed for more discussion between the democratic elites and the Tatmadaw about the transfer of power.
What I have heard here so far, including from the representatives of the Tatmadaw, has been very encouraging – because there has been nobody who has said we do not want to transfer power.
Nobody has said we want to hang on. Everybody has said yes we are moving to democracy and we want to transfer power but it needs to be at the right time and the right circumstance.
When we look overall at Myanmar, I think we find a fascinating case of a country that is going through a transition against all odds, a transition that many observers would not have expected, a transition that has shown some remarkable results. The transition hasn’t been smoothly, it hasn’t been easy, and it hasn’t been linear. We’ve learnt that so far.
But we nevertheless have reached a point where I think one thing has become very obvious. What is needed now in order to continue this transition is the vision, a vision of what the future of Myanmar will look like.
What does it mean to be an inclusive state that respects ethnic diversity? What does it mean to be a liberal democracy in which democratic elites have responsibility not only for the good things that politicians can achieve but also for the things that go wrong? What does it mean to be a liberal open market economy? How can it be ensured that this open, this liberalization, introduction of market capitalism benefits the many and not just the few?
And finally, what does it mean for actors like the Tatmadaw, like the EAOs, what is there role in the future of Myanmar? Where do they see themselves in a few years?
I think what is needed in Myanmar is a lot of soul-searching.
As one of my colleagues said before, we need to figure out what Myanmar transition really means, where is the country headed, what is the vision that unites the people of this country.
We all know what the things are that differentiate the people in this country, we know what the things are that differentiate the people in this room.
It is time to think about what unites the people of Myanmar.
(Full, edited transcription of speech)