Myanmar: peaceful transition to democracy or storm clouds on the horizon?

 MyanmarPublished last week, Myanmar: Storm Clouds on the Horizon is International Crisis Group’s latest Asia report. It focuses on the potential for political violence and social instability as Mynamar’s leaders are undertaking reforms “to move the country decisively away from its authoritarian past”. For most of the past 50 years, the government of the Republic of the Union of Mynamar (also referred to as Burma) has been under direct or indirect control by the military. Since independence in 1948, the people of Myanmar have suffered civil wars which have mainly been struggles for ethnic and sub-national autonomy. The country has consistently been in the news for human rights violations. Perhaps one of the world’s most well-known political prisoners, the Nobel Peace Prize laureate and opposition politician Aung San Suu Kyi, also chairperson of the National League for Democracy (NLD) was released in 2010 after 21 years under house arrest.

Thein Sein, current president of Myanmar, has put in place a far-reaching and radical reform agenda. The ICG’s report focuses on what reforms have been achieved and what this may mean for a possible resurrection of violence because “political prisoners have been released, blacklists trimmed, freedom of assembly laws implemented, and media censorship abolished. But widespread ethnic violence in Rakhine State, targeting principally the Rohingya Muslim minority, has cast a dark cloud over the reform process and any further rupturing of intercommunal relations could threaten national stability.” With former political prisoners being released, 2,000 high-profile activists and opposition politicians being allowed to return home, and further liberalization of the media, “social tensions are rising as more freedom allows local conflicts to resurface”.

The report notes that “The easing of authoritarian controls has created the space for the population to air grievances, the ability to organise in a way that was not possible before, and the opportunity to have a real influence on government policies and decisions” which has led to an “exponential growth in civil society activity”. In order for the transition from authoritarian rule to democracy to be stable, and for peace and security to be sustainable, the government of Myanmar will have to face and resolve major challenges. Widespread militarization and the political and social marginalization (past and present) of ethnic and religious groups will have to be addressed. For example, it has been estimated that the recent 2012 violence between Rohingya Muslims and Rakhine Buddhists in Rakhine State led to an estimated 90,000 displaced people in addition to dozens of casualties. It will not be sufficient to react to past and present violence by allowing more freedom of speech and liberalizing the press. Trying to contain the violence and reducing state repression alone will not address the underlying drivers of insecurity. The government will have to take a sustainable security approach and make great efforts in order to actively address the causes of long-standing grievances. Addressing only the symptoms cannot lead to long-term stability and the rebuilding of trust between communities.

The ICG offers several options to minimize the risks associated with single party dominance during Myanmar’s political transition. These include changing the electoral system to some form of proportional representation, building coalitions between the NLD and other political parties, and building bridges between the NLD and current president Thein Sein as well as other political forces- particularly the old guard. The ICG recommendations underscore the importance of all parties, and the majority of people, to feel involved in the political process. The marginalization of any political or ethnic/religious groups will most probably lead to further violence and insecurity in the future.

ICG’s full report and details of the policy recommendations can be read here.

Anna Alissa Hitzemann is a  Peaceworker with Quaker Peace and Social Witness. She currently works with Oxford Research Group as a Project Officer for the Sustainable Security Programme, with a focus on our ‘Marginalisation of the Majority World’ project.

Image source: Rusty Steward