26 Mar 2012

After nearly fifty years in power and multiple failed and repressed mass movements to overthrow the regime, why is the Myanmar military democratising now?

After nearly fifty years in power and multiple failed and repressed mass movements to overthrow the regime, why is the Myanmar military democratising now? Some point to the symbolic impact of the Arab Spring of 2011, with tumultuous social and political changes in Tunisia and Egypt. Others say the interests of the military are driving change. There are elements of truth in both explanations. Understanding the timing of change is a bit more complicated, and involves a conflation of factors.

Not only is Myanmar’s political opening the product of increasing empowerment and expectations in Burmese society, it is also the product of bold leadership, conflicts among the ruling elite and an extension of economic and nationalist ambitions that have been part of the political fabric of Myanmar. It reflects changes at home and abroad. What we see now is a top-down political opening in response to growing societal demands and increased competition within the system as well as concerns over the rise of China. To move Myanmar forward and protect the country, the current leadership is pushing ahead with political opening in the hope of ultimately bringing the goals that military founders first held, a unified country that serves the interests of its citizens.

The explanation of current developments must start with its president, Thein Sein. He represents a leadership that is “old school”, considered a man of integrity, untainted by the endemic corruption that has taken root, driven by devout Buddhist beliefs and a commitment to clean government. He is widely considered to be a leader genuinely committed to opening the system. Thein Sein’s leadership has won support, with many like-minded leaders supporting him in what is a combination of political opening and checks within the system by greater diffusion of power.

However, some who have joined his ranks are not motivated by ideals but rather by financial interests and disdain for Thein Sein’s opponents. Economic competition is fierce within the system, leading to personality conflicts. So while on the surface there is a divide between the “softliners” led by Thein Sein and “hardliners” seen to resist political liberalisation, the actual lines are less sharp and fluid. As of now, power is revolving around Thein Sein and his camp is gaining ground. His decisions to move forward are gaining momentum. Some are hanging on his coattails for financial interests rather than the lofty goals of change, highlighting the ongoing fragility of the country’s transformation.

The opening also has been driven by another force, nationalism. Myanmar historically opposed outsiders controlling her assets. This issue has been a driving force in the recent developments. One of the catalysts for change last year involved the Myitsone dam project that was not only seen to potentially negatively affect the Irrawaddy River but was also funded by the Chinese. There is increasing opposition to the external use of Burmese natural resources, and in particular, growing resistance to Chinese dominance in the economy.

At the same time, this nationalism has another dimension. The current leadership is drawing on the ideal of national unity, an inclusive Myanmar, rather than one with ongoing border conflicts with its ethnic minorities. As such, the regime is once again tapping into the broad nationalistic framework that drove the ideals of Burma’s military leaders, especially the late General Aung San.

This nationalistic fervor is spilling over into a stronger drive for international recognition. Myanmar is tired of its pariah status, and wants proper recognition and investment that comes from being a responsible player on the international stage. The current generation of leaders knows that earning this recognition and rewards requires Myanmar to open up. To develop economically, it must earn the removal of sanctions. The leadership is thus boldly trying to move the country from being a place for natural resource extraction for export to one with more domestic economic benefits. The elections of November 2010 had a profound impact in this transformation. A new generation of leaders was brought into the military and new civilian leadership, many of which had more handson experience with issues associated with the recovery period following the devastation of Cyclone Nargis of 2008 and who had witnessed poverty first-hand. The election process itself forced leaders to travel and interact with people and they witnessed the conditions of ordinary citizens. In the preceding two decades, the leadership had been quite separate from ordinary Burmese. Ordinary Burmese are now more travelled, raising expectations for economic development. These same leaders know that they will have to face this same group in a few years at the next polls.

The reasons the regime is changing are complex. Thein Sein’s personal ideas and integrity are an important part of the dynamic, but the political competition, economic interests, nationalism and political reality of holding elections also factor in. The stakes are high in this transition and resistance considerable. The more the momentum gains ground, the more promise the changes will yield.

Bridget Welsh is an Associate Professor of Political Science at Singapore Management University.