Reform in Burma Isn’t Unraveling (Yet), But Our Narrative About It Sure Is

If a couple of recent pieces on Foreign Policy‘s website are to be believed, the democratization process that sputtered to life in Burma two and a half years ago has stalled and is now rolling back downhill. In “Hillary’s Burma Problem,” Catherine Traywick and John Hudson argue that “the promise of a free and democratic Myanmar is rapidly receding as sectarian violence escalates and the government backslides on a number of past reforms.” Meanwhile, Democracy Lab blogger Min Zin tells us that, for the past few months, he’s been “unable to escape an ominous sense that the political situation in Burma is on the wrong track,” and he points to a leadership crisis and a growing risk of social unrest as the chief sources of his anxiety.

I won’t dispute any of the facts in those pieces, and I’ve been an avid reader of Min Zin’s excellent Democracy Lab posts as long as he’s been writing them. As I argued on this blog a couple of years ago, though, I think it’s more accurate to think of what’s happened in Burma so far not as a transition to democracy, but as a case of liberalization from above that may or may not produce a try at democratic government in the next few years.

Is that a distinction without a difference? I don’t think so. As O’Donnell and Schmitter propose in their Little Green Book, liberalization involves the expansion of freedoms from arbitrary acts of the state and others, while democratization entails the expansion of popular consultation and accountability. The two processes often coincide, but they are usefully construed as distinct streams of political change. Crucially, while democratic government is impossible without civil liberties—especially freedoms of speech, association, and assembly—liberalization can and sometimes does occur without any democratization.

Understood on those terms, I think the liberalization process in Burma has progressed incrementally but significantly in the past two years and has not yet regressed in any substantial way, with the partial but significant exception of the plight of the Rohingya. What Burma’s liberalization has done is create space for new political and economic activity, and as is often the case, not all of what people are doing with that space is progressive or good. On the positive side of the ledger, freedoms of speech and the press remain incomplete but are much improved. Political prisoners have been released and not restocked. Apparently, there’s even a budding startup scene in Yangon. On the negative side of the ledger, the prospect of new fortunes is spurring land grabs by elites, and attempts to protest those displacements and the pollution that sometimes follow have largely been ignored or harshly repressed. And, of course, some Burmans have responded to the opening by mobilizing around an aggressive chauvinism that has already produced what amounts to a slow-rolling episode of ethnic cleansing and still threatens to slide into genocide.

As is sometimes but not always the case, this partial liberalization has also been accompanied by some significant but still limited elements of democratization, too. Parliamentary by-elections were held in 2012, opposition parties won nearly all the seats at stake, and no one shut the process down. More recently, word came that the National League for Democracy, the party of ostensible opposition leader Aung Saan Suu Kyi, would field a candidate for president in balloting scheduled for next year, even if Suu Kyi herself is not permitted to run.

What we still haven’t seen, though, is any clear sign that deeply entrenched elites plan to allow that process to threaten their station. Rather, what’s emerged so far is more like the arrangements that hold in monarchies like Morocco or Jordan. There, loyal opposition parties are allowed to contest seats in the legislature, and a certain amount of free discourse and even protest is tolerated, but formal and informal rules ensure that incumbent insiders retain control over the political agenda and veto power over all major decisions.

For that to change in Burma, the country’s constitution would have to change. When military elites rewrote that document a few years ago, however, they cleverly ensured that constitutional reform couldn’t happen without their approval. So far, we have seen no signs that they plan to relinquish that arrangement any time soon. Until we do, I think it’s premature to speak of a transition to democracy in Burma. Democratization, yes, but not enough yet to say that the country is between political orders. What we have now, I think, is a partially liberalized authoritarian regime that’s still led by a military elite with uncertain intentions.

To make sure this view wasn’t crazy, I queried Brian Joseph, senior director for Asia and Global Programs at the National Endowment for Democracy and a longtime Burma watcher who also happens to be the father of one of my son’s classmates. In particular, I asked Brian by email if he agreed with Traywick and Hudson’s thesis that the “transition” in Burma was “unraveling.” He pointed me toward Min Zin’s piece as “a more informative analysis” and said he agreed with Min Zin that “the transition’s trajectory is no longer clear” and then added parenthetically: “Not that I ever thought it was in the first place but that was clearly the message of the [international] community.”

Brian’s reference to “the message of the international community” in that aside is crucial to understanding how what I described here can be true and we can still see analyses claiming that Burma’s “transition” is “unraveling.” Best I can tell, what’s coming undone right now isn’t Burma’s reform process, although as Min Zin discusses, that certainly could happen, and there are plenty of reasons to fear that it might.

No, what I think we’re really seeing in articles like the one by Traywick and Hudson is an overdue deflation of the hype balloon Burma’s reforms have pumped up. With some help from various outsiders—some eager to see deeper political transformations occur, others looking to capitalize on the money-making opportunities this new market presents—we let our hopes for Burma’s future drive our narrative about what was happening in the present. The Arab Spring spurred a similar dynamic in American analysis of that part of the world. Let’s hope the whiplash over Burma isn’t as severe.

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3 Comments

  1. Burma Still Isn’t Free | Konfeksiyon Tekstil
  2. Democracy in Burma? | Order and Tradition
  3. Peace & international engagement threaten Burma's fragile ecosystems

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