Is Burma Democratizing?

Burma is getting a lot of credit for its recent reforms, something I wrote about on this blog in early October. President Obama recently announced that Hillary Clinton will travel there in December, a trip that would make her the first Secretary of State ever to visit Burma and the highest-ranking U.S. official to go there in half a century. Now comes word that longtime dissident Aung San Suu Kyi will probably seek a seat in the country’s parliament when the  political party she leads, the National League for Democracy (NLD), runs candidates in the next elections, which haven’t yet been scheduled.

Amid this flurry of activity, it’s easy to lose sight of the fact that what’s happened so far in Burma is only liberalization, not democratization, and just a partial liberalization at that. In their seminal work on transitions from authoritarian rule, political scientists Guillermo O’Donnell and Philippe Schmitter make a helpful distinction between the two. In their view, liberalization is about the expansion of civil rights, while democratization is about the extension and deepening of political participation and accountability. Quoting at length, with emphasis added:

By liberalization we mean the process of making effective certain rights that protect both individuals and social groups from arbitrary and illegal acts committed by the state or third parties. On the level of individuals, these guarantees include the classical elements of the liberal tradition: habeas corpus; sanctity of private home and correspondence; the right to be defended in a fair trial according to preestablished laws; freedom of movement, speech, and petition; and so forth. On the level of groups, these rights cover such things as freedom of punishment for expressions of collective dissent from government policy, freedom from censorship of the means of communication, and freedom to associate voluntarily with other citizens…

Democratization, thus, refers to the processes whereby the rules and procedures of citizenship are either applied to political institutions previously governed by other principles (e.g., coercive control, social tradition, expert judgment, or administrative practice) or expanded to include persons not previously enjoying such rights (e.g., nontaxpayers, illiterates, women, youth, ethnic minorities, foreign residents), or extended to cover issues and institutions not previously subject to citizen participation (e.g., state agencies military establishments, partisan organizations, interest associations, productive enterprises…)

By those definitions, all of the reforms undertaken so far this year–the release of political prisoners, the (marginal) expansion of freedom of information, plans to register opposition parties and to allow the formation of independent labor unions–clearly land in the liberalization bin. The first major test of whether or not this liberalization is going to be paired with democratization will come with the arrival of election campaigning. For Burma to democratize, the regime will need to register parties and candidates fairly, to eschew backing favored candidates with state resources, and to protect freedom of speech and assembly throughout the campaign. As recent events in Egypt show, the authoritarian habits that run counter to those ends are often hard to break, especially when electoral politics is accompanied by social disorder.

Equally important, even if it holds competitive elections, Burma won’t really become a democracy unless and until it changes its constitution. That’s because the current version, adopted in 2008, reserves one-quarter of the seats in the country’s legislature for members of the military. That reserve domain guarantees the unelected military a strong hand in the country’s politics, a situation that’s fundamentally incompatible with the principle of popular accountability underscored by O’Donnell and Schmitter.

The only way to remove the military from politics is by constitutional amendment. And, as it happens, the constitution requires more than three-quarters of legislators vote in favor of amendment before an amendment can be put to a nationwide referendum (at which point it only needs to win more than half the votes). Because the military fills one-quarter of the seats in parliament, the current constitution ensures that full democratization cannot happen by legal means without the military’s support. In drafting the 2008 constitution, military leaders craftily gave themselves a veto over constitutional change without saying as much.

The changes occurring in Burma are real and significant, but we should be careful to see them for what they are and to recognize their limits. Specifically, we shouldn’t start talking about a democratic transition until we see evidence of a new approach to electoral politics, and we shouldn’t slap the “democracy” label (with or without adjectives) on the regime until the military finally and officially removes itself from government. Those are the high hurdles, and the partial liberalization occurring does not guarantee that they will soon be cleared.

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  1. revisiting constructive engagement: burma on the move? « Securing Rights
  2. Comparative Politics, Meet Complex Interdependence « Dart-Throwing Chimp
  3. Reform in Burma Isn’t Unraveling (Yet), But Our Narrative About It Sure Is | Dart-Throwing Chimp

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