On Divided Societies, Democracy and Federalism

Myanmar, Burma, The Irrawaddy, democracy, multiethnic societies, constitution, federalism, divisions

A National League for Democracy supporter holds up a mobile phone with a picture of Aung San Suu Kyi in Rangoon on April 1, 2012, following a sweeping by-election win by the NLD. (Photo: Reuters)

As discussions about constitutional reform and a more federated political system for Burma heat up, Czech-based human rights activist Igor Bazevic offers up nine theses and a final thought on the challenges the country faces.

No. 1: Deep divisions within pluralistic societies are favorable for creating and sustaining authoritarian systems. Many multi-ethnic societies are not democratic.

No. 2: Authoritarian systems have a strong tendency to be centralized and unitary, even if some pretend to be federal systems (like the former Soviet Union, or Russia today).

No. 3: Authoritarianism is not able to solve deep divisions. It only suppresses them, without dissolving them. To make things worse, authoritarian systems usually deepen and increase the extent of the problems in divided, pluralistic societies. In today’s world, authoritarianism does not work well as a nation-building system of governance, nor as a means of ruling “melting pot” societies. Maybe it was possible centuries ago to transform peasants in what is today France into the “French nation” through centralist policies of an absolutist state. Today something similar is far less feasible, if not completely impossible.

No. 4: Authoritarianism has a tendency, even if it did not start with this ambition, to increase domination of one identity group over the other or others. By doing so, it only deepens divisions. Sometimes it is the domination of a minority over the majority (like Alawites in Syria and Sunnis in Saddam Hussein’s Iraq). Other times it is the domination of a majority over smaller identity groups (like Turks over Kurds in Turkey or Bamar over everybody else in Burma).

No. 5: Crafting federal constitutions for pluralistic societies is among the most difficult of tasks.

No. 6: Deeply divided societies are not favorable grounds for a transition to democracy. Any transition to democracy from authoritarian rule is a complex and difficult task. It is much harder to democratize deeply divided societies. We need only look at the recent examples of countries where people power has toppled authoritarian rulers. Tunisia is a relatively homogenous country, and its transition to democracy has had its own challenges and problems. However, it is in better shape than any other “Arab Spring” country. Iraq and Syria are deeply divided societies along ethnic and religious lines, and their attempted transitions to democracy have resulted in bloody, destructive civil wars. Libya is a country with deep and long-existing tribal and regional divisions, and its attempted transition to democracy has finished in state fracture. Ukraine and Georgia are countries with deep divisions, and that has enabled the interference of a powerful and unfriendly neighbor—in both cases Russia, known in the political science lexicon as an “external spoiler” in this context. We witnessed something similar in the early ’90s with the democratization of the post-Soviet region. Multiethnic situations and deep divisions therein have been fertile ground for conflict and the re-emergence of new forms of authoritarianism and have generally not been favorable to the consolidation of democracy.

No. 7: Democracy (meaning respect for civil and political rights, along with free and fair elections and meaningful multiparty competition) does not immediately solve the problem of deeply divided societies.

No. 8: Democracy (defined more narrowly as a system in which free and fair elections are held) sometimes—some will say often—instigates and fuels even more fissures in deeply divided societies.

No. 9: Democracy, decentralization and federalism are a good—and probably the best and the only—way to solve deep divisions, but institutions need to be carefully selected and negotiated through inclusive, moderate and compromise-seeking processes. Not just any democratic institution helps. Some democratic institutions that work well in homogenous societies are harmful in highly pluralistic and divided societies. Only carefully selected, inclusive institutions can help; those that give incentives to competing parties to behave moderately.

A Final Remark: Burma is, to a great extent, a pluralistic society. In the language of political scientists Alfred Stepan and Juan Linz, Burma is “robustly multinational.” As political sociologist Larry Diamond has highlighted, Burma is one of the most divided societies to have ever undertaken the task of democratization. As a result, the country’s transition to democracy requires extraordinary maturity, far-sightedness and moderation by its political leaders. And it requires the willingness of its powerful military to accept fundamental change.

Igor Blazevic is a Czech-based human rights campaigner of Bosnian origin and the director of Educational Initiatives, a training program for Burmese activists based in Thailand.

4 Responses to On Divided Societies, Democracy and Federalism

  1. Very good input. Only Federalism and Democracy will bring peace and tranquility. And the nation will prosper. As long as regime hesitates to bring what we the people want, the same things will happen. UMEHL must be outlawed. Cronism must be cleaned up. Bloodstained companies owned by Lo Hsi Han’s children and Khun Sa’s children. Tay Za and Than Shwe must be sidelined. The regime is dirty. The reform is dirty. Hidden agendas must be wiped out. Transparency is nowhere to be found. Defence Ministry must not be given a blank check. Military ruined our country. Military must not be allowed in political issues. As long as military dominates in Myanmar politics, Myanmar will not catch up in building democratic nation. Military rule was to blame for the nation’s doom days. So, military must yield elected persons to rebuild our nation.

    • Sai Sai – the trouble is that the generals are only masquerading as soldiers. They are in fact nothing but a bunch of lying, cheating gangsters. This is not really news to most ordinary Burmese, who have long ago came to an acceptance that gangsters run the government.

      History will not be kind to these lousy, lowlife criminals who’s political power grew out of the barrel of a gun. Just look what have they done with this power – they have robbed and looted the honest working people of Burma for more than 50 years and created a state within a state to enrich their family and friends.

      I curse them and their cronies for their shameless greed and corruption.

  2. I agree with Igor. It will be tough and some people might think it as mission impossible.
    The main difficulty is lack of trust, love, honesty, compassion and understanding the others among the people. Living so long under fascist systems make the people heart broken into pieces. For them survival is the game of lie, cheat, trick and all bad attitude. The military had successful brain-washed the public. In this survival tasks, each and everyone of public carry the black marks during their life time. The leader of the military is mass murderer. One of the poor girl had to sacrifice her life for the family survival, and she mixed with the prostitutes. This is survival game for the girl but how is the General`s task. Killing humans is the survival? Yes, he had to instill fear down the spines of the general public so that he could rule the country with iron fist. That is survival.
    Now it is guarantee for the fascist military rule in Burma.
    People have to understand it and take the detoxification.
    The rich people must share their wealth with the poor.
    The national treasure must put into system to manage the wealth surrendered by the rich.
    Corruption, nepotism, bribe taking must be regarded as rape case by the public.
    The rule of law can impeach the president for misbehavior.
    The authority will be kept under control of Parliament, judicial, news and media, and lobby groups.
    Accountability and responsibility is main stay for all the citizens top-down.
    Racism, religious discrimination, sexism, disability discrimination and others must be declared as crime and referable to police investigation. I warned everyone going onto public domain, WATCH YOUR MOUTH. YOU ARE ON RADIO, TV.
    It is hell of the mission almost impossible for Burmese. But together they can. YES YOU CAN.
    For all Burmese to be able to dance and sing “Happy by Pharrell William” on the street without worry and fear is the simple statement but YOU CAN MAKE IT. Comments are welcome.

  3. If we keep watching injustice silently, the history will blame on us. By refusing to make amendment on the undemocratic constitution, Than Shwe is still ruling from his bunker over us. Everyone knows that this Nargis constitution is no good to build a genuine democracy. How can we build a genuine democratic nation on fake democratic constitution? No way. Thein Sein knows that he cannot build real democratic reforms on muddy constitution. But he is not willing to amend the important parts of constitution. Why? He is afraid of Than Shwe and Min Aung Hlaing. He is supposed to be commander-in-chief but he is not. Myanmar President is under chief of the military.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *

 characters available. Comments with external links in the body text will be deleted by moderators.