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Interview

Burma’s Emerging Democracy

Stanford University’s Larry Diamond met political parties, government officials and civil society groups during a recent trip to Burma and spoke to The Irrawaddy about its democratic transition.


With Burma’s reforms making media headlines around the world, many observers believe that the long-time former military dictatorship is on the road to real change. President Thein Sein recently announced a second year of reforms, focusing on the economy, after an initial year of mostly political change. But does that mean that Burma’s government has already laid the foundations for a democratic transition and can move on to the economy?

Stanford University democracy scholar Larry Diamond—formerly a consultant to and sometimes critic of US government policy overseas—recently spent time in Burma meeting political parties, government officials and civil society groups. Author, editor or co-editor of 36 books on democracy, Diamond spoke to The Irrawaddy’s Simon Roughneen about the current transition in Burma.

Is the Burma government doing the right things, the right way, in the right order, in your view, to support a sustainable transition to democracy? Any indicators that the government is merely undertaking cosmetic changes, akin to the ‘electoral authoritarianism’ you’ve pointed out in places such as Venezuela and Russia?

I think that the transition is still very much in an early stage and it is not clear by any means at this point that electoral democracy will be the outcome of it or that electoral democracy is the intended outcome. The problems are numerous and there is much that needs to be done by both the regime and the opposition if a democratic transition is to be achieved.

The Constitution has a number of serious flaws that would means that democracy would not emerge even if the opposition wins a majority of seats in the 2015 election. There is a need for reform of the Constitution, reform of the federal system, there are massive needs for civic education, there are needs for reconciliation—not only between the government and the opposition but among the opposition groups.

So all of this is only incipient at best, it is exciting that the process has begun and encouraging that the by-elections were free and fair and there are many hopeful signs but it is important not to underestimate the challenges that lie ahead.

What changes to date to you think are the most important in terms of driving democratic transition forward? And beyond those, what else needs to happen, what else needs to change?

There are opposition members in Parliament including the NLD [National League for Democracy], and the recent by-elections were free and fair enough to allow the NLD to win 43 seats. Aung San Suu Kyi is free and can move around the country and can take her place in Parliament. There is the possibility that the Parliament can become a locus for dialogue, one venue where discussions can happen about the future of the country.

There is a climate of freedom and openness that has not existed very much in the country in the last half century. Civil society groups and organizations are forming, people are reading seriously about democratic institutions. There is a fascination and enthusiasm among people for learning more about democracy that to me is reminiscent of other transitions around the world in recent decades, such as in Poland and South Africa and Latin America.

On the Constitution, I think it should be left up to people in Burma whether the Constitution should be amended or revised. However, if democracy is intended to be the ultimate result of this whole reform process, it is pretty obvious that some things need to change. Of the two most immediate that struck me, the first one is the most obvious one that the military appoints a quarter of seats in parliament—at a minimum that needs to be phased out.

Secondly, there is a provision in the Constitution that essentially legitimates a military coup in a state of emergency with the chief of the defense forces seizing political power. Simply to say that is undemocratic does not fully grasp how problematic that provision is. So this would need to change to make it clear that in a time of trouble the answer to political crisis is not for the military to seize power again.

There at least needs to be a plan for transition away from the degree of military domination that currently remains in the system, but constitutional reform could take the pragmatic view that the military needs these provisions as a confidence-building measure, over a period of time, but then the question arises, how long? Another five year period after 2015?

What do you think of the state of political parties in Burma? Are they equipped to be harbingers of change? Do they, and civil society, have a good understanding of democracy and democratic change, in your view?

Speaking about the NLD first, it is my impression that it has tremendous support and grassroots presence and that is a very important foundation on which to build. But it seems to need some organizational renovation, and it is also very important for the political party that seeks to be the democratic voice of society to be more democratic itself and to build stronger democratic structures and hold more far-reaching consultative processes within the party that would renovate it and lead it to be better-prepared for the leadership role it is likely to have in a democratic system.

A number of other opposition parties are too new or small for me to assess them, but some of them have had elections and seem to be trying to build structures. The only way you can assess the strengths of parties is through elections, and it is very common in a situation like this where you have large numbers of parties emerging and trying to gain traction but many do not gain any leverage within society. It is important not to make assumptions about parties without some objective test ultimately.

With respect to the USDP [ruling military-backed Union Solidarity and Development Party] it is also difficult to assess, but its future will I think depend in part to what extent it separates itself from the military and to what extent it takes on the formal organizational character and leadership profile of a modern political party.

I was very impressed with the civil society organizations I met—they struck me as capable, professional, enthusiastic about learning about democratic change. Some of the ones I met were the Yangon School of Political Science, House of Media Entertainment, Myanmar Egress—the largest and most institutionalized, Myanmar Institute of Theology and Concord, and there were others. Everybody is doing training now, and building knowledge and capacity is very important. I was impressed with the energy and activity.

Remembering that the 1962 coup in Burma was justified on fears that Burma’s ethnic minorities might try to secede, any sign of nervousness or cold feet among the former junta top brass about the transition?

The problem of violence and conflict in ethnic minority areas remains one of the biggest challenges for the transition in Burma and for democratic stability in the future. I think that several kinds of political pacts or agreements need to be negotiated during these three years leading up to the 2015 elections. One is between the regime and the opposition on the role of the military, the broad character of the state and the Constitution.

A second is between them on retrospective justice, transitional justice. It is probably going to need very clear assurances that if there is to be full democracy, that the incumbent authorities and those in power now might need to be told that there will not be a wave of prosecutions. I don’t see the prospect that the military, the people who control power at the moment, will give it up if they think there is a chance they will be prosecuted.

Thirdly, something needs to be done in a more comprehensive way to address the grievances of the non-Burman ethnic minority groups. I think it is clear from the resentments of minority groups that the existing vertical structures of power are not appealing. When you have got a multiplicity of groups with similar grievances and different identities, you cannot solve this problem with one-off deals with each separate group.

What are your thoughts on US policy regarding Burma? Is the US government getting the sequencing right? What about green light for energy investment with the state-owned oil and gas company despite Aung San Suu Kyi’s warnings, and those of a number of US senators and congressmen and women?

I am concerned about that. When you look at why the regime is opening up it is hard to shake the interpretation that there is a strong desire after all these years of lost time and stalled development to shake free of sanctions and Burma’s isolation and join the international economy in a vigorous way.

So there is some leverage that the United States and the West have, that these sanctions were there for a reason, due to the lack of democracy and the abuses of human rights. So if you give everything away at the start when all of this is reversible and there are huge hurdles to be scaled in order for the country to emerge as a genuine electoral democracy, then what leverage do we have left?

I would praise Secretary Clinton and the Obama administration for engaging the regime—it is time to engage Burma with a much scaled-up support for institutions in government, the Parliament, judicial reform. I’d also like to see much scaled-up development assistance to help the economy. But some sanctions need to remain in place until it is clear that the country is moving toward democracy and not pseudo-democracy.

You mentioned earlier how during the early years of transition, a plethora of parties sometimes emerges, but after a time these wither on the vine as things become more settled. Are there any other lessons, common threads, from transitions elsewhere that could be practically applied in Burma at this stage?

The electoral system needs to be looked at. If the current first-past-the-post system is retained without amendment it raises the prospect that the NLD will sweep most of the seats in 2015 but without perhaps having anything like countrywide unanimity in the vote.

It is not good for democracy to have any party, even one committed to democracy, to have a near-hegemonic presence. You want competition, you want opposition, you want pluralism. So the bottom line is not only that is not only is proportional representation intrinsically a fairer system but it may be more effective at giving a stake in the political system to a variety of forces, including the current ruling party, if those forces don’t do very well in the next election.

At the same there is a need in country like Burma that is still overwhelmingly-rural to have geographically-based representation, in which there are representatives that people can identify, each in their own constituency, to represent them and speak for them, that they can have access to express grievances and interests.

I think the answer is some kind of mixed electoral system, in which there is a substantial if not full proportionality in the distribution of votes into seats but at the same time that people can identify individual representatives that speak for them. One of the interesting things I found is growing interest in proportional representation and I think people in Burma are looking at it seriously and thinking about it now.