Larry Diamond: ‘Democracy is Not Going to be Achieved Fully in the November Elections’

By Aung Zaw 19 August 2015

In the second and final installment of The Irrawaddy’s interview with Professor Larry Diamond, the Stanford University democracy scholar discusses complaints about the leadership style of Aung San Suu Kyi, the rise of Ma Ba Tha and the efforts to negotiate a nationwide ceasefire agreement with Irrawaddy founding editor Aung Zaw.

We’ve seen examples of Aung San Suu Kyi’s leadership and its shortcomings, particularly in the recent case of the candidate list.

I know many democrats in Burma, both in her party and in civil society, who are worried that her leadership style is not sufficiently consultative, open, transparent and self-confident. That there’s too closed a leadership style and not a sufficiently inclusive approach to the management of the party and the crafting of a broad opposition coalition. I know that many people are worried about this. I think these concerns actually surfaced not that long after she was released from house arrest and began to mobilize and rebuild the party. One hoped that this would pass and a different leadership style would develop, but I certainly continue to hear these concerns.

It’s not for me to judge, I just take note of the fact that many people I respect in Burma—not only in civil society, not only in say, the ’88 Generation, but within the NLD, including people who have received nominations to run on her party ticket—are concerned that this is, first of all, not entirely democratic, second of all, that it’s weakening the NLD as a party, keeping it from developing the modern party machinery that it needs to be competitive in the election and to govern well if it should become the leading party in parliament. So we’ll see what happens. I know that it’s a long journey and maybe a different style will appear during the election campaign or after the election, but it’s a concern that I’ve heard from a number of people.

People are very worried what the NLD will be if she’s not there.

In the nearly five years that she has been free from the horrible experience of house arrest, she has grown in her involvement in political life by first returning to politics, then being elected to parliament, then being a very significant figure in parliament. She has not had to govern the country. She’s been a significant player, but she’s not had to govern the country. If the NLD wins a large plurality of the seats in parliament and then basically forms a governing coalition, which I think is a very good possibility if the election is free and fair, then she as the leader of the NLD will in essence have to govern. Even if she’s not president, she’ll likely be speaker of the Lower House, or in some major role where she will have a very significant responsibility for governing. At that point, things will have to change, or I think the NLD will probably suffer a lot of hemorrhaging of public support.

What are the hopes of the younger, future political leaders of this country, and how do you see them shaping the future?

I think they’ll play multiple roles. Some of these people will probably enter parliament, some are already on the NLD list of candidates, like Zin Mar Aung. I think she probably has a good chance of winning her constituency. Some of them probably wanted to be candidates for the NLD and were not given the opportunity to do so. There will be by-elections at some point, there will still be opportunities for them to be brought in. That’s one possibility. Another possibility is, there’s an absolutely huge role for democratic leaders, former student leaders and other activists to build the democracy that people want to see emerge here in Burma.

There’s going to need to be a massive effort in civic education, in parliamentary and government monitoring, the construction of some kind of policy think tank for the democratic opposition that can advise and support their members of parliament and maybe push the government toward a competent, well thought out and socially just agenda. I think there will be people from within the broad opposition element, in the ’88 Generation and all of the other protests elements, and everybody who struggled and lobbied for democracy, who will be brought in to the parliament and who will be brought into the government. My sense is, Min Ko Naing is one of them, who don’t see themselves in the near future being in government, who imagine themselves as having a different role—that of moral leaders, thought leaders, creative leaders in the society.

There are other people who will be in civil society and may eventually enter parliament and government in a different way. One scenario is that more and more people will be gradually brought into the NLD as the system evolves. Another scenario is that if the NLD doesn’t perform, modernize and become more inclusive—which I think it will—but if it doesn’t, they may decide to form another opposition party and take their chances at some point in the future.

Inevitably there will be political evolution, we just don’t know what it’s going to look like. I hope the electoral system will change. I don’t think first-past-the-post or single member district pluralities are very good systems for Burma. It creates too many rigidities, and too many concerns about splitting the vote. You don’t want a situation, like in 1990, where the governing party wins 20 percent of the vote and 3 percent of the seats. That’s actually not a good situation for democracy. It doesn’t give them an incentive to play the democratic game.

If the elections are reasonably honest, if the democratic forces do well, but the military still has a strong veto power, I can actually see a deal being cut in the next parliament, whereby the NLD agrees to change the electoral system with a significant proportional element, and in return the military gradually agrees to reduce and eliminate its 25 percent of the seats. That wouldn’t be a bad bargain.

If Aung San Suu Kyi and the military are the ones with power in 2016 and Shwe Mann is no longer there, they will have to negotiate.

Of course, it’s absolutely essential. But I can only tell you, this is a long game. Something very dramatic and deeply disturbing has happened [with the sidelining of Shwe Mann]. But it’s one development in a very long game. The situation after the November elections may look very different than it does now. It may look better, it may look worse. The situation a year from now, after the elected government has taken office and begun to govern, may look different again. Alignments change, people learn to deal with one another, so one needs to imagine how this will unfold over an extended period of time. It’s very clear that democracy is not going to be achieved fully in the November elections. There are many obstacles that are going to remain over a long period of time, and it’s going to need a very good strategy, a lot of persistence, a lot of subtlety, a certain amount of courage and willingness to mobilize, to push democratic reform in the face of a very complicated set of obstacles.

Let’s talk about the rise of Ma Ba Tha and the rise of the 969 movement, which occurred shortly after the by-election in which Aung San Suu Kyi’s party won the majority of votes. A lot of people are saying that we should be wary of Ma Ba Tha, and wondering whether the group will have an effect on the election.

In the heat of an election campaign, it’s going to be hard to get Aung San Suu Kyi and other democratic politicians to go as far as one would like in the direction of reigning in this xenophobia and intolerance. People become a little risk-averse during an election campaign and want to consolidate their support. Once the election is over and the new parliament starts taking shape, it’s going to be really important for the new elected officials coming from the democratic camp to confront this more forthrightly and to say that this is not Buddhism. This is not loving kindness, this is not compassion. This is bigotry and hatred, and it has no place in the framework in any of the world’s religions.

It’s antithetical to the basic principles of Christianity, Judaism, Islam and so on. In what little I know of Buddhism, it seems particularly antithetical to Buddhist principles! There needs to be an affirmation from across the board in society—religious, secular, political leaders—that everybody has equal worth and dignity as human beings, everybody has certain rights under international law and under the Universal Declaration of Human Rights that people’s religion should not disqualify them from politics or from a place in the political system or from exercising their rights of citizenship and that bigotry should not be tolerated.

It’s shocking to see the government fail to take concrete action.

I think there will be a new opportunity when the transition finally takes a new phase, when the government forms under the Constitution after the results of the election. I think there will be a new opportunity to take a forthright approach and I hope the newly elected officials in the parliament and government will do that.

This country has dozens of ethnic armed groups and the government has been trying to reach out to them for the first time in history. There is a hope that there will be a nationwide ceasefire agreement with quite a number of ethnic forces. A lot of donor countries and Western governments are involved in this process. How do you think this process will play out?

This country has suffered so badly from the longest running series of civil wars in the history of the modern world. Anyone who values human rights, peace, social justice and so on should hope that the country can negotiate a just and durable ceasefire and permanent peace. If President Thein Sein can do that, I wish him well and I hope he succeeds. I may not like some of the other things that the government has done and is doing, but if they do that I think it will be a great achievement. If he’s doing that because he thinks it will bring stability to the country, I think he’s right. If he’s doing it because he thinks it will help the USDP at the polls, maybe it will and maybe it won’t.

But whatever his motives are, I hope he succeeds. If it can only be done right now with 14 of the 16 groups that are potentially part of the dialogue, then better 14 than none. From what I hear, the dialogue has gone far, it’s very nearly ready to be signed, and I think it would be very significant progress for Burma. This country’s had enough fighting, enough violence, and enough war. Anything that can be done to settle these conflicts and produce peace under a federal system, which I think is a very important principle, is going to be progress.

Do you think that the military will accommodate a genuine federal union in this country?

Look, the military has a history of favoring centralized rule. So I’m sure there will be differences of opinion about what constitutes federalism, of how federal the current system is, I understand that, but the point is, it’s better to move this dispute to the parliament and the political bargaining table than to have it continue to play out or be at constant risk of flaring up on the military battlefield. So I wish Thein Sein well in this regard, I wish the armed insurgent groups in the pursuit of peace. I hope they succeed.

Do you think with the serious political backsliding in this country, the US has moved too far to provide legitimacy to the Burmese government?

Probably a little too far. I was in favor of the opening and the lifting of some sanctions. I did warn at the time that we should probably be a little deliberate about it. But there was a train that was leaving the station, in terms of international enthusiasm, to incorporate Burma into Asean, to formalize investment relations. There’s a connectivity revolution happening in Burma now. Everybody’s getting cell phones, the internet is spreading, this can only be a good thing for freedom and democracy. This wouldn’t be happening without the pace of foreign investment coming in. So I think what’s necessary now is not so much to revisit the past and argue about whether we moved too fast to lift sanctions, it’s to think about next steps.

I can tell you this: Burma occupies a special place in the hearts and minds of many members of US Congress and significant parts of American society. There’s just a special relationship. It’s like South Africa in the 1980s and ‘90s. People care about it a great deal and feel a kind of moral, emotional and symbolic investment in this transition. If this transition turns out to be a fraud, and there is a massive distortion of the vote and grave electoral miscarriage, I think it will have very serious consequences for our bilateral relationships, and for investor judgments about stability in Burma. People are not simply going to take this happily and say, ‘Okay, you rigged your way back into power and we’re just going to go about our daily business.’ People are going to be angry and upset, inside Burma and outside Burma.

I think that there will probably be some awareness of this, among some actors who might be tempted to behave in less democratic ways, and hopefully that will help to inspire their better angels to respect the democratic process. But if there is an enormous institutional setback to democracy in Burma, this will have very serious consequences for the bilateral relationship. I am pretty confident that if it doesn’t happen while Barack Obama is president, there will probably be a very serious reaction when a new president takes power.