Public Mostly Hopeful About Burma’s Development, Elections: Survey

By Paul Vrieze 16 December 2014

RANGOON — A new nationwide public survey has found that 62 percent of the people of Burma are generally positive about the direction the country is heading in, while 77 percent believe that planned democratic elections will bring about positive change as Burma emerges from decades of military rule.

However, public knowledge of the structure and functions of government institutions is low and understanding of democratic principles and processes is limited, according to the survey, which was carried out by The Asia Foundation and released on Tuesday.

The foundation said it conducted interviews with more than 3,000 respondents in Burma’s regions and ethnic states, asking a wide range of questions concerning government, democracy, and the political, social and economic values of people from various ethnic and religious backgrounds.

“The survey results show that in the early stages of Myanmar’s transition to democracy, people are generally hopeful about the future, though that optimism is tempered by a number of challenges,” the foundation summarized one of its key findings.

“A majority (62 percent) of all respondents believed things in Myanmar are going in the right direction… The level of optimism is markedly higher in the regions (67 percent) than in the states (49 percent),” the report said. “People most frequently cited the building of roads and schools, and overall economic development and growth as reasons for their optimism.”

On the issue of public knowledge of governance, the survey found that “Overall…basic knowledge about the structure and functions of the government is very low. A significant 82 percent of respondents are unable to name any branches of the government.”

Few people have a proper understanding of the appointment process for key government positions. Most wrongly believe that the president and chief ministers of states and regions are elected, the survey found. Only 12 percent correctly stated that the president is elected by Parliament representatives, while 22 percent knew that chief ministers are appointed by the president. Only 15 percent understood that Parliament passes bills into laws.

Knowledge of the political powers of the military—which is guaranteed direct control over a quarter of Parliament and state and regional legislatures through the controversial 2008 Constitution—was also low. Only 39 percent of respondents knew that the military has representatives in Parliament and local legislatures.

Despite such shortcomings in public knowledge of government processes, hopes for the 2015 democratic elections promised by Burma’s nominally-civilian government of ex-generals were high.

“People are eager to exercise their right to vote, with 77 percent believing that voting can lead to improvements in the future,” the report said. “When it comes to the 2015 general elections, 68 percent of all respondents thought that they would be free and fair.”

The elections are tentatively scheduled for late October or early November next year, and if they proceed as planned would be the first democratic poll since 1990, when the army ignored a landslide victory of Aung San Suu Kyi’s National League for Democracy.

Although fears of expressing political views publicly continue to linger following years of military rule, 93 percent of respondents said they would vote in the upcoming elections.

“People express a strong preference for democracy in the abstract and a high level of expectation that voting will bring about positive change, but they possess a limited understanding of the principles and practices that underpin a democratic society,” the survey said.

When people were asked an open question about what it means for a country to be a democracy, only 3 percent mentioned “government of the people,” while 53 percent associated it with “freedom,” 15 percent with “rights and law” and 11 percent with “peace.”

The survey also noted a surprisingly low level of awareness of country’s ethnic conflict and the slow-moving nationwide ceasefire process aimed at resolving it.

“A little more than half of all respondents (55 percent) believed that there are ongoing, armed conflicts in Myanmar, while one third (34 percent) said there are none,” the survey said.

When told about the peace process, 64 percent expressed confidence in its success, although very few had heard of the term “federalism,” a key point of political discussions between the government, Burma Army and ethnic armed groups.