Virtuality, Perception and Reality in Myanmar’s Democratic Reform
GCSP Geneva Papers - Research Series n°8
August 2012 View this publication
Since the summer of 2011, the country of Myanmar has been experiencing rapid democratic reform. Headlines lauding these positive changes have become commonplace in the international media. However, experts and academics who have been involved in the decade-long campaign to bring peace and democracy to Myanmar remain divided over how sincere these changes are. Some accuse the Government of carrying out “window-dressing” reforms to please the Western governments and enable the lifting of sanctions. They argue that the Government has a vested interest in maintaining the reins of power and that there is no incentive to make true democratic reforms. During a speech in Oslo in June 2012, Aung San Suu Kyi, the Myanmarese Pro-democracy leader described the recent reforms as positive but warned against blind faith in the process and pointed out the main challenges that remain unresolved – namely the ethnic issues and the ongoing imprisonment of political prisoners.
This Geneva Paper will posit that the current reforms are a means for Myanmar’s Government to ensure the continuity of military power in a different guise in order to allow engagement with the international community, rather than a case of democratic reform for the sake of democratization itself. The reason that the Government is so keen to engage with foreign governments and companies after years of isolation, is the incentive of the lifting of all sanctions, as well as a diversification in both business opportunities and aid following years of sole reliance on China. From a Western perspective there is widespread enthusiasm for engagement with Myanmar. This is driven not only by businesses, who are lining up to profit from Myanmar’s resources, but also by the fact that a market democratic Myanmar would break potential proliferation links with the Democratic People’s Republic of Korea (DPRK) and fit geo-strategically with the United States’ widely proclaimed Pacific Century.
The paper will start by analysing the election and pre-election period 2008-10 in order to identify to what extent the recent evolution in Myanmar is a form of virtual politics as opposed to real democratic transition. Virtual politics can be defined as a way of directing democracy which is a step ahead of electoral fraud. Virtual politics goes beyond the stuffing of ballot boxes. It is creating the impression that the framework and mechanisms of a democratic state are in place but in fact behind the scenes it is the same elite holding the reins of power and directing what happens within the country.
It will then identify what true democratic change would look like in the context of Myanmar. To do so it will use relevant key indicators to evaluate whether the country is on the path to democratic transition or whether there are more virtual politics at play. The paper will conclude that the situation unfolding within the country should not be taken at face value and that whilst there are clearly visible reforms underway these have yet to be institutionalized and legitimized.
Due to the current nature of this subject and the lack of primary sources available, interviews with a wide range of experts, both inside Myanmar and abroad, provide the main body of the research. The interviews allow for an in-depth analysis of the apparent reforms to reach a conclusion upon where real democratic change is being evidenced and where the Government of Myanmar is shaping perceptions through its smart use of virtual politics.