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Myanmar’s path towards “normal” democracy status remains uncertain

23/05/2016
The Economist reports on Myanmar’s path towards becoming a “normal” democracy. It still appears unclear what sort of a government Aung San Suu Kyi will lead. The Obama administration has tweaked sanctions, including the lifting of some trade restrictions and removal of some state owned enterprises from a blacklist, rather than removing them wholesale as some American businesses wished.  Suu Kyi’s style of governance, according to The Economist  “carries worrying echoes of the opaque and authoritarian generals of the bad old days”. Here’s the key paragraph from their report:
Meanwhile, as Miss Suu Kyi’s style of governing emerges (she rules as the only “state councillor”), it carries worrying echoes of the opaque and authoritarian generals of the bad old days. Her government boasts of a 100-day plan, yet has not released it. Admittedly, the government is grappling with the thorny task of merging 36 ministries into 21 to create a more streamlined government. Yet Miss Suu Kyi has been notably unforthcoming about her goals: for instance, how many people should be lifted out of poverty, or what policies are to change. As for an overarching vision for her country, there is none.
While there was some excitement, including cautious enthusiasm by The Economist itself which named Myanmar its country of the year for 2015, after Aung San Suu Kyi’s National League for Democracy won a resounding victory at the polling both and the result was respected by the military, the path to normalcy was never going to be easy.
For Myanmar to become a “normal” democracy, as I argued back in February in an opinion piece for the Otago Daily Times, requires an opening up of political institutions and strengthening of the civil society actors which can curb the manner in which a democratic state dispenses power. Key means to hold a government to account, under democracy, are a vibrant and free press, the rule of law which curbs the dispensing of state power and the presence of a strong civil society.
A broad middle class encourages greater stability and can serve to restrain the government in the way it dispenses power. In his recent book, Political Order and Political Decay*, Francis Fukuyama notes countries at early stages of political development, which Myanmar surely is, are more susceptible to self defeating clientelistic policies whereby sections of society can more easily be bought off with policies that favour those specific groups. This is not to say that wealthier countries are immune to these problems just that countries with a broad middle class are inclined to be more stable because they are harder to bribe. In turn this relates to Alexis de Tocqueville’s insightful observations, in his masterful Democracy in America, on how it was the existence of a broad group of property owners who were naturally disinclined toward revolution and encouraged political stability. Here is de Tocqueville:
Not only are the men of democracies not naturally desirous of revolution but they are afraid of them. All revolutions more or less threaten the tenure of property: but most of those who live in democratic countries are possessed of property; not only are they possessed of property, but they live in the condition where men set the greatest store upon their property.
Political stability, though not necessarily democracy as China has shown**, also encourages greater financial investment which can have a transformative effect on a country. The up and down nature of investment in the country between 2012 and 2016, as this graph shows, suggests foreign business people remain uncertain about the political climate in this small south east asian nation. All of these uncertainties combined suggest Myanmar still has a long way to go.
**I do not mean to suggest that Myanmar should aim to be China. Although that country has pulled an astounding more than 600m people out of grinding extreme poverty largely through market reforms, which must be celebrated, it remains a state which curbs universal freedoms. Democracy, although a flawed system of government, is still vastly better at respecting the autonomy of individuals and the pursuit of their own personal fulfillment than other systems.
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