Myanmar’s quest for a new normal: The way forward

Across a wide range of actors – the Tatmadaw (military), democracy advocates, businesspeople and social activists – the goal, in simplest terms is to no longer be an isolated pariah state that is cripplingly poor, oppressive and riven by ethnic strife. The world responded to Myanmar’s transition by generally embracing the process. Some countries did so more ebulliently than others, but even the West saw positive change as possible, even if only tentatively in the early years.

By engaging the Tatmadaw in a structured process, it was hoped by many countries seeking to support change that gradual reforms would ultimately add up to profound structural changes in how the country is governed. What that ultimately looked like was surely different between such countries as the US and China, for instance, but all longed for a Myanmar that was no longer a global outcast, regularly compared only to North Korea.

The party of Aung San Suu Kyi, the National League for Democracy, also implicitly accepted this gradualism when they contested by-elections for parliament in 2012. Despite deep reservations over the Tatmadaw’s claim that it would manage the transition toward a “disciplined flourishing democracy,” this signalled the party was joining the transition project for the duration. Working within the confines of the 2008 Constitution the party sought full democratisation, including ultimately reforming or replacing the constitution.

For its part, the Tatmadaw appeared to realise that it had to accept the NLD back into the political process. Daw Aung San Suu Kyi was a global icon of democracy. Accordingly, the Tatmadaw appreciated that the economic growth and international acceptance it sought required her involvement in the transition. If she remained under house arrest and was actively deriding the process framed by the 2008 Constitution as regressive and un-democratic, the international community would never accept the transition, leaving crippling sanctions in place and Western countries guided by her opinions.

The road to engagement

Indeed, Daw Aung San Suu Kyi’s decision to participate in the 2012 by-elections, in which she and her party won a good number of parliamentary seats, gave a much greater sense of legitimacy to the changes unfolding in Myanmar. Her participation encouraged greater international engagement with the Thein Sein government, even if it meant assuming a wider acceptance of the parameters of change laid down by the Tatmadaw through their crafting of the 2008 Constitution. After winning the November 2015 elections by a landslide, Daw Aung San Suu Kyi assumed executive power as State Counsellor to overcome the constitutional provision preventing her from the presidency.

As de facto head of state and together with her now-governing NLD, Daw Aung San Suu Kyi assumed responsibility for a state apparatus that was not fully under their control. The 2008 Constitution had been designed to assure the Tatmadaw outright control over the security apparatus and their major economic interests, prosecutorial immunity for past transgressions, and a veto-proof presence in parliament over the constitution. It also tossed in a vice president post and a majority on the National Security Council for good measure.

In this manner, Myanmar was left with what was in effect a split government – nominally democratic and led by civilians, but with the Tatmadaw securely immersed in the country’s politics, governance and economy. This meant the transition would be defined by the Tatmadaw’s preferences and the ongoing contestation of them by pro-democracy parties like the NLD, as well as the dozens of ethnic armed groups that would not accept a political settlement unless based on consensual federalism achieved through negotiations. The overarching impact of this is that the transition has essentially been a contest between the military and civilian governments. This, in turn, is framed against questions of who belongs in Myanmar and how they should jointly rule; sensitivities manifest most starkly in a wide range of insurgent groups and the country’s incredibly diverse society.

After decades of misrule and stagnation, what was being wrestled over – command of the state in Myanmar and hence control over moving the transition forward – was lamentable. Myanmar in 2010 was plagued with deep and widespread poverty, conflicts along nearly the entire border of the country, and a state apparatus with little or no capacity to provide services and habituated to autocratic rule through surveillance and coercion. Reforming the state apparatus was going to be a massive challenge given the inherent civil-military tensions in the government.

All of this meant that for the newly elected governments, particularly the NLD in 2015 but also to some extent the pro-Tatmadaw Union Solidarity and Development Party (USDP) that assumed power in 2011, the transition started needing to show basic competence to govern in the most rudimentary ways – health, education, roads and jobs – rather than focusing solely on achieving major structural reforms. Not that the latter weren’t sought. There were some achievements, notably in telecoms, currency exchange, debt relief, and decentralisation.

Limited ability to function

What is often missed in the story of Myanmar’s recent past is just how weak the state apparatus was in terms of governance. Assumptions that military dictatorship translated into a strong state apparatus were wrong. Coercion and the stifling of opposition were possible through a predatory bureaucracy and brutal crackdowns by the Tatmadaw, but behind this façade the ability of the state to function was spectacularly limited.

Myanmar could not afford to be a heavy police state such as those seen in the Soviet bloc. Much of its oppression was achieved by the banal levers of local administration, while its counter-insurgency campaigns involved the widespread use of proxy militias let loose in brutal clearance campaigns against civilians, or counter-insurgency on the cheap.

Overshadowing prospects for change since 2010 have been the sheer extent of the country’s dysfunction. Myanmar’s would-be reformists – ranging from those merely wishing to push a façade of change to bolster economic growth, all the way to the true believers among the country’s democratic and social activists – faced the seemingly overwhelming problem of how to structure and sequence reforms. When everything in effect needs reform, where do you even start?

The ‘magnitude challenge’ of overcoming Myanmar’s compounding social, political, and economic ailments seemed nearly insurmountable. The complexity of it all overshadowed and threatened to overwhelm reform of even the most banal aspects of governance that were so sorely desired.

A foundation of basic governance needed to be laid, basically to achieve the state-building that similar countries had done after independence in the ’50s and ’60s. In this sense, the ‘transition’ was less about emerging from dictatorship and more about achieving rudimentary coherence as a state, something that should have been done decades before. With the state nearly dysfunctional from the top down and an economy lagging decades behind its regional peers, the basic competence to govern – manage budgets, improve basic education and health, build roads – was imperative.

The USDP government of President Thein Sein sought to achieve reforms in economic governance, negotiate ceasefires and initiate a peace process, and engage widely with the West because the USDP longed for a sense of normalcy, and hence legitimacy, in the eyes of the international community and the Myanmar public. Yes, they were former Tatmadaw officers, but they too were tired of global pariah status. During the USDP government, there were tensions at times with the military, for instance over leadership of the peace process, but generally the government and military worked together relatively well. The tensions more dominant during the USDP era were between Speaker of the Lower House U Shwe Mann and his former colleagues in the military and presidency.

Surprising cooperation

Even as the NLD assumed power in early 2016, many political analysts were surprised at the extent to which the Tatmadaw tried to accommodate the new government. Building off its earlier themes of wanting to shed pariah status, there seemed to be a pragmatic realisation that ongoing détente, and even engagement, was needed at least publicly with the NLD and Daw Aung San Suu Kyi, even if it meant accepting them in power. With that in mind, and despite some criticism, they accepted the creation of the State Counsellor position and her de facto role as head of state.

It is unclear if the Tatmadaw ever expected the NLD to come to power when it drafted the 2008 Constitution. While it undoubtedly wanted the transition to proceed in terms of a “disciplined flourishing democracy,” especially if it produced significant economic growth and its core security interests were protected, it was also apparent that the Tatmadaw was happy to let the civilian government take the blame for any of the country’s misfortunes. As such, by 2016 the Tatmadaw adopted a strategy of seemingly supportive distancing from many matters of routine governance in order to allow the NLD government to “hang itself with its own rope.”

As seen across Asia for decades, and memorably in Myanmar during and after the 1962 coup, debates have long raged over the merits of autocratic but relatively competent governments, including those led by generals, versus the seeming chaos and ineptitude of electoral democracy. Militaries in Asia, and many other regions, have long claimed that they are more competent in developing countries economically and providing stability in exchange for the loss of certain rights by their respective publics. Autocratic populism has seen a recent surge in popularity across the world, including in the West.

Disputes over this sentiment have not disappeared in Myanmar, and since 2010, have been prominent in many of the country’s political and social forums, for instance, with the Tatmadaw encouraging Buddhist nationalists to support race laws and question the competence of the NLD to lead the country. The Tatmadaw has also excelled at placing Daw Aung San Suu Kyi and the NLD in awkward political positions to expose them to criticism from Western supporters and lose domestic support, for instance by placing her on commissions to investigate violence in Rakhine State in 2014. The application of “lose-lose” situations for the country’s democrats has become a rather refined art form practiced by the Tatmadaw since 2010.

Compounding these tensions and complicating the country’s politics are contesting narratives of change and legitimacy. Many see a better future via parliamentary democracy while others insist on starting with a negotiated peace settlement based on federalism. While not necessarily mutually exclusive, they are nonetheless hard to rationalise emotionally and politically across the spectrum of Myanmar society and politics. It is also hard to make them sync in practical terms with specific short-term reforms. People have different experiences of resistance during the 53 years of Tatmadaw rule, and that is hard to overcome in terms of finding a path forward for political change. Such tensions raise all sorts of “chicken-or-egg” conundrums, such as whether there can be constitutional reform or decentralisation before a peace agreement lays out a federal future.

A gradual evolution

People have different experiences of resistance during the 53 years of Tatmadaw rule, and that is hard to overcome in terms of finding a path forward for political change. Such tensions raise all sorts of “chicken-or-egg” conundrums, such as whether there can be constitutional reform or decentralisation before a peace agreement lays out a federal future.

Framed against the country’s experiences since 2010, it is useful to focus on what is feasible for the country in terms of transitioning to what can be understood as normal, or at least a path to normalisation, among such a wide variety of political and social interests. At a minimum, Myanmar’s peers in Southeast Asia have rudimentary control over their territories, are able to provide basic governance and social services, and to grow an economy based on legitimate sources of income that can lift the wider population out of poverty. They may be autocracies and have illicit economies but not enough to result in global condemnation and isolation.

With time, it is hoped Myanmar might even grow a healthier sense of nationalism that dissuades widespread insurrection. Perhaps a shared sense of what is normal and a palpable sense of progress towards it is the only way to overcome such massive ethnic, religious and social divisions. What normalcy means and how to achieve it are obviously major challenges, but what seems clear is that within the country there is an immense amount of hope for change and exceptional levels of pragmatism and patience.

Outsiders have tended to romanticise or sensationalise the country to the extreme, for better or worse, and in terms of defining what should be expected for the future. Within Myanmar, more moderated hopes are prominent. It is from a greater sense of these expectations from within that the country’s transition should proceed.

‘Revolution without losers’

As the transition was beginning, The Economist remarked that framed against the violence concurrently unfolding in the Middle East’s Arab Spring, Myanmar’s historic flux appeared to be progressing as a “revolution without losers.” Rather than abrupt, seismic change, most stakeholders accepted that gradual evolution was needed from Tatmadaw dictatorship to something else, roughly democratic and market-oriented, and with greater accommodation of the country’s diversity. Simply, it just wanted to be another normal Southeast Asian country, generally trending for the better but with the ups and downs of everybody else too.

This observation often escaped outsiders, who generally had grand expectations of quick change, be it economic, political or for a peace deal. Domestically, however, the stark prospects of quick revolution, with winner take all, seemed to have lost their appeal. When Daw Aung San Suu Kyi famously said she was just a Myanmar politician rather than a global icon for democracy, it was a plea for acceptance of her relative normalcy as NLD leader and legislator. It was at least a hope to be left alone to get on with what she wanted to do most – reform Myanmar rather than save the world.

Her parameters for what was needed and possible were defined by Myanmar’s domestic politics and using her political capital to widen and shape the confines of the 2008 Constitution. The global accolades certainly were not turned down, but one would be hard-pressed to show that she was driven primarily by achieving global fame rather than securing a better future for her country. Many Nobel laureates have enjoyed lucrative lives dispelling wisdom around the world, but she chose to stay home. It’s worth remembering that.

Even the military has its complexes about what it means to be normal. Since its earliest days, the Tatmadaw has gnawed at what could best be understood as an inferiority complex. Shortly after independence, KNU insurgents nearly succeeded in capturing Yangon, and the Kuomintang incursion from China in 1949 onwards left large parts of the country under foreign control. This surely deepened a sense of weakness and inadequacy that manifest itself brutally over time as the Tatmadaw undertook autocratic control over the country. Its fear of secession and maintaining national unity appear as traits that were deeply entrenched in its identity in these early years.

More recently, reading its White Paper setting out defence policy, one is struck by the sense of it wanting to shed the toxic abnormality of its modern history and become a ‘professional’ fighting force, at least as it defines one. It’s telling that one of the first reform areas that international agencies succeeded in engaging the military over was preventing child soldiers. Self-respecting militaries simply do not partake of such wretched practices.

Economic growth above all

More significantly for the Tatmadaw, an economic rationale for change has been primary: normalcy means economic growth more than anything else. The refrain among the country’s elite in the 2000’s that they were “tired of being poorer than Laos” was grating. As that decade had worn on, the Tatmadaw recognised that over-dependence on China and the risks of outright economic collapse in much of the country were an existential threat.

Perhaps most significantly, the country’s complexes about wanting to be normal extend to its most odious event of recent years. The mass exodus of Muslims from Rakhine State that began in August 2017 understandably provoked global outrage. Many were aghast that so much of the country’s leadership and public seemed ambivalent about the plight of the Rakhine Muslims.

Rather, what was striking was the country’s resentment of the term “genocide.” There are few words that have such uniquely negative connotations for a country. It grated across Myanmar’s political spectrum because it placed the country, again, as a global outcast facing scorn around the world. Even for Myanmar people who saw the Rakhine crisis as the fault of the Tatmadaw and requiring punishment, it was hard not to resent the global accusation as it risked superseding all the positive changes that were unfolding or at least being sought.

The point of this observation is not to condone the actions of the Tatmadaw or lower expectations of positive change by the NLD and Daw Aung San Suu Kyi. Instead, it is simply meant highlight the grossly myopic hopes of the international community for the country in the early years of the transition that were based on perceptions of the exceptional. This was particularly true for the West, as they personalised their hopes for the country in Daw Aung San Suu Kyi, whose near deification in the West was ultimately counter-productive for the country. The expectations never could have been met.

It is hard to see Myanmar as normal, but it is normalising in many important ways. There are numerous reasons to let cynicism and doubt drive understanding of the country because there are still massive problems unfolding and even escalating, such as the Rakhine crisis and the narcotic drugs trade. This just serves to remind outsiders that more pragmatic expectations for the country are needed. Myanmar is working through a managed process that leaves it far short of being a full democracy.

The Tatmadaw designed it so that they could manipulate the pace and scope of change in the country. That reality shapes everything. Myanmar’s present reality is a story of five decades of military dictatorship and about seven to eight years of conditioned reforms.

Prospects remain cloudy

Within these wider considerations, the prospects for changing Myanmar – its intentions, successes and failures, and prospects for the future – remain cloudy. The sheer complexity of the country and the entrenched dysfunction stemming from a modern history defined by early failed efforts to establish democracy and decades of military dictatorship mean there is no quick fix of singular moments of massive change. This means questioning grand plans that have become entrenched behind international support for the country, for instance, that a single peace process is feasible or that the constitution can be quickly amended or replaced.

Rather, what is called for is patience and the celebration of relative normalcy in all its boring forms, like planning and budgeting, building new roads and ensuring garbage collection, and nudging an economy forward that was stuck between the socialist planning of the 1960s and the crony capitalism endemic after the 1988 coup. The exceptionalism of the country was over-sold for too long, defining the unattainable. Celebrating normalcy does not mean accepting dysfunction and mediocrity, just more thoughtful, grounded expectations of what is possible, of what is going to be an extended process, i.e., slow but steady change in many reform areas.

For those who believe in liberal democracy, within the country and across the world, there is an onus to help Myanmar’s elected government show that it can govern. Namely, Myanmar’s public needs to believe that democracy can lead to normalisation of their lives, most simply represented by economic growth, international acceptance, increasingly representative government, and improved living standards freed from an overtly autocratic state. The best leverage elected governments have against the military is proving their competence to govern and deliver the essential changes the public desires most – jobs and poverty alleviation, stability and progress toward peace, basic infrastructure such as roads and bridges, and improving social services like health and education.

Affecting Myanmar’s domestic prospects is also the reality that the last decade has been distinctly abnormal times for the whole world – the rise of autocratic populism, rising geo-political tensions between China and the US, economic flux and technological revolution, and now a historic pandemic. If Myanmar’s transition had started a decade or two earlier, it might have achieved different results or at least been in better sync with the times. For instance, it might have captured some of the market pioneered by the “Asian Tigers” and the geopolitics might have been more conducive to international cooperation in Myanmar.

Rather, economic-growth options have moved on, great power geopolitics have intensified, and the international system is weaker and widely questioned. The UN is weaker and divided by squabbling powers. There is resentment within developing countries over what is perceived as lopsided application of international justice.

No magic solution

A lot of our conceptual framework that helped set and define international support now seems archaic and misplaced in Myanmar, stuck as they are in the early 2000s of state-building around liberal democracy. Simply put, there is no magic paradigm for understanding Myanmar; it is too complex. A single peace process and a couple of elections were never going to change the country.

When there are indeed exceptional things happening – both good and bad but which obfuscate the wider trajectory of the country – there is a need to re-establish a framing of the country that is healthier and more grounded in what is possible rather than what was and is simply wished. Namely, what is the target for change when everything seems so problematic and exceptional? It must be some sense of normalcy relative to what is possible for Myanmar.

The country is searching for a semblance of normalcy, mostly benchmarked against the relative successes and failures of its regional neighbours in Southeast Asia. Rather than crossing a clear threshold whereby the country is blessed with normalcy, it means working methodically to untangle the messy, convoluted knot that is Myanmar’s governance, politics and economics bit by bit and being patient and thoughtful throughout the process. This is a transition of normalisation, and given all things considered, Myanmar is progressing in important ways but with risks of regression looming.

Matthew Arnold formerly served as the Asia Foundation’s representative in Myanmar. He holds doctoral and master’s degrees from the London School of Economics and Political Science.

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