By Preet Malik*
To try to evaluate a democratic process on a uniform framework is fraught with problems of a structural nature. Just by way of an example, in a farewell call on the then Malaysian prime minister in August 1990, he remarked that “in India, we had too much democracy.”
He was referring to the fact that the opposition could hold up the process of governance in India. In Malaysia, such possibilities were then contained by strong governmental action against any form of opposition to its policies. Myanmar is a case in point. How do you reflect in measureable terms the graduated move towards a democratic system that has to be viewed in positive terms and thus to be shown as an improvement over the past when the military held Myanmar in its authoritarian clasp, while the constitutional construct continues to place major hurdles in the way of attaining full democracy. The issue would remain as to how would one establishes a purely scientific basis for measuring this change.
The 2008 constitution is the basis on which the system of administration that Myanmar today enjoys. The fact that today there is a non-military elected government in place is a very positive development; particularly as this is the first such government in place after 1962. However, this positive is constrained by the provisions of the constitution that places the Myanmar Armed forces as central to preserving the unity and integrity of the nation while significantly placing them outside the control of the civilian authority; and the home or interior ministries are headed by a nominee of the armed forces, ensuring that both domestic and external security remains in the domain of the military.
Accordingly, any measurement of the actual functioning of democracy would have to factor in the overwhelming controls that the military continues to enjoy in the governance of the country. The elected government has flexibility to determine the course of the economy within its programmes for socio-economic development. It has control to a large extent over the direction that it would take on foreign policy and of course the place of Myanmar in international and regional discourse. However on key domestic policy areas like the Rohingya issue, the general issue of communal peace and harmony, reconciliation process with ethnic groups that fall within the purview of security, and on areas of strategic determination, the overbearing role of the armed forces remains centred around the veto over changes or policies that they disagree with.
The question therefore for the FSI is as to how it would determine accurately the weightage it would need to give to the different aspects of the technically limited democracy that has come to prevail in Myanmar. The essential fact is that while accepting the progress made, full democracy is far from being restored to Myanmar. Another significant negative is that the ethnic minority issue remains a key factor to which a solution is still to emerge. This poses a threat to the stability of the country and could become an excuse as it did in the early 1960s to prevalence of democracy.
The union governments, whether democratic or authoritarian, have so far failed to meet the demands and aspirations of the ethnic groups who have claimed that there has been a consistent failure to meet the provisions of the Panglong Agreement in letter and spirit. This has led to armed resistance and exploitation of the situation, particularly by China. The Thein Sein regime succeeded in bringing the groups to the negotiating table with a universal ceasefire as a key component of the negotiations. Significantly, it also succeeded in including the Karens to join the process. However, there are certain key groups that have continued their armed insurrection, encouraged by China. Suu Kyi’s recent visit to China has now resulted in the possibility of these groups also joining the process that the present government is following under the Panglong nomenclature. The key issue is the demand for structural changes that would establish a true federal structure with a significant undertaking on autonomy. This would involve amendments to the constitution that can only happen if the armed forces accept that changes pose no threat to the security and integrity of the country. Again, to satisfy the demands of autonomy, the role of the armed forces in the governance of the states would have to be curtailed if not eliminated. This could pose a serious problem in evolving a solution that would satisfy the ethnic groups.
To conclude, the negatives in Myanmar to a large extent still continue to override the positives. Any true index would have to reflect that the situation remains far from ideal. The challenge posed by the ethnic groups and the systemic change that would have to take place to meet it is an area that imposes itself on any analysis of the direction in which Myanmar is moving. The 2016 FSI has taken these factors into account but the weightage that it would apply to these developments is not quite clear.
* Preet Malik
Former Special Secretary for the Ministry for External Affairs, India, and former Ambassador of India to Myanmar