Myanmar’s Transition to Democracy: Is Illiberalism a “Bump in the Road?” By Rachel Risoleo @Brown University
Max Fisher of the New York Times recently noted that although Myanmar was once a beacon of democratic transition from a recently de-militarized state, it is now a “study in how it [democracy] fails.” Myanmar’s brutal crackdown on the Rohingya, the Muslim minority in the Rakhine state of the country, is the most obvious indicator that the state of democracy in Myanmar is not as “hopeful” as it once seemed. However, this horrific ethnic cleansing is not the only barrier to democracy in Myanmar; rather, it is representative of a deeper, systemic problem. Myanmar exemplifies what Fareed Zakaria coined an “illiberal democracy,” a system in which citizens elect their leaders but are not safeguarded by the protection of liberal rights. The notable lack of liberal values and protections in Myanmar can help explain how military rule has managed to continue in the country, even after the arrival of democracy. It additionally illustrates that they country’s democratic figurehead, Aung San Suu Kyi, is not nearly sufficient to truly democratize the state.
Zakaria argues that “democracy without liberalism is not simply inadequate, but dangerous.” Sheri Berman later reiterated this sentiment in a 2017 paper, recognizing that “without the rule of law and other basic liberal protections, democracy can easily lend itself to populist or majoritarian abuses.” Myanmar can technically be defined as a democracy, albeit a young one. It held its first free and fair elections in 2015, and has at least partly transitioned from military to civilian rule. However, the continued existence of social controls against journalists and minorities – and, notably, the ethnic cleansing campaign against the Rohingya population – exemplifies these dangers of illiberalism.
In his paper “Africa’s Waning Democratic Commitment,” E. Gyimah-Boadi notes that the lingering authoritarian political culture and “limited internalization of liberal values” amongst the populace is hindering the robust development of democracy in many African nations. While Myanmar – as a non-African nation – is not specifically implicated in this statement, much of its pervasive illiberalism indeed stems from the lack of general commitment to liberalism. The 2015 Asian Barometer Survey confirmed this hypothesis of widespread illiberal values. It found that although citizens in Myanmar expressed among Asia’s highest support for democracy, they expressed among the lowest support for the “liberal political values that undergird democratic processes.” This finding also further supports the definition of Myanmar as an “illiberal democracy.”
When Aung San Suu Kyi, a notable human rights activist and symbol of democracy in the region, was elected to Parliament in 2012 and became the country’s de facto leader in 2015, she fueled hopes for democracy in the country worldwide (and nationwide). The landslide victory in 2015 of Suu Kyi and her party, the National League for Democracy (NLD), signified the “first free elections in a generation.” Suu Kyi was regarded internationally as a humanitarian symbol not only for her own accomplishments – she was awarded the Noble Peace Prize in 1991 for her pro-democracy efforts in then-Burma – but also for those of her father, who openly advocated for the reconciliation of different ethnic groups in Burma during its fight for independence from British rule. Thus, Suu Kyi’s victory seemed like the long-awaited end to repressive military rule and social inequality in the country.
Although it seemed like a great leap forward for Myanmar’s democracy, the 2015 election and its aftermath posed a threat to the development of democracy. Suu Kyi and her party won a whopping 77 percent of the vote in 2015. The stunning result was surprising to all involved – in hindsight, the party spokesman for the NLD Nyan Win simply attributed this tremendous victory to “residual hatred of the military,” and a desire among the constituency for a truly democratic, civilian government.
Two dangers arose from this whopping victory:
- The stunning show of support for one political party – and widespread adoration for Suu Kyi – threatened to incite the “populist or majoritarian abuses” identified by Berman as a challenge of illiberalism.
- Perhaps less obviously, the election placed a lot of hope on Suu Kyi to transform the country to a democracy. However, the de facto leader did not have nearly the power to do this, and is Constitutionally barred from claiming the official title as President. In 2016, Suu Kyi entered into a power-sharing agreement with the Army that maintained a substantial military role in governance.
Suu Kyi has yet to denounce the military’s popular – and horrific – campaign of terror against the Rohingya population in Myanmar. Thus, she further legitimizes the military’s majoritarian and illiberal approach to governance. Although the military continues to substantially influence governance in Myanmar, it now does so under the guise of Suu Kyi’s civilian regime. This not only hinders democracy, but also actively hurts it, because its blatantly undemocratic actions (read: ethnic cleansing) are legitimized by the “support” of a democratically elected, civilian government.
Wai Wai Nu, a Rohingya rights activist, voiced these concerns that the civilian government’s complicity in the military terror campaign “legitimizes hate.” She says, “Before, it was a military dictatorship so no one believed them when they said awful things. But now it’s the civilian government of Daw Aung San Suu Kyi saying these ignorant things and that legitimizes the hate.” Because of her status as a democratic icon, when Suu Kyi refuses to denounce the military’s campaign of ethnic cleansing against the Rohingya (among other undemocratic and exclusive actions), she actually harms the stability of democracy overall.
Suu Kyi’s image as a harbinger of democracy not only harms democracy by equating liberalism with hate, but also by further disenchanting the populace with the idea of political engagement as necessary to a functioning system. U Thet Swe Win, another political activist, notes that when Suu Kyi was elected, “we thought democracy would fall from the sky, that it would just come…we didn’t know that this is a process that all people have to be involved in.”
The compounding effect of military rule masquerading as civilian rule, coupled with the widespread nature of illiberal values and false sense of democratic legitimacy, has caused Myanmar to “converge on a democratic-authoritarian hybrid, formally knowns as an illiberal democracy.” In her 2017 paper, Berman notes that, historically, illiberal democracy is often a stage on the route to liberal democracy, rather than the “endpoint of a country’s political trajectory.” However, the systemic nature of Myanmar’s illiberalism – along with the ethnic cleansing campaign that has cemented it in the country’s history – indicates that perhaps, for Myanmar, illiberalism is not simply a “bump in the road.”
 Berman, Sheri, “The Pipe Dream of Undemocratic Liberalism”
 E. Gyimah-Boadi, “Africa’s Waning Democratic Commitment.”
 Berman, Sheri, “The Pipe Dream of Undemocratic Liberalism”