Let’s Face It: Democracy in Burma Is Not Inevitable

Political scientist Jay Ulfelder recently posted an interesting analysis of one of my recent articles on Foreign Policy. I generally make a point not to respond to criticism of my work unless there’s a chance for meaningful dialogue. This is definitely one of those chances. In his post, Ulfelder argues that it’s premature to say ...

Soe Than WIN/AFP/Getty Images
Soe Than WIN/AFP/Getty Images

Political scientist Jay Ulfelder recently posted an interesting analysis of one of my recent articles on Foreign Policy. I generally make a point not to respond to criticism of my work unless there’s a chance for meaningful dialogue. This is definitely one of those chances.

In his post, Ulfelder argues that it’s premature to say that the current political transition in Burma is "on the wrong track" unless we’ve figured out precisely what the nature of that transition is. He cites O’Donnell and Schmitter’s classic distinction between "liberalization" and "democratization." Ulfelder believes that what’s happening in Burma more readily fits the liberalization template, and he correspondingly cautions against imposing a wishful democratization narrative on a reality that doesn’t bear the weight of such an assumption.

I think that the difference between us has more to do with the focus of analysis rather than substance. While Ulfelder insists on the importance of drawing a conceptual and analytical distinction between liberalization, which "involves the expansion of freedoms from arbitrary acts of the state and others," and democratization, which "entails the expansion of popular consultation and accountability," I’ve found myself scrutinizing a possible relationship between liberalization and democratization, noting that democracy is one of many possible destinations as a society sets off on the journey away from an authoritarian regime.

I do not at all dispute the important contribution that O’Donnell and Schmitter have made to the transition literature. It’s worth noting that I’ve sometimes characterized Burma’s transition as a liberalization process in some of my previous posts for FP. At one point, back when the new government took power in 2011, I even described the process under way as a "regime-led and supply-side-driven political transition." My recent field research in Burma has even convinced me that the junta initially wasn’t even aiming at liberalization when it made its decision to open up the political system in the aftermath of mass protests led by Buddhist monks in 2007. In fact, it appears that the original plan merely foresaw removing the military from direct political control and placing power fully in the hands of the military-backed party while allowing the military to maintain its veto-wielding power. Liberalization took off only six months after the transition began. The liberalization process that has taken place since then can be characterized, in my view, as an accident, an unanticipated outcome deriving from the complex interactions of rival claimants to the throne. One can even speak, I believe, of the paradox of "liberalization without liberals."

Since I first returned to Burma in late 2012 after 15 years in exile, however, I’ve experienced so many new on-the-ground realities that I’ve found myself compelled to shift the focus of my analysis. I’ve moved away from trying to define the nature of the transition (i.e., liberalization versus democratization) to analyzing its possible direction. Although doing my best to avoid political science jargon, what I’ve tried to argue consistently in my articles is that we really do need to take a closer look at the relationship between liberalization and democratization. The empirical evidence that I’ve observed in Burma’s recent political and economic development strongly supports the conclusion that there is no linear or teleological process from liberalization to democratization.

Liberalization can end in multiple regime types, each characterized by different adjectives. The initial liberalization process often leads to what Fareed Zakaria termed "illiberal democracy" (i.e., a diminished subtype of democracy), as in many Latin American countries in the early 2000s, to "oligarchy" in Russia, or to electoral authoritarianism in Malaysia and Cambodia (i.e., an enhanced subtype of authoritarianism). The question is whether liberalization will reinforce the military’s dominant role in Burma, leading to one of the regime types mentioned above, or whether it will inevitably lead to democratization. I have to confess that I’m quite skeptical about the likelihood of the latter scenario.

In domestic politics, the ruling elites still resort to coercion, but they prefer containment and co-optation: two carrots, even three or four, and then a stick, if necessary. This has been the case, for example, with the Sino-Burmese mining project in Central Burma and recent land rights protests in Yangon. The continuing ethnic conflicts in northeastern Burma, the anti-Muslim riots, and the brutal killings of Rohingya are other obvious examples of how the state is still willing to use coercion to enforce its discriminatory policies. (In the photo above, police provide security as census takers survey a village near Sittwe.)

Meanwhile, the new Burmese government and the military, unlike Than Shwe’s junta, are more sensitive to international donors and investors for many reasons. So the costs that the international community (the "West") can impose on the government and the army are relatively and unprecedentedly high. The government is more sensitive and responsive (at least symbolically) to the international players, who have strong incentives to view Burma’s reforms as a success story amid the chaotic failures of pro-democracy movements in the Middle East and the rest of the world. So the West rewards the government and the military to keep it on "right track," lifting sanctions against the military’s business cronies.

Generally speaking, Western policymakers and observers dealing with Burma tend to speak in terms of "wait and see" or "give them a chance," "some progress is better than nothing" or "don’t exert too much pressure." Meanwhile, the Burmese people continue to experience an overwhelming sense of their own powerlessness. This is an irony of the current hybrid regime in Burma: In some respects we see a high level of popular participation, yet many people still feel that they’re really lacking any sense of genuine political efficacy.

In my reports, I’m trying to offer readers more empirical facts from the ground and analyze them in the light of possible trajectories ahead. I’m increasingly convinced that the process of political opening in Burma is heading towards a particular brand of hybrid regime. In short, it’s high time for us to call a spade a spade: We need to get over the hopeful talk of "democratization" in Burma and recognize that the country is, in fact, undergoing a liberalization process that doesn’t necessarily lead toward liberal democracy.

As I see it, there are three basic groups that have three fundamentally different views: In the view of the authoritarians (the Chinese and old regime hardliners), the predatory state under the old dictator served their interests well, so they long for yesterday. The liberalizers (including both Burma’s current business cronies and Burma’s friends in the West) welcome the space afforded by liberalization, so they live for today. Then there are the ordinary people of the country, who desperately yearn for more find that their path forward is still blocked. So the people of Burma feel that tomorrow does not belong to them.

Min Zin is the Burma blogger for Transitions. Read the rest of his posts here.

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