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Creating a sustainable democracy in Myanmar

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The gate to the massive compound of Myanmar's parliament building in Naypyitaw   © Reuters

As Myanmar heads toward a historic general election in November, many will be judging the pace and scope of the country's democratic reforms. 

     We need first to compare the Myanmar of today with the Myanmar of just four or five years ago, when the country was under military dictatorship, with severe restrictions on the media and on Internet access; when gatherings of more than five people were prohibited; when international trade was tightly controlled; and only a tiny fraction of people had access to mobile telephones.  

     Now there is a substantial political freedom, to a degree unparalleled over the preceding half century. People's living standards are rising; a peace process with the country's many ethnic armed groups is underway; and mobile telecommunications are spreading faster than anywhere else in the world.

     The difference between now and then is stark, and the big changes that have taken place are all pointing in the right direction. A fundamental shift away from authoritarian rule has taken place in Myanmar's politics and economy, without bloodshed and without the descent into chaos we have seen in other countries such as Syria and Libya. 

Don't judge too soon

We must judge where we are now against global experience, and not hold an idealized or romanticized view that expects democracy to appear overnight in Myanmar.

     Some are not satisfied with the progress so far. Many set their hopes very high. I am also not satisfied. And I know that President Thein Sein also wishes that change could come faster. We all want a genuinely peaceful country; we want more rapid improvement in basic living conditions; the creation of more jobs and an increase in incomes. We want everyone, particularly women, children, the disabled, the elderly and war veterans, to enjoy greater and equal opportunities. We want an end to racial and religious discrimination, economic inequality and corruption, and we want shared prosperity But these things are not all going to happen overnight. A tree that has just been planted will not produce fruit immediately. We need patience and practical ideas on how to move forward, not negative thinking because miracles did not happen.

     I believe we are on a sustainable path to peace, prosperity and democracy, and that some of the hardest shifts away from authoritarianism and a closed economy have already taken place. That those shifts occurred owes much to brave decisions and leadership by the president.

Just the beginning

After four years of pushing reform in all directions, we understand well the challenges ahead. Foremost are issues of institutional capacity and mindset -- people not knowing how to break free of the habits of a lifetime under authoritarian rule. The government, along with nongovernmental organizations and international parties trying to help Myanmar, have all had to grapple with this constantly since reforms began in 2011. Many more years of work lie ahead.

     For now, this dual dynamic still exists: Many in public office still have a mindset formed under authoritarianism and believe they have all the answers, while those accustomed to being in political opposition, without any experience of government, are happy to simply criticize and offer no real analysis or practical recommendations.

     We should remember what Singapore Prime Minister Lee Hsien Loong said in a eulogy to his late father, Lee Kuan Yew, in reference to his efforts at nation-building:

     "In many countries, anti-colonial fighters and heroes would win independence and assume power, but then fail at nation-building because the challenges of building a nation and growing the economy and improving peoples' lives are very different."

     In Myanmar, the culture of opposition is strong, while efforts at practical policymaking and implementation are weak. Building a 21st-century Myanmar will take time, especially because it must be done not only peacefully but in a way that leaves no one behind. In every sector, we simply do not have adequate numbers of people to build such a society. Working with what manpower we have, grappling with limited capacity and mindsets, has been challenging to say the least.

     People need to connect their desire for a democratic system with their own daily actions. We should note what former Indian President A.P.J. Abdul Kalam said: that people tend to blame those in office but "rarely connect the state of the country to their own actions." Indeed, the same people who are generous with their blame may be the same ones who throw rubbish on the streets, avoid taxes and ignore traffic rules, for example. We need broad societal reform, a cultural change, and that will take a generation.

     Much has already been achieved. We are in the midst of a peace process not just with one but with at least 16 ethnic armed groups. This is a process that is attempting to build trust not after a few years of war but after 60 years of armed conflict. The Oct. 15 signing of a historic nationwide ceasefire agreement with eight of the groups has paved the way for political talks that will build on this precious momentum.

Economic challenges

All the while, we are working to reform the economy and improve living standards for Myanmar's entire population of at least 51 million people. During the past four years, according to the International Monetary Fund, gross domestic product per capita has increased by more than 20% from $1,000 to $1,270. We have taken numerous steps, from currency reform to public-sector financial reform, to bring about greater macroeconomic stability.

     Before, few in Myanmar had ever heard of the Extractive Industries Transparency Initiative, a global standard for accountable management of natural resources. Now, after meeting stringent criteria, Myanmar has become a candidate for full membership. Before, even fewer knew of the Open Government Partnership, a multilateral initiative to promote transparency and greater civic participation in government. Now we are working to join. Similarly, ideas about responsible investment and corporate social responsibility were entirely alien in the "old" Myanmar, now they are integrated into our day-to-day policy work.

     Corruption is still a major problem but we are making inroads. We are attracting billions of dollars in new investment, not least because of the successful and transparent awarding process for licenses for telecoms and oil and gas exploration. All this is helping us set the foundations for future growth. We owe much to the lifting of Western sanctions, as well as to the hard work of many in government and across society to improve economic relations with the outside world.

     A major challenge ahead, in creating a truly democratic Myanmar, is the weakness of institutions including but not limited to those of government. These are institutions that developed under 26 years of the "Burmese Way to Socialism" and 24 years of military-controlled administration. There is a need to fix virtually everything in every sector. 

     On Nov. 8, we plan to hold free and fair elections. For the first time ever, international observers have been invited. It is consistently said that these elections will be critical for the success of Myanmar's democratic transition. We have seen many challenges, not least problems with voter rolls, arising from a lack of experience and technical capacity.

     For the elections to succeed, it will be crucial for all parties and individuals to follow relevant laws and regulations. The elections will not be perfect but they must be credible and reflect popular will. Everyone must then accept the results.

     Holding free and fair elections and ensuring that the results are respected is an unqualified responsibility of this government. I know our place in history will be decided in the coming weeks.

     We have come this far because of the work, often jointly, between the government, our civil society and our international friends. Democratic Myanmar is like a child who has just started to walk. We need to remember where we have come from and how far we have come, and we welcome constructive criticism. But we also need the world to be patient with us if this transition is to be sustainable, and we need the stamina to see through what will still be many years of hard work ahead.

Soe Thane is a Union minister in the Office of the President of Myanmar and a key economic adviser. 

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