Reshmi Banerjee reviews Nehginpao Kipgen’s new book on Myanmar’s transition.
The transition from an authoritarian regime to a democratic polity has never been an easy one. A constant tussle to retain positions of power and authority has often overshadowed the willingness to listen to the unheard voices of the masses. Every developing country has its own story of transformation to tell, its own trajectory to traverse. Myanmar is not an exception. Nehginpao Kipgen tries to unravel the processes and circumstances that contributed to the democratic transition in Myanmar. He also explains the role that civil society, elites, external agencies and institutions have played as harbingers of this change. The author seeks to answer the main question as to what prompted the opposition groups (led by the NLD and the ethnic parties) to be involved in a negotiated transition with the military dominated government. Theoretical debates (on democratization, democratic transition and democratic consolidation) combined with elite interviews (leaders of political parties, academics, civil society groups, diplomats and representatives of ethnic minorities) make the author’s account of this transition interesting and thought-provoking. The book reveals that the transition in Myanmar is being systematically implemented not by removing the military but in accordance with the military’s seven step road map towards a ‘disciplined and flourishing democracy’. Thus, the activation of the transition process occurred only when a new institutional framework ensured a place for the military, thus leading to a pragmatic compromise.
Nehginpao Kipgen’s book begins with a detailed account/literature review of different theoretical conceptions of democratisation. This is followed by a detailed explanation of the different phases of political developments in the country since Independence, namely the Parliamentary democracy period (1948-1958) and the institutionalisation of military rule (1962-1989). The failure of the BSPP’s (Burma Socialist Programme Party) economic policy in the 1980s, student protests, political turmoil, resignation by government employees followed by coercive cohesion of the SLORC (State Law and Order Restoration Council) are all discussed. The operational space of civil society got increasingly limited. The author further analyses in each chapter the status and relevance of the democratizing agents in the transition process.
Nehginpao Kipgen states that civil society is important as it provides the space for engagement with the state for democratic change. Under the AFPFL (Anti-Fascist People’s Freedom League) post-independence, the government not only co-opted professional and social organisations but internal crises within the party as well as conflict with the communists and other armed insurgencies made the task of sustaining a vibrant civil society extremely difficult. Mass organisations became extensions of state power. Under BSPP leadership after the 1962 coup, government exercised control over all private and educational institutions with the termination of individual rights and restriction on domestic and foreign travel. All professional organisations were either re-structured or abolished with the imposition of censorship on both foreign and domestic media.
Ironically, the space for civil society groups opened up under the SLORC, evident from the introduction (for the first time in three decades) of a multi-party system. NGOs and INGOs were able to reach out to the refugee population along the Thai-Myanmar border, providing both formal and vocational skill training. The functioning of key civil society players was visible: ceasefire areas witnessed organisations like the Mon Women’s Organisation providing income generation and literacy skills training, socio-political organisations were formed by ethnic groups (Chin, Kachin, Karenni, Kuki, PaO, Shan) and religious institutions (both Buddhist and Christian) emerged, providing free hostels and free extra-tuition. The expansion of social networks materialized on account of Cyclone Nargis, providing even more opportunity for civil society groups to become active. Coinciding with the 2008 Constitution (which recognized the role of civil society in the political process), student activism including coordination with activists in exile and the use of media were all instrumental in creating an environment of change. But despite these changes, the author contends that civil society was still not vibrant enough to have been a triggering factor for the transition in the country.
Like civil society, elites can also be of various kinds: social, religious or political in nature. The decisions of elites (including what decisions they take as well as how and where they take them) impacts democratisation. Personality driven politics in Myanmar has been the norm. U Nu’s ability to bring together people with divergent ideas was his strength but his inability to delegate powers, lack of experience in both administrative and executive tasks, failure to follow up on several critical projects along with a lack of democratic system within his AFPFL party created challenges. Ethnic minority elites with competing political interests also weakened the U Nu government.
Nehginpao Kipgen observes that internal divisions were prevalent both within the military elites as well as within the civilian elites. This is evident by the fact that Ne Win used multiple tactics and strategies including arrest and imprisonment to tackle the threats he faced. The end of the BSPP era provided some of the civilian elites a chance to form an interim government but again creating a united front was a challenge. The internal divisions within the military persisted under the SLORC and the SPDC governments. Military intelligence (MI) continued to act as a separate entity (although it was technically under the army) and divisions existed amongst the regional commanders. Each group was busy increasing its number of supporters, with mid-level officers being forced to align with either of the groups. Internal differences, however, did not result in a major split within the military elites.
The author points out that the role of elites is important in a democratic transition if that process is initiated and directed by the elites of the dominant party. Thus, in Myanmar, it was only after the military embedded itself in politics (through the seven-step road map and the 2008 Constitution) that it reconciled with the NLD and the ethnic minority groups. Although the NLD elites and the ethnic minority based parties were divided, the democratic icon Aung San Suu Kyi (representative of the broader democratic opposition elite) continued to be a rallying point in this transitional phase.
External agencies also played a part in the democratic transition. The book covers the processes through which the United States and the European Union imposed restrictions on the country, with the belief that it would lead to the collapse of the regime. Sanctions were also a means to isolate Myanmar (by boycotting meetings or by non-engagement in any official bilateral activities). The United Nations also passed non-binding resolutions, urging the government to respect the will of the people, initiate substantive dialogue with the opposition groups including the ethnic minorities and build an inclusive transition process. The engagement nature of the offices of the Secretary General was used and the UN Security Council called on the Myanmar government to create a conducive environment for national reconciliation. The book also covers the policy of constructive engagement pursued by ASEAN along with China’s engagement and India’s foreign policy shift towards Myanmar.
According to Nehginpao Kipgen, conflicting approaches to western sanctions and engagement by ASEAN, India and China did not help the democratisation process. Business-oriented diplomacy, the lack of unilateral military intervention by the United States and the absence of unanimous support from the Security Council instead emboldened the military regime. It not only refused to transfer power to the elected representatives after the 1990 election but also threatened them with land confiscation. Imposing a ban on educational opportunities, denying people the right to enter monkhood, and declaring political parties illegal were all strategies adopted by the military regime to hold on to power.
Following the 2010 election, the country moved towards Parliamentary democracy. However, this was only after the military had ensured its institutional place in all three branches of the government. The NLD leadership’s desire for power took priority, leading to its uneasy compromise with the military. Nehginpao Kipgen’s book successfully brings forth for the readers some of these difficult decision-making processes and choices which the country has had to make.
The highlight of this book is that it again reiterates the fact that democracy has arrived in Myanmar but with military strings attached. Elites and institutions have both agreed to share the stage with the military remnants in order to forge ahead quickly with their chosen political goals for the future. The sensible separation of civil and military relations (a hallmark of a true democratic system) has not taken shape. The repercussions of it could be felt strongly by the minorities (political, ethnic, liberal and religious) in the future. The book tempts us to ask the question: Is Myanmar ready to completely shed its military legacy or would it be political suicide for the pro-democracy forces to even attempt it in this transitional phase?
Dr. Reshmi Banerjee is a political scientist based in London with specialization in food security, agricultural policies and cross-border studies on North East India/Myanmar. She is currently a Research Fellow in the Institute of Social Sciences, New Delhi. She was previously an academic visitor in the Asian Studies Centre (Programme on Modern Burmese Studies) in St Antony’s College, University of Oxford and a research associate in the School of Oriental and African Studies (SOAS), University of London. She has been a post doctoral fellow in the department of international relations, University of Indonesia and a researcher in the Indonesian Institute of Sciences (LIPI), Jakarta. Reshmi has worked as a fellow in the Rajiv Gandhi Institute for Contemporary Studies, has been a Visiting Professor in the Centre for North East Studies and Policy Research, Jamia Millia Islamia, and has taught in Delhi University and in the University of Indonesia. She has an M.Phil and Ph.D from Jawaharlal Nehru University (JNU), New Delhi and has co-edited two books: Climate Change in the Eastern Himalaya: Impact on Livelihoods, Growth and Poverty (Academic Publishers, 2015) and Gender, Poverty and Livelihood in the Eastern Himalayas (Routledge, 2017).