Dr Nigel Gould-Davies on the world’s newest democracy, Myanmar

Dr Nigel Gould Davies
Dr Nigel Gould Davies

Dr Nigel Gould-Davies a is lecturer in International Relations at Thailand’s Mahidol University and holds a PhD in Political Science from Harvard University. He taught at Oxford University before joining the UK’s Diplomatic Service, where he was Ambassador to Belarus, Head of the Economic Department in Moscow, and Project Director in the Strategy Unit. He later worked in the international energy industry, holding senior government relations roles in Central Asia and Southeast Asia. He taught political science for Johns Hopkins University in Yangon University and he is an Associate Fellow of the Royal Institute of International Affairs.

Dr Nigel Gould-Davies sat down with the Associate Editor of Myanmar: All That Matters Jessica Mudditt to discuss the links between economics and democracy and recent historical trends across the globe.

Myanmar made international headlines last year when the first democratic elections were held in decades after 50 years of military rule. However would you argue that a significant number of countries in recent decades have also gone through similar transitions to democracy – and that it’s just a matter of time until others follow suit?

The global spread of democracy is a recent trend. In 1973 there were only around 30 democracies in the world, most of them Western. That number has since trebled: democracy has spread to every continent, even to regions, such as the Middle East, long considered inhospitable to it. What explains this? There is a strong correlation between democracy and prosperity. Very few rich countries are undemocratic. Of those that are, all but one are major exporters of oil or gas: authoritarian rule is one aspect of the ‘resource curse’. Time and again economic growth has generated pressures for democratization, especially from a growing middle class demanding a say in how it is governed. There have been many examples in Asia over the past 40 years.

But getting richer is not a necessary condition for democratization. India, the world’s biggest democracy, was a poor country for many decades, and democracy has spread among many other poorer countries in recent years –Myanmar, of course, is the most recent example. So other factors besides prosperity can play a positive role. Recently, these have included so-called ‘liberation technologies’ – the internet, social media and smartphones – which have transformed civil society’s capacity for self-organization and mobilization. The external environment is also important: since the end of the Cold War and collapse of communism there has been no anti-democratic superpower.

Can we predict the further spread of democracy? Not necessarily: there are three reasons for caution. First, not all countries that become democratic stay democratic: Myanmar’s neighbor, Thailand, is a case in point. Second, the international environment might become less rather than more favourable to democracy. A rising China and resurgent Russia – if both remain non-democratic – could present new challenges. Extreme, anti-democratic theocratic movements are also mounting terrorist attacks on democratic states. Third, some long-established democratic systems are themselves under pressure. Francis Fukuyama, who in 1989 proposed the famous ‘end of history’ argument that all countries would eventually become market democracies, now worries about ‘political decay’. This reminds us that mature democracies should be neither complacent nor overly didactic: democracy is always an unfinished journey.

Is there anything about Myanmar’s transition that you consider unique or unusual, such as not having a new constitution written?

All countries are unique, but all democratic transitions resemble one another. They are driven by similar forces, dynamics, though their course and outcome vary. Myanmar’s transition is distinctive, though not quite unprecedented, in at least three ways.

First, it began while the regime remained in control. It was not a forced response to mass protests. The main incentives came from outside – the effects of Western sanctions and growing dependence on China – rather than from below. Second, and as a consequence, most of the rules of the new democratic game – the constitution and electoral system– have been written in advance rather than being a subject of real negotiation during the transition process. It remains to be seen whether these rules will be amended: for now, new political forces must govern through a system designed by the old ones. Third, the military was not merely an important element in the previous regime – it dominated. As a result, its presence and influence across key institutions remains strong. This means that creating a stable and effective civil-military relationship may be challenging.

How do transitions typically begin and what are the key characteristics?

Successful authoritarian regimes almost never voluntarily give up power. Why would they? And if elites remain united it is almost impossible for civil society, no matter how brave and committed, to change the regime from below. Instead, transitions typically begin when a critical mass of opinion within the regime recognizes that growing problems demand a reform solution. They judge that the risks of maintaining the status quo are greater than the risks of initiating change. These reformers, or ‘soft-liners’, rarely intend to transform the system. Rather, they introduce limited liberalization in order to restore its effectiveness and legitimacy.

But the recent history of transitions has repeatedly shown that an initial ‘opening’ from above does not remain limited. Civil society typically responds not with gratitude but with demands for further change. This drives the reform process further than its initiators intended, and raises the costs of turning back the clock. Reformers are forced to negotiate more radical changes, while reassuring hardliners within the regime that their core interests –above all, personal safety and wealth – will not be jeopardized. Managing hardliners is an important challenge: they wield the biggest stick, and the shadow of a crackdown can hang over the transition negotiations.

In the best case, these negotiations lead to free elections and a new democratic government. But it may take some time for all significant forces to accept that democracy is the only game in town, and that no feasible alternative now exists. Only when such a consensus is achieved can we say that a democratic transition is consolidated and irreversible.

What are the risks and threats to Myanmar continuing its process of democratisation and how can they be overcome?

Myanmar now has a democratic government, but this democracy is not yet consolidated and stable. It faces an unusually wide set of challenges.

One priority is economic growth and modernization. Myanmar is a poor country that has fallen far behind its neighbors in recent decades. The new government will need to support market development and encourage foreign investment. Experience elsewhere in Asia shows that if you get the fundamentals right – good institutions and policies – then cumulative change can happen quickly. And global experience shows that it is usually better to tackle difficult reforms fast. A newly-empowered population is most willing to bear the pain of reform early on. Failure to drive through needed changes can enable vested interests to resist or manipulate policies for their own ends –a so-called ‘partial-reform equilibrium’ that benefits well-connected insiders rather than the wider population.

For Myanmar there is the additional problem of the ‘resource curse’. If not handled right, the great gifts of nature – abundant hydrocarbon and mineral wealth – can create a distorted and dysfunctional politics that hinders effective institutional development, lowers growth and raises inequality. High transparency and accountability before civil society are essential to prevent this. A Sovereign Wealth Fund to save some portion of the revenues for future generations can also be helpful.

I have already touched on civilian-military relations, and it’s worth saying a bit more. Any democracy must establish stable civilian control over the means of violence. The military must accept that the civilian government sets strategic goals and determines the budget available to the military. The government should in turn grant the military professional autonomy in deciding how to fulfil these goals within the framework of national laws. The military should devote itself to national defence against external threats – and, when authorised to do so, carry out emergency domestic tasks (e.g. disaster relief). It should become a valued expert body, not a political one.

But perhaps the biggest challenge Myanmar faces is the identity politics of its extraordinary ethnic and religious diversity.  Failure to manage such diversity has caused most of the violence and instability afflicting newly-democratizing countries in recent decades. Why is this so? New freedoms of self-expression allow rediscovery, celebration and assertion of local identities. People ask not only the political question ‘what are our rights?’ but the identity question ‘who are we? This can be mischievously exploited by ‘political entrepreneurs’ – demagogues who seek mass support by whipping up hostility towards other groups. An arms race of mutual fear can escalate into conflict.

Against this background, recent progress towards securing a nationwide ceasefire in Myanmar is a very positive development. We must hope that a new Panglong agreement, or something similar, is achieved. Less encouraging has been the growing tension in inter-religious relations. Fundamental to democratic stability is toleration of difference. You need not like your adversary, but you and they must accept that your differences will be resolved by legitimate rules of the game. Tolerance of religious and ethnic differences, no less than political ones, is essential.

What can be done to mitigate the risk of identity conflict?  Representative institutions should be designed to be inclusive: all groups need to feel they have a voice and a stake in the system. Sensitive handling of issues such as customary law, language use, and local symbols can help reassure groups that their culture is respected and secure. Official nationalism, emphasizing the common achievements of all citizens irrespective of ethnicity or faith, can also help to cement a common identity. There is much to learn from neighboring India, the largest democracy in the world, which has managed great diversity remarkably effectively.

In the worst case, a perfect storm of local identities, resource nationalism and chaotic decentralisation could threaten Myanmar’s stability. But global experience shows that good policies can address each of these problems. The new government can therefore choose whether or not to address them effectively.

Myanmar has a vocal civil society – particularly among Facebook users – do you see this as a positive or have some members of civil society overstepped the boundaries of reasonable demands for change?

Freedom of expression is one the great achievements of democratization, but it brings its own challenges. Even stable democracies have difficulty agreeing how to regulate their mass media. The problem is greater in new democracies when an ‘immature information market’ exists. It is magnified when, thanks to social media, everyone can be a source of news – or of rumour, exaggeration and falsehood. These ‘liberation technologies’ which play such a positive role in widening access to information can turn destructive, especially when used to fan flames of identity politics. Tragically, there have been examples of this in Myanmar.

Building the capacity of independent and authoritative news sources can mitigate this. Social media training and codes of conduct can play a role too. These should be priorities for international assistance. But there are no easy answers. How to achieve regulation without censorship, balance the public interest with the right to privacy, and foster a culture of responsible journalism – these are genuinely difficult issues in all democracies.

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