Tuesday, April 17, 2018

Why Is Democracy Stalled In Myanmar (Burma)?

Suu Kyi is just a politician, not a saint as people once thought.
Myanmar State Counsellor Aung San Suu Kyi (left) unfairly takes the brunt of the blame for the nation’s stalled democracy. Nobel Peace Prize laureate Aung San Suu Kyi has served as state counsellor of Myanmar since 2016. Although she is essentially prime minister, the country’s struggle to build a democracy seems to have stalled.

There is only bad news out of Myanmar, according to Western news reports. Endless sobering articles tell about the persecution of the Rohingya minority, the flight of refugees to Bangladesh, corruption in the courts, ethnic cleansing, repression of journalists, violence by Buddhists and the murder of a top Burmese Muslim adviser to the government.

Critics argue that Suu Kyi lacks the conviction to do what is required to create a modern, stable progressive democracy. However, that is almost surely wrong. Suu Kyi’s life story paints a wholly different picture. Her character was forged by the assassination of her father, her work at the United Nations, her house confinement for 15 years as a political prisoner, and the assassination attempt on her that left countless supporters dead or injured.

For 30 years, Suu Kyi has led the fight for democracy in Myanmar. What she lacks is not courage or commitment to democratic values but the institutional capacity to move the country faster toward such goals. By law, the military still holds one-fourth of the seats in Parliament. More than a half-century of dictatorial misrule by the military took a heavy toll on Myanmar.

What was once one of the best-educated nations in Asia is now one of the least educated. What was once one of the richest nations in Asia is now one of the poorest. What was once a colony brave enough to demand its independence from the British Empire is now a timid country terrorized by decades of repression. The risk that the country’s military might again assert full control over the government seems to hover just off-stage.

Suppose that, in a fledgling democracy, for most of the past three decades the universities were closed, government-perpetrated violence was common, the teaching of political science was forbidden, and vast numbers of children were denied even a basic education. What would that mean? One would expect democratic impulses to be stunted and for it to be very difficult to pursue democratic ideals effectively. That is precisely what has happened in Myanmar.

I have spent the past four months teaching as a Fulbright scholar at the University of Mandalay, in Myanmar’s second largest city. Mandalay is roughly the size of San Antonio, in a country the size of Texas, but with more than twice the population.

The University of Mandalay law school is ranked as the best in Myanmar. However, a visitor cannot help but notice that the library is meager and poorly lit, that parts of the campus crumble in ruins, that birds fly through dusty classrooms even when courses are in session, and that almost the entire middle tier of law faculty is missing.

There are a few experienced, older law professors who survived many decades of military rule and who are reassuringly future-minded. There are also many very young law faculty members — newly minted Ph.D.s who are bright and eager but inexperienced.

Between those two extremes, there is almost no one on the law faculty. That missing generation is the one that grew up when the universities were closed and the teaching of dangerous subjects was forbidden.

(Blogger’s note: Most of the bright ones of that generation, me and my younger brothers’ generation – nearly 8 million educated Burmese men – have exiled and are now living in foreign countries. One unfortunate result of that exodus is the sheer number of unmarried Burmese women – nearly 8 million old-bachelorettes - abandoned by those men, and Burma’s population now stalling at under 60 millions.)

The absence of the faculty middle tier means that much of the professional wisdom and courage that comes with experience is missing from the law school. There is no easy way to fill that void. It will simply take time to develop the strengths that are missing. That includes many skills that are indispensable to a strong democracy, such as independent thought, free expression, passionate advocacy and insistence on honest practices.

Suu Kyi needs a heavy security whenever she visits Arakan.
Experienced Western observers of the Myanmar government say that Suu Kyi faces the same problem. The middle tier of governmental talent is missing. There is no experienced cohort of potential leaders that has grown up under even a weak democratic regime.

The country lacks institutional capacity to move faster toward full democracy. Absent are the wisdom, experience and courage that come from getting a strong basic education, attending good colleges and universities, reading a free press and living in a democratic society.

There is nevertheless some good news. The work to build stronger political and civic institutions in Myanmar continues in many ways.

Interested students and activists regularly pack the U.S.-funded Jefferson Center in Mandalay and the American Center in Yangon to hear speakers, read books, use the internet and meet other reform-minded people.

In my classes, students study the importance of ethics in public life and discuss threats to democracy around the world. They also write papers about the opportunities for building stronger democracies and make class presentations about how to use law to fight corruption in government, education and the professions. They discuss the comparative merits of free trade and protectionism.

The young Burmese faculty members who recently presented papers at a conference celebrating the 25th anniversary of the University of Mandalay’s law school addressed important topics, such as human rights, shareholder remedies, environmental law, the status of women and the rights of children.

In Naypyidaw, the Myanmar’s capital, I conducted three training sessions for roughly three dozen progressive members of Parliament about critical issues facing their country. The topics included rule of law, judicial independence and international trade law. Rather than skip these evening programs sponsored by the National Democracy Institute, which is funded by the U.S. State Department, the parliamentary members listened carefully to my translated talks and attentively studied my slides, which had been converted into Burmese. They grilled me with questions to make sure they understood my arguments.

Building an effective democracy takes time, especially when anti-democratic forces are strong and recent history has been brutal. The United States needs to continue to engage with the people of Myanmar and to support their best hopes for the future.

Those hopes are real. One can see that on the faces of the Burmese people on the vibrant streets, on the university campuses and in the market. They know that democracy is much better than dictatorship and prefer global connections to isolation.

At least in the cities, everyone has a cellphone and a Facebook account. While cars are too expensive for most people, electric and gas scooters are fairly ubiquitous. Looking at the people using their phones and riding often two, three or four to a scooter, it is clear that they are happy. They know how far they have come in the past few years, and they want the future, not the past.

However, there is no quick fix for the harm that was done by 50 years of oppressive military rule. Developing effective democratic institutions is a slow process, even in the best of times. Meanwhile, the United States must make a strong investment in Myanmar by developing the important bridges that come from increased trade, tourism, educational exchange and diplomatic support.

The Burmese people deserve that.

(Vincent R. Johnson is South Texas Professor of Law at St. Mary’s University and a Fulbright scholar at the University of Mandalay, Myanmar. The Fulbright program is America’s flagship international educational exchange program.)

Universities were closed for many years during the Socialist- military dictatorship.