Lessons for Democracy in Myanmar


(Opinions expressed here are those of the author.)

By Sonu Trivedi

With the elections exactly three months ahead, what are the lessons that the current regime may learn from 8888 movement heralded twenty seven years ago? In view of the upcoming elections on November 8, it provides an opportunity for the government to bridge the trust deficit and build a concrete foundation for development of democracy and its consolidation.
Given the troika of challenges the country faces today—political reconciliation and reforms; religious and sectarian violence; and centre-periphery contestations—regime’s survival and return to power will depend upon how meaningfully it addresses these issues. Its appeal to the youth and masses in general and its success in wooing them will determine the future of a just and durable democratic set-up in Myanmar.
Most of the activists who participated in 8888 movement are ‘elders’ leading the pro-democratic forces in Myanmar today. The challenge before the government is to provide an alternative discourse and win over the hearts and minds of the youth at the moment. Engaging them in a constructive dialogue and addressing issues influencing them directly—such as educational reforms, employment avenues, information technology, good governance, poverty alleviation, human rights agenda etc—could have a multiplier effect. As a harbinger of revolution, the younger generation must be taken into confidence for grass-root mobilization and bridging the centre-periphery divide.
The political scenario seems to be in a pandemonium now. USDP is expected to run hard in the elections in view of the tough competition anticipated from NLD, mainly in the ethnically Bamar areas. NLD, on the other hand, though hopeful of its victory, suffers from leadership vacuum.  Given the rising expectations of the people, one of the most significant challenges is to revitalize the party and introduce inner-party democracy, which has long been dominated by the aging political leaders of the 8888 generation. Ethnic based political parties may perhaps, play a greater role in this election in the regions inhabited by ethnic nationalities.  This would significantly increase their bargaining power in the new legislature.
This complex matrix between the three power-centres in post-election Myanmar would shape the formation of a new government in the country and guide the future road-map to Presidency in March 2016.
Subsequent to the rejection of the constitutional amendment procedure by the legislators, all hopes of Daw Aung San Suu Kyi running for the post of Presidency has been dashed off. This puts her into a ‘catch 22’ situation and in the present scenario she is taking on a path of ‘cautious optimism’ supporting the reform process at an incremental level for political restructuring and institution building in Myanmar. Amidst the limited political role she is expected to play in the next Parliament, she needs to take calculated steps in this democratic re-engineering and re-structuring.
Her critics also appear to be at loggerheads for not having come out openly on the issue of worsening sectarian violence. The widening ‘majority-minority’ divide has been an unfortunate development in Myanmar. This historic religious conflict has flared up sectarian violence complicating the socio-religious fabric and aggravating tensions. She appears to have failed to act, given the possibility of alienating voters before the forthcoming elections.
Nevertheless, in this initial phase of democratization, rule of law, internal security, stability and peace must take precedence. It is this attempt at establishing a sustainable democratic order which must be imbibed from the iconic 8888 movement. Any move at this juncture, to hasten the process of transition may result in democratic reversals. It is however, noteworthy that national consensus in Myanmar is gradually emerging and for any significant change to be visible, we need to be patient and follow the ‘middle way’.
Thereby keeping its spirit alive, the 8888 movement may act today as a driving force, transforming the social and political landscape of the country and giving an opportunity to its citizens to reconcile with history. It must be celebrated as an occasion to commemorate the sacrifices of hundreds and thousands of people to ascertain freedom and justice in the country. The lessons from 8888 people’s movement are nonetheless relevant and its spirit still alive. Its legacy is likely to play a significant role in the years to come.

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