In November of 2015, a historic election ushered in Myanmar’s first democratically elected government. This extraordinary change came after 56 years of oppressive rule under a military junta. Notorious for its human rights abuses and labeled “one of the world’s most repressive regimes” by a United Nations Commission on Human Rights report in 2003, the junta forced widespread human trafficking, child labor, sexual exploitation, strict censorship, torture, and political imprisonment, amongst other abuses. When Myanmar’s National League for Democracy (N.L.D.) won a majority in 2015, this signaled a transition away from the hardships imposed by military rule and a shift towards a much-anticipated democracy. After decades of despotism, this idea generated remarkable excitement both within Myanmar and worldwide.
Despite this excitement, a study conducted by Asian Barometer mere months before the elections shows surprising findings: while Myanmar’s citizens exhibit a desire for democracy, they reject its values in favor of authoritarian ideals. This inconsistency has been influential in Myanmar’s transition.
Let’s look at the findings:
1) 72% of Myanmar’s citizens expressed a preference for democracy when asked if “democracy is always preferable to any other kind of government.” This statistic is higher than the six other Asian countries studied that year. Congruently, only 4% expressed preference for an authoritarian government over a democratic one. This number was significantly lower than the other countries studied.
This number explains why the N.L.D. was elected over the incumbent authoritarian regime. However, a secondary part of the study indications an anomaly:
2) When asked questions about their political preferences, only 24% of Myanmar citizens repudiated authoritarian values. This means that a bewildering 76% chose an authoritarian situation over a democratic one when given the option. These situations showed that 72% of the subjects rejected horizontal accountability—the internal checks and balances associated with democratic government—and 73% believed that religious leaders should be consulted in law-making—a value highly associated with theocracy. As the study was conducted in all 14 states and regions, it can be assumed that this statistic is reflective of Myanmar’s 91% Buddhist, 4% Christian, 4% Muslim and 1% Hindu religious makeup. Adding to this, an astonishing 61% of those studied strongly agree that citizenship should be tied to religion. This is especially interesting since lack of citizenship for a religious and ethnic minority group is at the root of the country’s current refugee crisis.
The conflict between the public’s values and democratic ideals has been consequential, causing Myanmar’s democratic transition to hit numerous roadblocks. The government faces mounting international backlash over the public-supported Rohingya crisis in Rakhine, which it has been unable to curtail. Though military rule has ended in theory, officials from the old regime have retained substantial influence in the newly formed government. The military has legal control over the police, national security, and border affairs, giving it (and not the government) substantive power over the Rakhine area. The military also enjoys enough parliamentary seats (25%) to effectively veto any proposed change that goes against its repressive agenda, as any constitutional change requires a ¾ majority vote. The division between the government and modern military has prevented the formation of a unified, democratic government. What has formed has been largely ineffective and while decidedly a step up from military rule, has not yet created a system which benefits from democracy. This is, in large part, because public support is passive and superficial.
Without the full support of the people, democracy cannot flourish. “We thought democracy would fall from the sky, that it would just come,” said U Thet Swe Win, a young activist. “We didn’t know that this is a process that all people have to be involved in.” After fifty years of censorship, isolationism, and controlled education, public attitude and activism must change. Until the public realizes this criterion, Myanmar will remain a fragile state with a floundering democracy.