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Democracy is fragile, even more when it is half baked

Myanmar was controlled by military for half a century (1962-2011) until democratic reforms led by Suu Kyi ended military rule. The 2015 General elections of Myanmar were the first openly contested elections since 1990.

ATANU BISWAS | New Delhi |

In an article written in September, Sebastian Strangio, the Southeast Asia Editor of The Diplomat, wrote: “History could well end up recording Myanmar’s 2020 election – its second since the country’s transition from open military rule – with an asterisk affixed.” The November 8 election of Myanmar was held in the backdrop of active civil conflicts and also amid the shadow of Covid-19 in one of the world’s weakest health systems. There was little doubt that Aung San Suu Kyi’s National League for Democracy (NLD) was destined to sweep the Buddhist-dominated ethnic Burman heartland in the poll, but possibly many in the ethnic minority states have grown sceptical about the NLD’s ability to represent and advance ethnic minority concerns during the last few years. However, Strangio certainly couldn’t envisage that the poor country would again get into the total grip of the Tatmadaw, the all-powerful military, after the election.

After a decade of gradual, albeit limited, political opening, Myanmar’s military has now seized power after detaining Suu Kyi and other democratically elected leaders through a coup d’etat. The army alleged the recent landslide victory by NLD was marred by fraud.

In his inaugural speech, Joe Biden famously said “Democracy is fragile.” Certainly, Biden was referring to the Capitol Hill vandalisation of January 6. The solid foundation and institutional protection of the age-old American democracy could, however, save itself. But what might happen to a half-baked democracy without the support of such a rock-solid foundation can be exemplified by two Southeast Asian neighbours – Thailand and Myanmar. If democracy is fragile, a half-baked one is even worse, for sure.

Myanmar was controlled by military for half a century (1962-2011) until democratic reforms led by Suu Kyi ended military rule. The 2015 General elections of Myanmar were the first openly contested elections since 1990. The 1990 election was, in fact, invalidated by the military. But it was not democracy that was restored in Myanmar, not in the true sense of the term. According to the militaryframed 2008 National Constitution, 25 per cent of the seats in both houses of parliament, and in the Regional Assemblies and State Assemblies as well, are appointed by the military, while the remaining 75 per cent are open for voting. Assuming that the military-backed Union Solidarity and Development Party (USDP) would get the support of all the militaryappointed parliamentarians almost certainly, any other party or coalition would need at least a two-thirds majority among the voting seats to form a government. Again, there was little doubt that in Myanmar while the government was apparently run by Suu Kyi’s NLD party during the last five years, the presence of the military was always felt.

In fact, NLD won a landslide in Myanmar in 2015. Possibly taking a lesson from the Burmese exercise, Thailand, in turn, made the task harder for its political parties when the military-drafted Thai constitution of 2017 bestowed the power of appointing one-third of total parliamentarians to the military. Thus, in Thailand, a political party or alliance would need a three-fourths majority in the seats open for voting to form a government. And, in effect, in the multi-party system of Thailand, a fragile coalition era became inevitable.

The so-called quasi-democracies in Thailand and Myanmar were similar in nature, both backed up by strong military presences. Some might prefer to call the democracies of Myanmar (before the coup, of course) and Thailand semi- or hybrid democracies. However, democracy can’t be established with a bayonet in one hand. Thus, Myanmar or Thailand basically aimed to have postmilitary regimes where the presence of military could be felt everywhere in society and the administration. Understandably, these semi-democracies are bound to be extremely unstable, and would tend towards some sort stability in course of time. The equilibrium points are, of course, unknown.

For example, in the presence of multiple parties and one-third presence of the military in the legislature, and a retired Royal Thai Army general officer serving as Prime Minister, Thailand was effectively in the grip of the military from the beginning of its half-baked democracy. Thailand, however, experienced long protests during the pandemic, and thus became a centre of international attention in the recent past. The long Thai protests, beginning in early 2020, were mostly carried out by students and young people without an overall leader. Although they were demonstrations against the government of Prime Minister Prayut Chan-o-cha initially, later they included the unprecedented demand of reforming the Thai monarchy. And as Prayut’s administration began to be viewed as increasingly untenable, rumours about the possibility of a military coup gathered steam. The future of Thailand, its monarchy, and its hybrid democracy are still uncertain, and we possibly need to monitor how the country evolves in the days ahead.

The situation in Myanmar is a bit different, mostly due to the fact that Suu Kyi’s party could get the required majority in the 2015 elections. In the 2020 elections, the NLD could expand the wings of its power further. Thus, the present coup by the Tatmadaw may be an attempt to tighten its grip. As expected, international reactions to the Myanmar crisis are sharp. The United Nations has condemned the coup. Also, it’s a first major test of the new US president’s pledge to collaborate more with allies on international challenges, and he found a rare policy alignment between Democrats and Republicans as they joined in denouncing the coup. Biden condemned the military’s takeover from the civilian-led government as “a direct assault on the country’s transition to democracy and the rule of law,” and threatened restoring sanctions on Myanmar that were removed after its transition to democracy. As an initial reaction, India voiced condemnation of the “deeply disturbing” developments in Myanmar and said democracy must be upheld. Incidentally, China neither condemned the coup nor expressed any concern.

Suu Kyi, who spent nearly 15 years in detention between 1989 and 2010, became a beacon of democracy and also won the Nobel Peace Prize in 1991. However, during the last few years, her international reputation suffered severely as she refused to condemn an army crackdown on the mostly Muslim Rohingya minority.

Democracy is not all about elections. Suu Kyi’s action (or inaction) in the Rohingya issue, keeping mum regarding the incidents in Rakhine province, which, in effect, have created a huge humanitarian problem in Myanmar and in neighbouring countries, and also her embracing the half-baked democracy which might have given her some political power, have not only damaged the image of the Nobel laureate in the international community, but also made the hybrid democracy of Myanmar even weaker.

For the time being, there are multiple asterisks affixed on Myanmar’s bid for democracy. Tens of thousands of protesters demonstrated in the streets of Myanmar’s capital Naypitaw, Yangon comes out on the streets despite curfew. Protesters marched in major cities and smaller towns across the country in defiance of a ban on gatherings in some areas. But, as of now, the poor country has miles of political instability to encounter.

The writer is Professor of Statistics, Indian Statistical Institute, Kolkata.