Burma May Have Elections—but Can It Become a Real Democracy?

A former prisoner of conscience, now the chairman of one of Burma's major opposition parties, on why minority rights are now such a central issue in the country.

A Burmese pro-democracy T-shirt (Roberto Ventre/Flickr)

In a country whose very name is a subject of contention -- Burma or Myanmar? -- I confess that I'm not sure about whether we're actually witnessing democracy sprout up or not. I'm almost 70 years old; I've grown up and spent my life under military rule; and because of that, I've never experienced what it means to have basic democratic rights like freedom of expression, freedom of religion, the freedom to vote (under conditions of fair and honest competition), or the freedom of choice generally in many areas of life that people in democratic states take for granted. If one free vote is held -- and only in some by-elections at that -- does that amount to proof that these rights are secure and active?

The only areas in Burma where you can see towns with electricity, properly paved roads, well-staffed hospitals, industrial zones, universities with qualified teachers, five-star hotels -- and no heavily armed soldiers on patrol -- are in what's called pyima, "the main land" in the center and south of the country.

In the remote "ethnic" areas where people from non-Burman nationalities live, and where modern information technologies don't yet reach deeply, you can breathe fresh air and see mountains; but you can also see children who are malnourished and forbidden to learn in their own native languages in their own local schools. You might also see young women, trying to feed their families, who are being victimized by human traffickers, or citizens who are being displaced, either by force or to escape conflict.


These problems plague Burma's "ethnic" periphery the way that wildfires plague grasslands in the dry season. But despite 60 years of strife and conflict, those seeking to defend the rights and dignity of Burma's ethnic nationalities have remained undaunted and have kept up their fighting spirit. There's been a lot of suffering in the war-torn ethnic states of Kachin, Karen, Karenni, Mon, and Shan, but the people there have not given up hope.

Why is it that those areas where ethnic nationalities are predominant have seen seen such chronic violence through the military dictatorship's many decades in power? The toll has been tragic in every way: People have suffered; many have died; women have been raped; living standards have fallen; children have had to come of age without schooling.

Today, we're seeing some progress toward democracy. But I continue to worry that not all parts of the country will benefit equally from those changes. Still, I am readying myself to assist the cause of reform, not least for the sake of peace. I want to see confrontation diminish and mutual trust grow, and I will do what I can to make both those things happen.

Nobody wants to see democracy triumph more than Burma's ethnic nationalities, who have endured kinds of lifelong suffering that it would be hard for "normal" citizens to imagine. It's a common responsibility of all citizens to promote democracy's principles, to broaden democracy's scope, and to support democracy itself. In order for democracy to arise and become established, and in order for society to stay on the right path, the rule of law must be reinstated throughout the country.

President Thein Sein, the leader of the new administration, is trying to secure ceasefire agreements and to sign national-level peace deals with all armed organizations outside of the Burmese Communist Party. At the same time, members of parliament are calling for a lasting peace. But so far, while top officials from both sides discuss the peace process, regional units of the Burmese armed forces have continued to advance on ethnic territories. It's not a promising sign.

Our national reconciliation process can't be achieved without dialogue -- including political talks. No dialogue, no reconciliation: It's that simple.

It's hard to be sanguine about our political prospects as a country so long as the most influential single force shaping our political future -- namely: the current regime -- remains in denial about the need for dialogue and accommodation. The regime must recognize a right to dissent. The minority must respect decisions made by the majority, and, in turn, the majority must protect the minority's rights.

The Democracy ReportAs long as Burma is a diverse society made up of independent groups and organizations organizations representing different opinions and approaches, meaningful and responsible dialogue will remain essential. Can we shun political dialogue in the hope that merely holding elections will be enough to build democracy in our country?

We can't. Just as military means haven't been the answer to the question of how to build long-term peace, elections alone won't be the answer to the question of how to build a lasting democracy. Whatever specific set of institutional answers to our problems we choose, these answers must reflect the Burmese people's desire to live in an environment characterized by fair treatment and equal opportunity for all.

In any form of democracy, freedom of choice has to be a core attribute. Above all, that's what Burma's ethnic nationalities long for. The Burmese president has said himself that he wants to see ethnic-minority youths using laptops instead of guns.

So let them choose as they wish.

A version of this post, translated by Ma Oo, will appear in the October issue of the Journal of Democracy.