Development, Democratization, Good Governance and Security: A Case Study of Burma / Myanmar

Sydney Bergen

December, 2012


Since gaining its independence in 1948, Burma has been under authoritarian rule with the military dominating its politics and civil society. Underneath this dictatorship is a fragmented society composed of several different ethnic identities, resulting in endless tensions and conflicts. Due to the totalitarian leadership throughout its history and the resulting repression of its citizens and extensive human rights violations, Burma has faced detrimental sanctions imposed by much of the West. In recent years the government has had to face the harsh reality of its declining economy by compromising its long-standing absolutist military power and policies. The process of gradual reforms is being recognized, although many in the international community remain skeptical of the government's intentions and the actual implementation of these policies for the people of Burma. This case study will look at a historical timeline of governmental phases in Burma focusing on its multi-ethnic nature, current progress in governmental reforms towards democratization with an emphasis on the National League for Democracy's (NLD) leader, Aung San Suu Kyi, and the development of environmental policies (or lack thereof) as an institution of good governance.

One topic to be initially addressed is controversial linguistic references to the country, Myanmar versus Burma. In 1989 the military government officially changed the country's English translation from Burma to Myanmar to represent a society of multi-ethnicities despite continued oppression of these groups. Some nations and groups (including the NLD) repudiate the name change as a refusal to recognize the legitimacy of the military government or its authority to rename the country. The United States, United Kingdom, Australia and Canada are other nations that officially refer to the country as Burma as a political statement; this paper will follow suit in respect for the NLD and its leader, Aung San Suu Kyi.[1]


The authoritarian government of Burma has justified its lengthy and repressive control of the government by emphasizing the sacrifice of individual rights for the overall community and public wellbeing. This totalitarian system has raised conflicts on a multitude of levels considering Burma's ethnically diverse composition. Burma is comprised of over 100 different ethnic groups living within the same borders; the majority of people (68%) consider themselves Burman. The antipathy of the ethnic minorities towards Burmese domination has been a major theme throughout its history and the country's name change is just one example among many. History in school is taught from the perspective of ethnic Burman nationalism and minorities are faced with discrimination and harassment. Many minorities are still denied full citizenship in the country. This deliberate and systematic destruction, suppression or exclusion of an ethnic/indigenous group has been categorized as "ethnocide" and has plagued the nation since the 19th century.[2]


In 1948, upon receiving its independence from the United Kingdom, Burma was declared a democracy, but many minorities felt misrepresented in the new government. Burmese nationalists controlled the army, police and government, leaving other ethnic groups silenced and oppressed. This resulted in regional revolutions and social unrest in both urban and rural areas. With the decline of its economy and corruption running rampant, democracy failed. A one-party authoritarian government took over the country in a 1962 military coup led by General Ne Win. Ne Win abolished the federal system, nationalized the economy and instated the Socialist Programme Party as the sole political party. He also implemented strict censorship laws and banned independent newspapers.[3]

In 1988 the continued political oppression and economic negligence led to an outbreak of anti-government riots and pro-democracy demonstrations. General Saw Muang staged a coup d'etat and formed the State Law and Order Restoration Council (SLORC). With this transfer of power came the declaration of martial law and the killing and arrests of thousands of people, particularly the detainment of notable advocate of democracy and human rights NLD leader, Aung San Suu Kyi. In 1990 the government held free elections for the first time in 30 years with the NLD winning a landslide victory under the leadership of Aung San Suu Kyi. The military ignored the results of the election and Aung San Suu Kyi was placed under house arrest. The SLORC continued to rule the nation until it changed its name to the State Peace and Development Council (SPDC) in 1997. The SPDC governed Burma until it was dissolved following the November 2010 elections.


Burma's contemporary progression towards democracy had a monumental landmark when the SPDC announced in August, 2003, the "Seven-Point Roadmap to Democracy" proposed by Prime Minister Khin Nyunt. This process aimed to restore democracy to Burma, however, the plan was a top-down process and was heavily criticized for ulterior motives favoring the military junta. Progress in the sphere of political development requires the participation of a number of actors and institutions, but the authoritarian system was unwilling to put at risk its absolute control of the government by distributing the power equally among elected officials. Nyunt's plan centralized the government's power and lacked a timeline for the implementation of its proposed steps towards democracy. The plan was also condemned for permanently institutionalizing the military's role in the government through legislative reforms. The new Constitution gave the military veto power over any amendments to its clauses. The ultimate disappointment for democracy seekers occurred when the 2010 "free and fair" elections were boycotted by the NLD and the military-backed Union Solidarity and Development Party claimed its victory, despite accusations of fraud by opposition groups.

As part of its "Roadmap to Democracy" a Constitutional referendum was passed and installed in 2008, effectively abolishing the position of Prime Minister. After serving from 2007 until 2011as the Prime Minister of Burma, Thein Sein was officially sworn in as President on March 30, 2011. This marked the first civilian President Burma had seen in over 50 years. The creation of a President separate from the commander-in-chief of the armed forces was highly significant for the historically militarized government. However, President Sein is a retired general of the army and his military background still remains a largely significant characteristic in his Presidency. President Sein has been described as a militaristic "soft-liner," signifying his interest in improving governance by opening up the country's former closed and distant polity and urging for concessions with opposition groups.[4]

The new government led by President Sein has proposed easing restrictions on basic freedoms, rewriting laws on taxes and property ownership, passing new labor laws allowing the formation of unions, loosening restrictions on the media, and releasing political prisoners. The proposed political transformation in Burma is a response to the serious sanctions that have been imposed by the United States, the European Union and others in the international community and that have tightened in recent years. Small diplomatic steps have begun from the Obama Administration to encourage Burma's democratization including relaxing restrictions on financial assistance and the beginning of the process of ambassador exchanges between the United States and Burma. The United States Secretary of State, Hillary Clinton, visited Burma in December 2011 to engage in talks with President Sein and Aung San Suu Kyi. This marked the most senior official to visit Burma in over 50 years and symbolized a historical diplomatic advancement for relations between the United States and Burma. The most recent political advancement happened on November 19, 2012 when President Barack Obama became the first sitting President to visit Burma meeting with President Thein Sein to encourage the country's political reforms. In a symbolic diplomatic move President Obama referred to the country as "Myanmar" in support of the government's preferred title. President Obama also met with the honorable Aung San Suu Kyi at her villa where she had spent the better part of two decades on government ordered house arrest. Aung San Suu Kyi made a cautionary declaration of her country's progress stating: "The most difficult time in any transition is when we think success is in sight, then we have to be very careful that we are not lured by a mirage of success, and that we are working toward its genuine success for our people and friendship between our two countries."[5]

These initial steps toward democratization seem to demonstrate Burma's transformation into a more pluralistic form of government; in response, the United States, NLD, and citizens of Burma are continuing to express cautious support. Many in Burma remain skeptical of the nature of the supposed democracy promised to them.[6] The most recent release of 651 prisoners on January 13, 2012, was seemingly an improvement but ultimately disappointing due to the fact that less than half of those granted a general amnesty were political prisoners and many still fear their behavior and freedoms are restricted by the government. The underlying motives for the government's shift in politics is less likely to be a genuine call for democracy, but more of a last resort to pull the nation out of economic despair. The government's motivations are attributed to different factors including the need for renewing economic relations and opportunities within the international community and utilizing the abundance of natural resources in this region. Gaining the chair to the ASEAN (Association of Southeast Asian Nations) in 2014 was evidence of regional recognition of the changes happening in Burma. The announcement was approved by a unanimous vote at the 2011 ASEAN Summit in response to Burma's significant democratic reform. Burma's advancement towards democracy will continue to be encouraged by its neighbors and the West as long as concessions are made. However, due to his historical mistreatment of its citizens, Burma will be continue to be closely monitored by skeptics evaluating its process of democratization. [7]

Aung San Suu Kyi and the NLD

Aung San Suu Kyi founded the National League for Democracy in September 1988 and has since remained the party's General Secretary. Her dedication to freedom for the people of Burma and democratization of the government has won her the respect of the international community and the Nobel Peace Prize in 1991. Aung San Suu Kyi was first placed under house arrest in 1989 and her last release was in November 2010, following the election of the new government under President Sein. Her relentless efforts for a peaceful resistance against the military junta have resulted in over 20 years of detention; despite restriction, she continues to dedicate her life to representing the oppressed.[8] Recently she has held talks with President Sein and other members of the government resulting in the NLD being officially registered as a legitimate political party on December 23, 2011. Aung San Suu Kyi continues to advocate for governmental transparency and expresses cautious support for the political transformation in Burma.[9]

Environmental Governance and Policies

Environmental management policies are one progressive way of encouraging good governance in developing countries such as Burma. Many of Burma's environmental problems arise from its extreme poverty and underdevelopment. The economic despair of the nation has served as justification for government policies allowing illegal logging. At the same time, anti-government groups have used logging as an income source to support their political campaigns.[10] Burma has instituted some laws and policies protecting the environment, however it lacks the legal structures, safeguards and political will to enforce such provisions. For example the National Commission for Environmental Affairs (NCEA) created Myanmar Agenda 21 outlining a plan to promote sustainable consumption and production patterns. Guidelines presented in this contract include: increasing energy and material efficiency in production processes, reducing wastes from production and promoting recycling, promoting the use of new and renewable sources of energy, using environmentally sound technologies for sustainable production, reducing wasteful consumption and increasing awareness for sustainable consumption.[11] Burma has also signed 31 international treaties related to the environment, but often the economic interests of the state trump environmental integrity, land rights and sustainable energy practices.

Another significant problem is that military officials hold many head positions in the NCEA and other environmental departments and have little or no background in environmental issues. This results in business agreements that sacrifice the land and encourage corruption, land confiscation, and government monopolies. The main threats facing Burma's environment today are dams, oil and gas extraction (the country's most lucrative export), mining and deforestation. A recent shift in governmental policy has halted the work on a $3.6 billion hydroelectric dam funded by China. This project has displaced villagers and fuelled fighting between the Burmese army and ethnic Kachin rebels. This decision has been cited as evidence of the new government attempting to seek legitimacy and good governance by respecting public opinion and honoring environmental security.[12] Other measures that ensure sustainable development and multi-ethnic participation are being encouraged from social activists and other environmental organizations in the region.


In conclusion, Burma's political development depends less on the immediate fulfillment of goals and reforms set for its democratic transformation and more on the method in which the people of Burma achieve democracy. Creating a transparent and accountable civilian government is the most effective strategy Burma can take in its political transformation. A conversion from an authoritarian and militaristic government to a participatory and representative government is also vital to the process of its democratization. Burma is facing continued external pressure for improving its governance and human rights record, which is placing the new government under the microscopic lens of the international community. Currently, poverty continues to increase, the national education and health systems are among the worst in the world, and many Burmese citizens are leaving the country every year.[13] The new government under President Sein must focus on a bottom-up approach to confidence building and reconciliation from within its nation before it can expect this from the rest of the world.


"Agenda 21 - Myanmar." UN Department of Economic and Social Affairs: Divison for Sustainable Development, n.d.

"Burma Dam: Work Halted on Divisive Myitsone Project." BBC News, September 30, 2011.

Church, Peter. "Myanmar." In A Short History of South-East Asia, 106–121. 4th ed. Wiley, 2005.

Dittmer, Lowell. Burma Or Myanmar?: The Struggle for National Identity. World Scientific, 2010.

Kingsbury, Damien, John McKay, Janet Hunt, Mark McGillivray, and Matthew Clarke. "Environment and Development." In International Development: Issues and Challenges, 278-279. 2nd ed. Palgrave Macmillan, 2008. 428.

Lall, Marie. "Viewpoint: Has a Year of Civilian Rule Changed Burma?" BBC News, November 6, 2011.

Linn, Zin. "Burma Uses Development as a Weapon Against Ethnic Groups." Asian Correspondent, July 20, 2011. els/.

Myers, Steven Lee, and Thomas Fuller. "United States Aims to Encourage Change in Myanmar." The New York Times, October 6, 2011, sec. World / Asia Pacific. mar.html.

"Obama Lauds Aung San Suu Kyi, Give a Nod to Myanmar" CNN, November 19, 2012.

Pedersen, Morten B. "The Politics of Burma's 'Democratic' Transition" 43, no. 1 (March 2011). .

"Profile: Aung San Suu Kyi." BBC News, May 29, 2012.

[1] Dittmer, Burma Or Myanmar?, 2.
[2] Linn, Zin, "Burma Uses Development as a Weapon Against Ethnic Groups."
[3] Church, "Myanmar."
[4] Pedersen, Morten B., "The Politics of Burma's 'Democratic' Transition."
[5] "Obama Lauds Aung San Suu Kyi, Gives a Nod to Myanmar."
[6] Myers and Fuller, "United States Aims to Encourage Change in Myanmar."
[7] Lall, Marie, "Viewpoint: Has a Year of Civilian Rule Changed Burma?".
[8] "Profile: Aung San Suu Kyi."
[9] Myers and Fuller, "United States Aims to Encourage Change in Myanmar."
[10] Kingsbury et al., "Environment and Development."
[11] "Agenda 21 - Myanmar."
[12] "Burma Dam: Work Halted on Divisive Myitsone Project."
[13] Pedersen, Morten B., "The Politics of Burma's 'Democratic' Transition."