Myanmar’s Search for Normalcy in an Abnormal World

LSE IDEAS Strategic Update by Matthew B. Arnold

Entrenched State Dysfunction

In 2016, the de facto head of state Aung San Suu Kyi, together with her NLD, assumed responsibility for a state apparatus that was far from fully under their control. The military had meticulously designed the 2008 Constitution to ensure outright military control over both the security apparatus and their major economic interests, along with prosecutorial immunity for past transgressions and a veto-proof presence in parliament over the constitution. As the cherry on top, the military guaranteed itself one vice-president post and a majority in the National Security Council. Myanmar was thus left with a split government — one that was nominally democratic and led by civilians, but with the military securely immersed in the country’s politics, governance, and economy.

An Enduring Role for the Military

President Thein Sein’s USDP government, which reigned from 2011 to 2016, sought reforms in economic governance, ceasefires and a peace process, and engagement with the West. The USDP pursued these reforms because party leaders longed for a sense of normalcy, and hence legitimacy, from both the international community and Myanmar’s public. Yes, these leaders were former military, but they too were tired of Myanmar’s global pariah status. During the USDP government there were tensions at times with the military — for instance over leadership of the peace process — but generally, the government and military worked together well enough. These tensions were often overshadowed by the feud between the speaker of the lower house of parliament — Shwe Mann, who had been the number three general in the junta — and his former colleagues in the military and presidency.

Choosing a Way Forward

Compounding these tensions and adding complexity to the country’s politics are contested narratives of change and legitimacy. Many in Myanmar believe that a better future will come with parliamentary democracy, while others insist on starting with a negotiated peace settlement premised on federalism. While not necessarily mutually exclusive, these two positions are nonetheless hard to synchronize emotionally and politically across the spectrum of Myanmar’s society and politics. It is also hard to make them coexist in the practical terms of specific near-term reforms, such as with decentralization efforts. These tensions raise all sorts of “chicken-or-egg” conundrums, including whether there should be constitutional reform or decentralization before a peace agreement lays out a federal future.

Celebrating Normalization is Okay

Although it is hard to see Myanmar as “normal” right now, it is important to remember that the country is in the midst of an important process of normalization. There are near endless reasons to let cynicism and doubt drive international understandings of the country because there are still massive problems unfolding, such as the Rakhine crisis and the drug trade. Rather than undermine one’s hopes for Myanmar, these issues should remind outsiders to have more pragmatic expectations for the country. The military designed the transition so that they could manipulate the pace and scope of change in the country; Myanmar’s present reality is thus a story of five decades of military dictatorship and about seven to eight years-worth of conditioned reform.

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LSE IDEAS is LSE’s foreign policy think tank. We connect academic knowledge of diplomacy and strategy with the people who use it.

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LSE IDEAS

LSE IDEAS is LSE’s foreign policy think tank. We connect academic knowledge of diplomacy and strategy with the people who use it.