By Natasha Ezrow (University of Essex; Email:


While Myanmar appeared to be moving towards democratic reform in 2010, most observers have cautioned that there might not be much reason for optimism. Currently the country is experiencing a major crisis with the rise in violence against the Rohingya community, in what some are labelling a genocide. More than 350,000 have been forced to flee to Bangladesh (as of 12 Sep 2017). Another 400,000 are trapped in conflict zones in Western Myanmar as the military continues to engage in clearance operations in the Rakhine state where most of the Rohingya live.

Since World War II, the Rohingya have faced apartheid like conditions. They are denied freedom of movement and freedom of education. The government refuses to even use the term Rohingya referring to the group as Bengali, while Aung San Suu Kyi, Myanmar’s de facto leader, refers to the Rohingya as the Muslim Community in Rakhine State. But the attacks on the Rohingya are not just coming from the military. Recently over 200 Rohingya men, women and children were killed by Myanmar security forces and local ethnic Rakhine villagers.

Though international pressure is mounting on Suu Kti to do something to stop the military’s operations in the Rakhine state against the Rohingya, Suu Kyi has refused to speak out against the violence. But the violence is just one problem that has made Myanmar’s transition to democracy that much more difficult.

Myanmar under Aung San Suu Kyi

Two years ago, Myanmar appeared to be on the cusp of a new democratic era. The elections held in November 2015 were deemed free and fair. The National League for Democracy (NLD) led by Suu Kyi won 79.4% of the elected seats and strong majorities in both houses of parliament (255 of 323 in the lower house and 135 of 168 in the upper house). The military appeared to be willing to transfer power to civilians.

In another big change Myanmar also had a new leader. Because anyone with a foreign spouse or child cannot become president, NLD leader, Suu Kyi could not officially be the president. She chose her former classmate, U Htin Kyaw to be the new president. Not long after the NLD took power, over 200 political prisoners were released from prison. But Suu Kyi soon showed that she was not as committed to democratic governance as she had originally claimed. Suu Kyi took on four cabinet ministries: education, energy, foreign affairs and presidential office, later dropping the first two. She also created a position for herself of state advisor, which meant she was a supra-president. Justifying this, she claimed that she needed make all of the decisions herself.

As a result, democratic decision making in Myanmar is still confined to only the highest levels of power and Suu Kyi appears to be uncommitted to democracy. Case in point, the NLD would not exist without Suu Kyi. Suu Kyi runs the NLD in an autocratic fashion and has not developed leaders to follow her. She refuses to delegate authority to other party members. Activists who were involved in uprisings against the military regime in 1988 were excluded from the NLD due to fears that they would try to contest Suu Kyi’s leadership. Suu Kyi also unilaterally chose to rename a bridge in Mon state after her Burmese father and not after someone who would be more meaningful to the Mon community.

Military still very powerful

Also problematic is the strength of the military. The military still retains autonomy from civilian oversight and has extensive power over the government and national security. It controls the Defence, Home Affairs and the Border Affairs Ministries. Though the military no longer exercises totalitarian control over society, it still holds 25% of the parliamentary seats, a stipulation from the 2008 constitution, which was written by the military to ensure its power. Making matters worse, to amend the constitutions requires 75% approval from the parliament. The military can also declare martial law whenever it sees fit.

The military, known as the Tatmadaw, was once shaped by an independence struggle and socialism. Today many military officers and their family members own business conglomerates—and the two biggest conglomerates are owned by the military as are much of the country’s factories, national resources, banks, construction, hotels and other enterprises. The military believed it needed to reform in order to take advantage of economic opportunities, but has ensured that it still has the power to rule behind the scenes if necessary.

Though improvements have taken place, free speech continues to be restricted by the military. Muslims have been arrested and sentenced with hard labor for speaking out against the government. Activists have also been arrested for defaming Suu Kyi. Crackdowns on peaceful protests still take place at will. Labour activist in particular have been targeted, with hundreds charged with unlawful assembly and rioting. Though press censorship has been relaxed considerably there are still forms of government control to restrict media freedoms.

Ethnic tensions and conflict

Freedoms continue to be restricted in Myanmar due to every-constant fears of civil war. The Rohingya Muslims are not the only minority group facing persecution. The demographics of the country are very complex. There are 135 different ethnic groups, with two-thirds being Burman. The Arakan, Chin, Kachin, Karen Karenni, Mon and Shan have states named after them while many groups continue to ask for greater autonomy. The Burman, Arakan, Mon and Shan are Buddhist. The Chin, Kachin and Karen are mostly Christian (though some are Karen are Buddhist). There are also Indians and Chinese.

In 1947, Aung San Suu Kyi’s father, General Aung San and founder of the Tatmadaw signed an agreement with different minority groups that they would have the same rights as ethnic Burmese. Unfortunately, he was assassinated before the country gained independence and the agreement was never honoured (Blaževič). Many of these ethnic groups have formed their own armed groups and have had a history of rebelling against the state. In spite of this, no group has been granted much autonomy from the centre.

The blame for much of these ethnic tensions can be squarely pointed at the military’s penchant for divide and rule. The government has allowed the ultra-nationalist Organization for the Protection of Race and Religion led to rise to power. Proxy parties have been created by the military to intensify efforts to co-opt ethnic parties. Political discrimination and decades of civil war have resulted in the exclusion of most “indigenous” ethnic groups from economic opportunities and the benefits that should accrue from their territories’ vast natural resources (gas, oil, minerals, jade, and timber). As a result, the National Ceasefire Agreement (NCA) that took place under Thein Sein’s (President from 2011-2016) government was only signed by about half of the country’s violent non-state groups.

The outlook for citizens in Myanmar 

After many years of dictatorship, the people of Myanmar have very high expectations about what democracy will bring. But most of these expectations have gone unfulfilled. Years of authoritarian indoctrination also meant that the citizens of Myanmar have very little understanding of what democracy entails. Myanmar’s culture of loyalty has also made the transition from authoritarian rule more difficult. Constant ethnic tensions, repression of minority groups, a huge military presence and a personalistic style of leadership continue to plague Myanmar. The troubles facing Myanmar illustrate the obstacles facing countries trying to transition to democracy after years of repression and military rule.



Blaževič, I., 2016. The Challenges Ahead. Journal of Democracy27(2), pp.101-115.


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