On a recent trip to Burma (also known as Myanmar) as an observer on a Center for Strategic and International Studies (CSIS) delegation, I met with dozens of leading government officials, activists, and civil society leaders to talk about the changes taking place in the country and the prospects for a peaceful transition to democracy.
There was an overwhelming sense in the country that the democratic reforms that have been launched over the past year are genuine, despite an underlying atmosphere of cautious optimism among many of the people we met during the six-day visit, including both Aung San Suu Kyi and President Thein Sein. For example, our group held one public meeting with an overflow audience, during which women and men from both civil society and the governing party spoke candidly about their concerns and aspirations for their country’s future. Moreover, there seems to be a tacit agreement among influential parties to focus on building a shared future rather than revisiting the past. That degree of forbearance and the commitment to confidence-building were striking, but it’s also important to examine how widely it extends.
Despite the commitment of good will from people on all sides, the number of influential reformers is relatively small in Burma, and the reform agenda remains fragile and faces significant challenges. For one, although the military officers now in government seem committed to gradually turning the country over to civilian rule, this commitment is conditioned on the establishment of peace and stability. Meanwhile, the current constitution gives a National Security and Defense Commission of senior generals the power to re-establish martial law at any time. It’s unlikely that the democratic opposition can change that since constitutional revisions require support from 75 percent of parliament and 25 percent of the seats are reserved for the military.
The history of democratic transitions globally and regionally suggests that long-term peace and stability will only be achieved by reaching a political settlement with the various ethnic nationalities, which together comprise almost half the population of Burma. Yet those with influence are currently framing the path to peace with the ethnic nationalities in terms of reaching or maintaining ceasefires and promoting economic growth, not political settlement.