The Debate

Time for Myanmar to Join the Commonwealth

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The Debate

Time for Myanmar to Join the Commonwealth

Joining the Commonwealth could help cement Myanmar’s democratic transformation and boost its economy.

Time for Myanmar to Join the Commonwealth
Credit: Flickr/ British Foreign and Commonwealth Office

Myanmar forfeited its Commonwealth membership in 1948 when it adopted a republican constitution after gaining independence from the British. Until the 1949 London Declaration, a state had to be a Dominion (that was nominally under the Crown), instead of a republic, to accede to the Commonwealth. The Republic of the Union of Myanmar was one year too early, then. Today, however, as Myanmar gradually integrates into the international community, its democratic transition under the National League for Democracy (NLD) presents a suitable juncture in the country’s history to consider attaining membership in the Commonwealth of Nations.

First, joining the Commonwealth would increase the credibility of the NLD regime’s commitment to the consolidation of democracy, the protection of human rights, and the promotion of good governance in Myanmar. Myanmar’s membership will indicate the acceptance of monitoring by the Commonwealth Ministerial Action Group (CMAG) and Commonwealth INGOs, such as the Commonwealth of Human Rights Initiative (CHRI). The former upholds the Harare Declaration, in which “democratic processes and institutions… the rule of law and the independence of the judiciary, just, and honest government” are endorsed, while the latter undertakes fact-finding missions on human rights violations that back CMAG’s suspension of undemocratic regimes.

Notably, membership in the Commonwealth will also signal the intention of the newly-elected democratic regime to “lock” successive governments into a one-way transition toward democracy. Through a range of sanctions that the Commonwealth may adopt, including the exclusion of errant regimes from assistance programs or even the suspension of effective membership (witnessed on several occasions), Myanmar’s Commonwealth membership will raise the cost for future governments that flagrantly violate human rights, fail to meet minimal standards of democratic governance, or, worse, subvert the country’s democratic processes (i.e. return to military rule). As such, membership in the Commonwealth can bolster the confidence of domestic audience and international observers in Myanmar’s commitment to democratic governance.

In addition to developmental assistance (ranging from reforming the civil service to strengthening judicial independence in Myanmar) the Secretariat offers, the Commonwealth is equipped to strengthen Burmese civil society though developing its capacity for participatory governance. The Commonwealth Foundation champions and supports activities that can empower Burmese constituents, such as professional associations, religious and cultural bodies, non-governmental organizations (NGOs), and trade unions, which foster a healthy and informed society. Recognizing that effective, responsive, transparent, and accountable governance requires the engagement of various stakeholders, the Foundation is anticipated to drive partnerships, facilitate public consultations, and build consensus to improve developmental outcomes in Myanmar. It can also assist Burmese civil society organizations (CSOs) in developing their agendas while identifying and accessing the institutional platforms (e.g. ministerial meetings, summits and working groups) to advance these agendas. In the long run, the mobilization of Burmese civil society in policy formulation and decision-making promotes relevance to local needs, takes advantage of indigenous knowledge to solve local problems, and leverages social capital to enhance the operational performance of public developmental projects.

In pursuing good governance, local civil society actors may even exploit Commonwealth platforms to rectify shortfalls in democratic accountability if the republic were to join the Commonwealth. Previously in 2005, for instance, CSOs effectively moderated the authoritarian tendencies of Ugandan elites by pressuring authorities into relaxing rules for NGO participation in local governance when CSOs questioned Uganda’s suitability (in terms of democratic credentials) to host the 2007 Commonwealth Heads of Government Meeting (CHOGM). The Ugandan President Yoweri Museveni was compelled to reassure global civil society delegates at the Malta Summit and even acquiesced to the lobbying activities of local NGOs during the Kampala CHOGM.

At its core, the Commonwealth consists of transnational networks of non-state actors, including professional associations and CSOs that are involved in the advocacy of Commonwealth norms and values. Together with member states, these non-state actors generate expectations that legitimize certain democratic ideals and practices within the Commonwealth. It is this sustained exposure to normative structures within the Commonwealth that will positively induce Myanmar to abide by a permissible domestic code of conduct that limits the means by which Burmese elites can pursue their policies and goals. Through socialization, Commonwealth norms and values can serve as conduct-guiding principles whose moral authority transcends self-interested concerns of elites. Overtime, the republic’s democratic transition will reflect the endogenous changes in its identity in line with pro-norm values of the Commonwealth as a result of the sense of belonging and well-being derived from conformity with expectations and the country’s increasing comfort with Commonwealth values.

Unlike in a treaty-based organization like the European Union (EU), the absence of a binding commitment to Commonwealth principles appears to make Myanmar’s accession to the “voluntary association of sovereign independent states” more palatable for Burmese military elites (who fear that binding legislation to uphold democratic ideals could reduce their political cloud and destabilize the country’s democratic transition). Moreover, the diversity of the Commonwealth’s intergovernmental membership (which excludes the United States and most EU countries) and the association’s consensus-seeking approach to collective decision-making inhibit the Commonwealth from becoming a vehicle for promoting fashionable Western ideology alien to the local circumstances of Commonwealth states.

In fact, Commonwealth values are a compromise among its 52 members, which mostly reject a universal embrace of uniform human rights standards and democratic processes. Most noticeably, the Singapore School has gained prominence as exponents of a general Asian exceptionalism on human rights, development, and governance in rejecting the universality of liberal democracy. As such, Myanmar can join the Commonwealth of Nations without fear of being “ganged-up” on to democratize along Western lines unsuitable for Burmese society.

Second, joining the Commonwealth is also expected to enhance the confidence of ethnic minorities in the peace process. In championing racial equality, the Commonwealth prides itself in its inclusiveness, pluralism, non-racism, and multi-faith character, which has encouraged confidence-building and inter-faith understanding among disparate countries and communities. Members “recognize racial prejudice and intolerance as a dangerous sickness threatening the healthy development of the human race and racial discrimination as an unmitigated evil of society” (as heavily worded in the 1971 Singapore Declaration). Myanmar’s Commonwealth membership would require ruling elites to “oppose all forms of… racial oppression” and embrace “equal rights and opportunities for all citizens regardless of race…” (1991 Harare Declaration).

By demonstrating the willingness to face global civil society pressures (on the scale of anti-apartheid boycotts against South Africa through the Commonwealth) for the correction of flagrant ethnic discrimination, Aung San Suu Kyi, Myanmar’s de facto leader, will signal to international and domestic audiences that she is prepared to address the plight of Rohingya Muslims rather than staying silent. During this fragile political transition, Suu Kyi may also seek the use of good offices of the secretary-general that membership provides to facilitate understanding and enhance civil-military relations amongst the military, NLD elites, and ethnic leaders.

At the same time, a durable peace also lies in a permanent settlement that institutionalizes fiscal (and power) sharing. Enhancing local rights and administration of resource management in a way that promotes inclusive development would reduce local resistance (in states like Rakhine and Kachin) against what is deemed as extortive resource appropriation. In this way, ethnic armed groups, including the Kachin Independence Army, that have yet to sign the National Ceasefire Accord may be encouraged to do so after more than six decades of civil war. To this end, the Commonwealth-partnered Extractive Industries Transparency Initiative (EITI) can play a vital role to promote fairness in revenue-sharing among foreign (particularly Chinese) resource extraction companies, the Burmese government, and local citizens. Through fostering revenue transparency and improved accountability in extractive industries via the publication of revenue streams, EITI will address local concerns of illegal side payments to Burmese elites for access to energy and mineral reserves at the expense of local ethnic communities.

Third, as Myanmar opens up economically, the Commonwealth can offer Myanmar the research, expertise, and resources it lacks to make economic progress. The Commonwealth Fund for Technical Cooperation (CFTC), for example, can support Myanmar’s integration into the global trade regime by offering technical assistance and specialist advice on enhancing trade and competitiveness. In facilitating collaborative private-governmental partnerships, the Commonwealth Enterprise and Investment Council (CWEIC) may also assist the Burmese government in leveraging on the capabilities of the private sector to drive infrastructural developments, especially those relating to information and communication technologies (ICT). Together with enhancing access to international finance and driving intra-Commonwealth trade, the CWEIC can support Myanmar’s progress towards building an effective market economy.

Myanmar can also expect to benefit from the “Commonwealth factor” (an advantage stemming from broadly comparable legal systems as well as administrative processes and institutions) that purportedly accounts for trade and investment gains of 10 to 15 percent in the business sector within the Commonwealth. In the long run, the Commonwealth business network is predicted to enhance professional mobility and drive sizable remittance flows into Myanmar, foreseeably raising the Human Development Index (HDI) and advancing the Millennium Development Goals (MDG) of the republic.

Given that third world states overwhelmingly dominate the Commonwealth and its five first world members are hardly hegemonic, Myanmar can be rest assured that it will neither face economic alienation nor be subjected to a neo-liberal crusade against its self-determined route to economic development. Unlike Bretton Woods institutions, the Commonwealth has never been particularly ideological in the sense of advancing a neo-liberal agenda. The Harare Declaration recognizes that free trade must be “fair and equitable to all, taking account of the special requirements of developing countries.” It calls for “an adequate flow of resources from the developed to developing countries” and the “progressive removal of the wide disparities in living standards” among its members. In fact, economic discourses in the Commonwealth have largely erred on the side of pragmatism (e.g. promotion of private-public partnerships, education, and ICT developments).

To be sure, membership in the Commonwealth is not an antidote to all Myanmar’s problems. Nonetheless, it can make a great contribution to Myanmar’s solutions by serving as a valuable catalyst in promoting friendship and practical cooperation around the globe. As Myanmar seeks to become a “normal” state, membership in international organizations is a predictable step toward its integration into the liberal world order. In the age of global political uncertainty, the Commonwealth of Nations, rooted in soft regionalism and characterized by informal ties, low politics, and network diplomacy, appears to be Myanmar’s “low-hanging fruit” in its possible choice of organizational membership.

However, global concerns over Myanmar’s Rohingya crisis seem to be the chief stumbling block to the republic’s potential accession to the Commonwealth. It may be premature to consider the positive impact membership in the Commonwealth may bring to the local peace process when Suu Kyi appears ambivalent to the alleged genocide of Rohingya Muslims in the first place. If Myanmar intends to seek Commonwealth membership, Suu Kyi will have to demonstrate, in the Rohingya crisis, the racial inclusiveness, transparency, and political accountability central to core Commonwealth principles before Myanmar seeks general endorsement as an applicant country to the Commonwealth of Nations.

Stefan Tan Ying Xian is a graduate from the London School of Economics and Political Science, where he majored in International Relations and History.