Myanmar’s stability and development depend on how the issues of equality and federalism are addressed
August 8 marks the 30th anniversary of the people’s uprising in Myanmar. The ‘8888’ uprising (or the eighth day of August 1988) is one of Myanmar’s most important historic days in the context of the pro-democracy movement (Picture shows the student flag with the ‘Fighting Peacock’ insignia, and used during the uprising).
The anniversary organising committee is holding events (from August 6 to 8) including political discussions on topics such as ‘A 30-year journey to democracy’, ‘Towards equality for ethnic people and a federal union’ and ‘Myanmar politics and the military regime’. The committee will be submitting the results of these discussions to the government.
For a few years now, the day has also been observed in different parts of the world by Burmese expatriates. Inside Myanmar too, it has been marked by pro-democracy groups in different capacities. But this year’s programme in Myanmar is significant for three reasons: it keeps alive the spirit of democracy; underscores the need for equality and federalism; and builds an awareness campaign on the role of military.
‘8888’ was a people’s movement that challenged the then ruling Burma Socialist Programme Party’s grip on political, economic and social affairs which led the country into extreme poverty. The protests and the bloody crackdown gave rise to the National League for Democracy (NLD), a political party which paved the way for the current Myanmar State Counsellor, Aung San Suu Kyi’s entry into politics and for the pro-democracy movement to continue.
The past 30 years have seen a change in leadership — from military dictatorship to a military-backed semi-democracy and then to a negotiated hybrid regime with power being shared between unelected military personnel and an elected civilian leadership.
The political change paved the way for former military generals to lead the country in civilian garb during the Union Solidarity and Development Party government which was led by President Thein Sein from 2011. Then, from 2016, Ms. Suu Kyi and the NLD formed the first civilian government in over half a century.
Interestingly, both Myanmar’s President Win Myint and Ms. Suu Kyi were political prisoners in the aftermath of the 1988 uprising.
The objective of ‘8888’ was two-fold: to push for the transfer of power from the military to a civilian leadership and a change in the political system from an authoritarian regime to a multi-party democracy.
But for the country’s ethnic minorities, their struggle and political demands that date back to before Mynamar’s independence in 1948 continue. The non-Burman ethnic armed groups have fought for a federal democracy that guarantees autonomy or self-determination in their respective areas and the right for control over their people and resources. The kind of federalism the ethnic minorities want, based on equality of rights to all citizens, has been denied by the military leadership and the government.
The core issues
The ‘8888’ anniversary organising committee, which is predominantly from the Burman-majority, understands this need and has laid emphasis on the importance of equality and federalism. These issues are today the most discussed in the ongoing peace talks between the civilian government, the military and the ethnic armed groups. The success or failure of the peace talks (or the 21st Century Panglong conference) will largely depend on how these two issues are handled. On this also depends Myanmar’s peace, stability and development.
The democratic transition in Myanmar thus far has been meticulously designed by the military. The primary objective, which is laid out in the country’s 2008 Constitution, is to give the military a dominant role in politics. In a parallel to the ‘Burmese way to socialism’ introduced by former military leader Ne Win in the 1960s, Myanmar now practices what can be called the ‘Burmese way to democracy’ as introduced by former Prime Minister Khin Nyunt in 2003 when he announced the military’s seven-step road map to a flourishing democracy.
But now, in political discussions, the ‘8888’ leaders should look at democratic transitions in other countries. They should share their findings not only with the civilian government but also with the military leadership.
The military may hesitate to roll back its dominant role in Myanmar’s politics but it should note that no democracy can succeed when the military holds the reins and is unaccountable to an elected civilian leadership.
For democracy to strike deep roots in Myanmar, the role of the ‘8888’ leaders remains important. The military must note that the people of Myanmar as well as members of the international community want a democracy that respects the rights of all its people, including the minorities.
Nehginpao Kipgen is Associate Professor and Executive Director of the Center for Southeast Asian Studies, Jindal School of International Affairs, O.P. Jindal Global University