May 23, 2018
As Myanmar’s fitful democratic transition moves forward, many observers are torn between early, high hopes for the end of military rule and a growing pessimism about wider democratic, economic, and social reforms. In the international community, much of this pessimism is a result of the dire and well-publicized situation in Rakhine State and the relatively slow pace of change. But it reveals a limited understanding of Myanmar’s modern history and its enduring impact on the structure of the state. In a newly released study, The Asia Foundation details how a half century of military dictatorship deprived Myanmar of the organs of policymaking necessary for a democratic government, with its need for pluralism, transparency, and reconciliation, to effectively govern.
In 1962, a military coup led by General Ne Win swept away Myanmar’s fractured and dysfunctional parliamentary government, which had evolved from British colonial rule, and replaced it with a military-led socialist regime. This regime lasted until 1988, when another coup installed a military junta led by Senior General Than Shwe. While perceptions of weak and ineffective democratic governance provided much of the rationale for military rule, the Ne Win and Than Shwe regimes were, themselves, often unable to achieve consensus in the executive branch, despite junta-imposed “unity.” Disagreements among top generals were settled by purges or imprisonment, up to the highest levels, based on the prerogatives of the paramount leaders.
Such coerced unity allowed little room for constructive policy debate. Moreover, the institutional interests of the military regime, most significantly regime survival, were the top policy priorities of the ruling elites. Policy decisions prioritized security issues and revenue-generating extractive industries rather than matters of social welfare, such as health and education, that would have required a policymaking apparatus sensitive to public needs. Larger issues defining the country’s political settlement were never conclusively resolved, including chronically anemic economic growth, widespread social and ethnic strife, suppression of the media, and prolonged confrontations with civil society and prodemocracy groups.
As a result, the transitional governments of U Thein Sein and Daw Aung San Suu Kyi inherited a debilitating deficit of crucial administrative capacities, especially in the realm of policymaking. Policymaking had been concentrated at the top, with a military dictator making nearly all major decisions. Among the enduring legacies of this are a weak bureaucracy that does not participate effectively in policy reforms and has little capacity to work through complex policy problems, a young parliament with a limited and inconsistent understanding of its role, and a hierarchical political culture that fosters compliance rather than innovation.
With no ingrained institutional culture of pluralism in policymaking, MPs, the civil service, policy institutes, and other key stakeholders have limited experience being meaningfully engaged in government policymaking. The current Myanmar government has few defined policymaking processes or tools, such as the routine use of white papers to articulate policy or dedicated policy units to provide government leaders with policy options, and there are few agencies capable of helping the elected governments develop technical reform agendas. Historically, military policymaking was also an inherently secretive endeavor. For the wider government apparatus, and for the news media, civil society, and the public, this created great ambiguity about government decision-making and policy goals, and government information is still viewed by the public with mistrust.
Massive changes to government structures precipitated by the 2008 constitution have inevitably led to challenges for policymaking as Myanmar has attempted to institute reforms across a vast range of issues—democratization, economic liberalization, and a national peace process, among others. Complicating the task ahead are simmering tensions between the military and the National League for Democracy (NLD) government over the institutional roles carved out for the military by the military-authored 2008 constitution, tensions that have thwarted the effective functioning of some crucial organs of state.
While the significant questions of constitutional reform, democratization, and civil-military relations that lie ahead can easily overshadow the more mundane aspects of policymaking—such as technical capacity, bureaucratic structures, and information sharing—practical policymaking and the institutions that support it cannot be allowed to languish if Myanmar’s transition is to continue to move forward. Though challenging, improvements to Myanmar’s policymaking processes are not impossible. While some changes will have to wait for significant constitutional reform, much can be achieved through improvements to existing structures and processes, with an emphasis on stronger institutionalization.
The new Asia Foundation report makes several practical recommendations towards this goal:
- More clearly articulate and communicate government reform goals.
- Use better data to support policymaking.
- Make existing bodies such as the cabinet and cabinet committees more efficient.
- Diversify the actors involved in policymaking—for example, by encouraging contributions from policy institutes, development partners, and civil society.
- Strengthen the bureaucracy to make it more supportive of policymaking—for example, by empowering permanent secretaries and key ministerial bodies such as research units to play stronger roles.
Considering the legacy of military dictatorship, Myanmar’s contemporary elected governments face a stiff challenge to effective policymaking, with serious ramifications for the pace and substance of the transition to democracy and economic growth. Given the gravity of events in Rakhine State and growing doubts over the pace of reform, the international community is right to challenge the NLD government to respond more effectively. However, there is also an onus on the international community to understand the enduring effects of Myanmar’s history of military authoritarianism, and the still-pervasive influence of the military enshrined in the 2008 constitution. Overcoming this unfortunate history requires supporting the elected government to reform and strengthen key policymaking processes and structures to successfully manage change.
Matthew Arnold is The Asia Foundation’s deputy country representative in Myanmar and coauthor, with Su Mon Thazin Aung, of Managing Change: Executive Policymaking in Myanmar. He can be reached at email@example.com. The views and opinions expressed here are those of the author and not those of The Asia Foundation.