Myanmar/Burma Update conference 2011

The Australian National University, Canberra

Monday, 16 & Tuesday, 17 May 2011


Obstacles to the rule of law; the role of the media; effectiveness of international assistance; political and economic update


Monday, 16 May 2011, 9.00am to 5.00pm

Tuesday, 17 May 2011, 9.00am to 4.00pm


Hedley Bull Lecture Theatre, Hedley Bull Centre, ANU


The first elections in Myanmar/Burma since 1990, held on 7 November 2010, were a significant moment in the country's political life, even if organized so as to ensure continuity rather than to make a break with the past. The elections purported to restore representative government, but in reality were designed to adapt and preserve military rule. The electoral process was neither free nor open. The government restricted opportunities for popular involvement. Many opposition groups at home and abroad — most notably the National League for Democracy — called for a boycott. Thousands of prisoners of conscience remained in detention during the vote, including NLD leader Daw Aung San Suu Kyi — who was released a week later — and the leadership of the second-most successful party in 1990, the Shan Nationalities League for Democracy. Notwithstanding, some opposition activists and former political prisoners chose to register parties and field candidates in the belief that if a few independent voices can be heard in the new parliament then they can slowly open opportunities for genuine political change at a later date. Many small parties also ran with the intent of representing the interests of specific ethnic and regional constituencies.

Unsurprisingly, the military-established Union Solidarity and Development Party took an overwhelming majority in the national parliament, amid widespread allegations of ballot stuffing through advance votes. A number of minority parties whose exit polls suggested that their candidates would do well instead picked up relatively few seats. However, the extent of vote rigging appears to have been less in some areas where ethnic minority parties appear to have been more successful than parties contesting in the big cities. Notwithstanding, adding in the one-quarter of both chambers in the national parliament reserved for military appointees, former army officers and their associates look set to hold about three-quarters of all seats.

The elections have established the basic composition of the new assemblies at national and regional levels, but they have not resolved numerous pressing questions about how they will function and to what extent they will be able to exercise the powers vested in them under the 2008 Constitution. Will the handful of elected representatives from opposition parties be able to use their positions creatively to effect change? Will regional and minority aspirations be satisfied through the regional assemblies? Will ongoing tensions between centre and periphery be resolved or will they worsen? What plans do military authorities have to effect further political, legal and economic change through the new assemblies and other institutions? What role remains for the NLD and other parties and persons that did not participate in the election and are no longer formally part of the political process? These and many other questions remain largely unanswered.

Against the backdrop of the elections and the laborious work of literally building a national assembly at the new capital of Naypyitaw the military has so far shown no sign that it intends to release its grip on the tools that it has used to repress popular aspirations for genuine change and retain effective control over the state apparatus. Despite the absence of any manifest serious threats to state unity and stability, national security — which is equated with the predominance of the armed forces — remains at the top of regime concerns. Ordinary citizens are imprisoned for trivial acts of resistance or for acting within their legal rights to represent community and public concerns about the corruption and excesses of state officials. The military as an institution is beyond the law, and state security personnel enjoy virtual impunity for human rights abuses carried out in the name of national interests. So far there is no indication that army leaders will be prepared to negotiate over control of the state, or allow for any true contest or verification of their policies and programs. Nor is there as yet any sign that they will be disposed to tolerate compromises that might involve different parties conceding ground to ensure outcomes that can really command wider support.

Although the country has formally returned to constitutional rule, it remains to be seen as to the extent to which state agencies will adhere to the constitution's provisions. In the absence of the rule of law, the formal constitutional rearrangement of law-making and law-enforcing institutions will do little to bridge the vast gaps between what is on paper and what happens in reality. There are no institutions to protect basic civil rights. Private media are routinely censored. Moreover, workers are prohibited from forming unions, striking or taking other actions to demand reasonable wages and conditions. What steps can be taken to protect fundamental rights and establish some minimal conditions for the emergence of the rule of law? What can be done to ensure greater respect for property rights, so as to protect citizens against wanton confiscation of land, and extortion of money and assets? Can the new assemblies play any role in effecting changes that might lead to wider political and social reforms aimed at protecting rights?

The chronic lack of transparency, unaccountability, non-responsiveness and absence of integrity from most government processes in Myanmar/Burma continues to raise profound doubts about how the formal return to constitutional and parliamentary government might enhance prospects for improved governance. Few in the country have any memory or experience of participatory government. Few are acquainted with the types of consultative processes associated with democratic change in other parts of the world. Meanwhile, continued official insistence on the control of humanitarian aid deters many international donors, whose generosity will not surpass what they see as self-serving policies which do not give priority to alleviating the plight of ordinary people. Improved access for foreign media and researchers could overcome chronic problems associated with a lack of reliable information and excessive government secrecy. The denial of freer access is counterproductive for everyone, since it results in mostly negative press for the government and hampers informed debate about the country internationally. The lifting of many restrictions on the flow of information could encourage agencies that have been reluctant to get involved in Myanmar/Burma to consider initiating projects.

Can international assistance more effectively contribute to an environment that might improve the prospects for genuine political, economic and social change? To what extent can international agencies get involved beyond purely humanitarian endeavours? In what ways and through which organisations can assistance be delivered to strengthen capacity and enhance governance without providing unintended support for the military? Can strategically designed and targeted interventions realistically introduce or consolidate more far-reaching and sustainable improvements? These and the questions raised above speak to the main themes for the 2011 Myanmar/Burma Update.

Joint Conveners

Monique Skidmore,
Pro Vice-Chancellor International and Major Projects University of Canberra

Trevor Wilson,
Visiting Fellow, Department of Political and Social Change, ANU,

Nick Cheesman,
PhD Candidate, Department of Political and Social Change, ANU,

Updated:  7 October 2016/Responsible Officer:  Director, Myanmar Research Centre/Page Contact:  CAP Web Team