How Myanmar Can Position Itself
To Join the Ranks of Successful Nations

Published May 1, 2012
By Raphaël Jaeger
Southeast Asia Globe
The National League for Democracy’s landslide victory in the latest by-elections is a strong sign that Myanmar’s long-standing junta has finally outlived even its own perceptions of state health and functionality.

Nevertheless, after decades of ruling the country with an iron fist and allowing state institutions to become barely functional rubble, it is hard not to question the future viability of the country and its institutions.

Can Myanmar escape the trappings of a failed state and withstand the social, economic and political pressures it faces to avoid implosion?

A failed state cannot or will not fulfil its obligations under the social contract to provide essential services and security to the population, which can lead to instability and conflict. In the case of Myanmar, there is limited institutional and technical capacity to implement some of the reform measures being adopted.

Other symptoms of a vulnerable state are the loss of physical control of territory, or the loss of a monopoly on the legitimate use of force. Additionally, most weak and fragile states exhibit disharmonies between communities as there are no formal processes for the airing of grievances.

In spite of the ceasefires with most of Myanmar’s ethnic insurgencies, no peace agreements have been signed and many speculate that the recent ‘peace’ is only skin deep. Meanwhile, tens of thousands of Kachin people were reportedly displaced in recent months and some speculate that it is ‘business as usual’ within the country despite the purported governmental reforms.

Myanmar will remain unstable as long as its military continues to be involved in ethnic conflicts and the reform of state institutions remains window dressing on a much larger problem.

In addition, the erosion of legitimate authority to make collective decisions is another attribute of state failure. Therefore, if Aung San Suu Kyi’s electoral triumph is a decisive phase in the political transition, it remains more symbolic than practical as less than 10% of the seats were up for grabs in a parliament that remains dominated by the former junta. Moreover, a large segment of the population is not represented.

A state is also at risk when it is unable to interact with other states as a full member of the international community.

British Prime Minister David Cameron and US Secretary of State Hillary Clinton’s recent visits to Myanmar are a strong signal that the reform agenda has greatly accelerated. Therefore, financial sanctions may be lifted and development assistance increased. But the path to stability is long and, either way, external intervention ultimately undermines the long-term sustainability of the state.

There are positive signs. For one, Myanmar’s President, Thein Sein, admitted in a public speech that the country has lagged behind in development. He also strengthened the legitimacy of the state by allowing key freedoms such as the right to organise, assemble, speak out and run for political office. In addition, his government set up a national human rights commission and invited political exiles to return.

Nevertheless, the future remains unpredictable. The true test of whether these measures are irreversible or ‘cosmetic’ will come in 2015 with the general election.

Will the opposition be circumscribed by the current constitution? Will Suu Kyi’s party manage the vastly inflated hopes for democratic reforms?

By then, difficulties will certainly arise as all sectors require massive and essential investment. The government will have to make good on other difficult promises, including opening up the media landscape as well as freeing the hundreds of political prisoners remaining behind bars.

But lawmakers must principally focus on addressing the institutional weaknesses in Myanmar. The military, police, civil service, justice system, and leadership all need to be vetted and revamped with outside oversight.

For Myanmar to make its way from pariah status as a failed state to a fledgling member of the international community, we all must ensure that reforms are not skin-deep.