This week Myanmar has held its most important election in a generation. For all of the flaws in the process, this is a huge moment in the country’s history, as well as in the lives of many Burmese people. It means a lot. My Facebook feed has been inundated with pictures of the inky fingers of friends who have voted. I’m not qualified to offer any insightful analysis of the politics behind these events, and I’m certainly in no position sketch out the scenarios that might play out over the coming weeks—but I’m elated that the National League for Democracy have won a commanding majority. Whatever happens, measured in terms of the scale of democratic participation, it is hard to overstate the significance of this election. At the same time, like many others in Myanmar and beyond, I’m struggling to balance the need to critique the reforms with a wish to celebrate what is a watershed moment. But this needn’t be the case; we can, and should, celebrate and critique simultaneously.
Democracy is a big word with many possibilities held within it. But most of the analysis on the election has reinforced the idea that a liberal democratic model for political participation is a universal one; one that is normative—an ideal model used as the standard against which others are judged, and found wanting. Through this, democracies in Western Europe and North America are implicitly used as models of where Myanmar is (or should be) heading to. It’s a journey, we’re told.
The metaphor of the journey suggests two things. Firstly, it suggests that there is an obvious destination—something akin to a Euro-American parliamentary system—that Myanmar is moving towards. And secondly, that it’ll take time to get there—so be patient. This reporting has a disciplinary aspect to it. The historian Thant Myint-U contrasted the Myanmar election to the situation in Syria. As well as being a superficial, facile comparison that ignores the specific contexts for both countries, a comment like this suggests to people that they should accept what they are being offered in terms of democratic participation, as the alternative would be civil war. The message to critics is this: pipe down and get behind the reforms, otherwise political stability and economic growth are at risk.
But I don’t think that democracy (and here I’m considering formal political institutions rather than cultures or legal regimes) should be considered a destination. And to my mind, the arguments for patience chime uncomfortably with the old imperial arguments used by the British to delay granting Burmese people political rights in the 1920s and 30s.
Democracy isn’t a destination because no democracy exists without limits and threats, against which activists are struggling across the globe. In this, the emerging democracy in Myanmar faces some problems that, when considered abstractly, differ in intensity but not in kind from those of the ‘destination’ democracies in the West. For instance, there has been much justified criticism of the 25% quota for the military in both houses of Myanmar’s parliament. This is obviously undemocratic. But this critique has inspired little self-reflection from British commentators on the wholly unelected British House of Lords and the vested interests that it entrenches. Similarly, the appalling disenfranchisement of the Rohingya could be considered in the context of ongoing attempts to disenfranchise minorities and the poor in parts of the US. I am not saying that these issues are of the same scale or urgency—the Rohingya are facing ethnic cleansing—but treating democracy as a destination means that Myanmar will always be judged according to what it hasn’t yet become, rather than what it is. It also treats Western democracies as the final destination, rather than in need of reform themselves.
As for patience: historically, arguments for patience in the name of stability or prosperity (for whom, one might ask) have been used to justify the perennial deferral of rights. It was an argument routinely used by the British in Myanmar. The populace wasn’t ready for democracy, they claimed. As a result, there were always some powers that the colonial government reserved for White men. The policy of the military echoes this. They have reserved control of some governmental portfolios, such as national security; a strategy not unlike the colonial policy of dyarchy which saw some subjects of state activity transferred to democratically elected powers, and some reserved for unelected British rulers. But who judges when the people are ‘ready’ for democracy? The British did not relinquish control of the state on their own accord, but under pressure from a surge of anti-colonial nationalism. There is no reason to believe that the military will continue to retreat from their positions of state power without popular pressure either. Calls for patience from commentators ultimately amount to support for the status quo.
Instead, if we don’t think of democracy as a destination that Myanmar is journeying towards, then we are free to celebrate and critique these elections at the same time. It is a victory for democratic activists, and there is always more to fight for.