At the same time as a democratic system is being revived in Myanmar after half-a-century of military dictatorship, strong challenges have re-emerged. A racist, authoritarian populism is being directed against Muslim minorities, notably the Rohingya, in order to prop up a regime that has no vision.
This is threatening not only the administration and the economy, but also more importantly, social and ethnic cohesion. While admitting that these challenges would tax any government and state, the weaknesses and inadequacies at the core have been revealed.
From military ‘socialism’ to populist ‘democracy’
Ideologically, a half-hearted attempt at socialism going by the name of “The Burmese Way to Socialism” under a military-controlled one-party state, came unstuck when this was unseated by a bloody public uprising in 1988. Re-instated military junta rule lasted till 2010.
The leading pro-democracy party, the National League for Democracy (NLD), contested the by-elections of April 2012, won most of the seats, and entered parliament. This victory was repeated and enlarged in November 2015, with the result that a democratically-elected civilian government has been installed.
After five decades of junta or one-party rule, there is now a multi-party system. However, two-thirds of the 93 parties registered are ethnic-based parties, and almost exclusively single-ethnic. Twenty three political parties won seats in the bicameral parliament, but the picture is dominated by just two parties – the military-linked Union Solidarity and Development Party and the NLD.
With ideological decline, rudimentary election campaign platforms and minimal policy contestation, the stage was set for a recourse to populism. Besides the Myanmar public’s widespread rejection of the military government, populism played a large part in the NLD’s electoral successes. To fan this populism, or to deploy parallel ‘brands’ of it, use was made of what has been called ‘nationalism’.