This column was published at The Myanmar Times on Monday, 11 May 2015
There is a natural rush to draw lessons from what has been happening these recent, busy years. It is so unusual for an entrenched military dictatorship to make moves toward political reform that a queue forms for the tutorial.
We are intoxicated by ideas that might apply elsewhere and that could make Myanmar’s tentative success a template for other reforms. We are enticed to ask whether countries synonymous with poor governance – places like the DR Congo, Syria or North Korea – could benefit from what we know about U Thein Sein, the Pyidaungsu Hluttaw, peace agreements and Myanmar’s galloping social change.
Such thoughts offer comfort when so much in the world appears to be hurtling in gloomier directions. The recent period in Myanmar offers a good-news story, admittedly one with more than its share of complex subject matter.
Some of the lessons we hear the most about deal with leadership. We understand that something happened, quietly, in the decade before the political transformation received much public attention. Figures like Thura U Shwe Mann, U Khin Aung Myint and President U Thein Sein were still in uniform then. But they were laying the foundations for a new set of political compacts.
They did so in their own time, and it is often suggested that the devastation of Cyclone Nargis, seven years ago this month, catalysed bolder action. It was at that moment of national impotence that the need for a different political and economic order was hammered home.
Since then, Myanmar has benefited from creative leadership and a big appetite for taking risks. Many have played their part, including ethnic commanders, democratic activists, ordinary bureaucrats and courageous street-level campaigners. Taken together they have responded to an environment shaped by suggestion from on high. There are all manner of subtle indications, in the press, on social media, in body language and grand political re-positioning, that have offered confidence to those understandably wary of the motivations of retired generals.
It has helped that the new legislatures have found a way of presenting alternatives to executive authority. That the president doesn’t always get his way is taken to mean that the system, whatever its flaws, is now providing spaces for debate and policy competition.
Regardless of whether the hluttaw was originally designed for this purpose – and it seems that it wasn’t – there has been an incremental move toward more ambitious interventions. No doubt the election in 2012 of more than 40 National League for Democracy representatives has made a difference. But they aren’t always the ones who are most outspoken in the chamber.
It tends to be voices from the lesser-known democratic parties and ethnic minorities that make the most regular interventions. They are joined by factions of the Union Solidarity and Development Party also keen to dissent with certain policies, big and small.
We see the challenges of these interactions most clearly in the ethnic faultlines. If Myanmar finally manages to pull together a sustainable national peace agreement, with the historic possibilities that offers, lessons will be claimed on every possible score. Such an agreement will sire hundreds of PhDs, and give life to 10,000 analytical thrusts. Clever treatments of causality will punctuate statements about effective national, regional and global peace-making. It’s to be expected that everyone will want some of the credit.
Yet apportioning credit shouldn’t be the goal of drawing such lessons. It will, instead, be in the hard-headed understanding of what went wrong, and then right – why, for whom, and in what sequence – that will need the most serious attention. Some of these lessons won’t be neat and debates about them will ring with contradiction, and also with self-interest. Such will be the tone of discussion for many years to come.
These discussions will be shaped, most important of all, by the changing social context in Myanmar. People who had never read an uncensored newspaper article now have Facebook feeds flooded with mind-boggling innuendo and speculation.
At 1000 miles a second, the internet can offer up the most remarkable of insights, and is now setting about changing many basic expectations in Myanmar society. Nobody can yet tell whether the political system in its current fragile form will weather all of these new pressures. We see changes also to economic interactions, family structures and gender relations. None of these issues will offer easy lessons. For some, the new Myanmar will in fact prove a cautionary tale, filled with woe, gloom and dire futures.
That people outside Myanmar will be seeking to appreciate its trajectory will be part of the new story too. Getting different perspectives on questions of leadership, institutions, technology and culture will force us to confront our own confidence about how we understand the world and the people who make change happen.
Nicholas Farrelly is is the co-convenor of the Myanmar Update Conference, to be held in Canberra on June 5-6.