This column was published by The Myanmar Times on Monday, 12 October 2015
Hopes are still high that the November 8 election will bring historic change. After its long and difficult wait, the National League for Democracy naturally wants to secure as many seats as possible. A resounding popular mandate will keep Daw Aung San Suu Kyi’s dream of the top job alive.
Yet even if the votes flow to the democrats, there needs to be a reality check: The coming years will not be easy. The idea of a fairytale transformation will be tested, first-and-foremost, by the vagaries of politics in a fragile system where so many of the big questions are still unanswered.
We just don’t know whether the NLD will be able to convince the Tatmadaw that they can all work together for the long haul.
At the same time, who can be confident that Daw Aung San Suu Kyi has the capacity to end wickedly persistent conflicts in ethnic areas? Then there is the question of Ma Ba Tha and its fellow travellers. Is there the courage among democrat activists to stomp out simmering anti-Muslim antagonism?
And let’s assume that some form of compromised coalition emerges after the vote. Can such a government persuade the world that Myanmar is a safe bet for the big investments that are so desperately needed?
We will not have answers to these questions in the first 100 days of a new government, or even the first 1000. Perhaps we could consider them 10,000-day questions. They will need to be pondered for many years alongside the daily grind of stop-start ordinariness.
Throughout that time, the world’s appetite for Myanmar news will usually be pretty modest. The country does not figure in too many global calculations. Few will bother paying close attention to the incremental, exasperating, inconsistent changes that will follow the November vote.
This stark news-making reality will be ignored, briefly, during the burst next month when editors around the world will need to line up political and analytical talent to fill their pages and programs. For a week or two, Myanmar will receive an overdose of foreign attention.
During that short window there is a chance for the country’s leaders, and wannabe leaders, to get beyond the clichés of electoral competition and showcase the hard work contributed by all sides to make the new politics possible. Democrat, militarist, ethnic and conservative forces all deserve some credit for what they have offered so far.
But everyone wants to know about what happens next. This is where the headline political story needs to get to grips with what matters on the ground.
For most Myanmar citizens, everyday survival will remain the overriding concern well after votes are tallied.
While their economic prospects might have improved during recent years – especially if they live in a big city, major town or near a site of other commercial significance, like a tourist draw-card – most people are still wondering when the big payoff will end up in their own pockets.
This is why it is not going to be easy to keep people happy during the years after the 2015 vote. I would guess that millions might feel ripped off by the political class comfortably ensconced in Nay Pyi Taw.
Frustration with the slow pace of change will greet any new government, but this could actually prove destabilising. Before long the mantra of “regroup, rebuild, re-imagine” will be tiresome for those who have long been warned to temper their expectations.
An obvious future outcome will be the rise of populist politicians who tap into the public’s need to feel rewarded for their patience and commitment to the cause. Once the machinery of pork-barreling is fully up and running, some troughs will overflow with nationalistic, materialistic promises.
People will quickly learn that their votes have value and they will seek to guarantee direct benefits for exercising their democratic franchise.
Efforts to keep blocs of voters together will probably also take on ever-more-sophisticated styles. Monks, village strongmen and all the usual powerbrokers will still hold some sway.
But they will be joined by political strategists who will bring the up-to-date techniques for tracking voters that have made politics in most advanced democracies a donor-fuelled arms race.
Those donors – from the tycoons on down – will want their own return on investment. It makes sense that some parties will be fully captured by the needs of their funders. The results will further test the patience of some voters, who may find that the dazzling democratic display hides a sinister desire to keep filling the same bulging bank accounts.
To appreciate these imperfect possibilities, conditions over the past quarter-century in Myanmar’s neighbours – Bangladesh and Thailand – deserve real attention.
Both have repeatedly sought to institute democratic practices but the reinforcement of old elite interests has made this a tough and sometimes bloody experience. In both cases, the military has an enduring political role.
For Myanmar to avoid the problems experienced by these neighbours will require seriously good management, wise leaders and a fair dollop of good fortune. The vote next month will provide some more of the evidence needed to shape our assessments about what might happen in the years to come.
Nicholas Farrelly is Director of the Myanmar Research Centre at the Australian National University and co-founder of New Mandala.