Myanmar which had been under authoritarian rule for almost five decades is currently undergoing a political transition toward democratic rule with a more open and pluralistic political system. It started off as a managed transition guided by a seven-step road map announced in 2003 by the ruling military junta.
Under the new Constitution, adopted in 2008 after a controversial referendum, elections were held in 2010 in which the military-backed Union Solidarity and Development Party (USDP) won overwhelmingly and currently dominates the government and the legislature. The government led by President Thein Sein instituted political and economic reforms soon after coming to power in March 2011. Significant political liberalization carried out by the government include the release of political prisoners, abolishing press censorship, allowing private media, conditionally allowing public protest, relaxing the rules for political participation and activism and permitting labour unions. This has led to the return of popular National League for Democracy (NLD), led by Nobel laureate Aung San Suu Kyi, which boycotted the 2010 elections. Further into the electoral process, the NLD contested the by-election in April 2012, winning 43 of the 45 seats.
Presently, Myanmar is more open and transparent than any time in the last fifty years and significant segments of Myanmar society have achieved ‘freedom from fear’. Nevertheless, many formidable challenges remain and hitherto repressed or latent issues have manifested as new challenges. Peace with armed ethnic insurgents is still elusive while communal and sectarian violence have emerged. The legitimacy of the 2008 Constitution is still being challenged with attempts to introduce amendments taking place in and out of parliament. Restive workers are calling for higher wages and better working conditions. Land disputes in both urban and rural areas involving farmers, house-dwellers and even squatters threaten to erode law and order as the alleged victims resist eviction and refuse compensation. An upsurge of religious nationalism among some strident Buddhists has become a potential threat to societal harmony in a complex milieu of national identity and citizenship concerns. The issue of human rights and individual freedom still remains contentious despite the government’s claims of achieving substantial progress. Furthermore, Myanmar is situated between China and India and is in addition having rapprochement with the U.S. led Western states. Hence, the state needs to take into consideration the interests of the major powers and regional developments that could have far-reaching consequences in its internal affairs.
The project aims to monitor Myanmar’s political transition in the context of the aforementioned challenges and seek to better understand the dynamics and directions of the transition process.