Zin analysed the realities of the “elite-driven” transition in his homeland. He explained how a rigid constitution, the lack of genuine reduction in the military’s powers, relentless 'land-grabbing' and corruption, and escalating religious conflicts are stifling Burma’s transition. He argued that this is not surprising given that the transition was “pseudo-civilian” in that it was supply-side and top-down. The theme of liberalisation was genuine, but media reforms and increasing access to government officials does not automatically equate to 'democracy'. Progress in poverty reduction and fighting corruption under Thein Sein has faltered when the road to reform has conflicted with the interests of the military.

Burma’s elections, held in the autumn, will be a litmus test for its democratic transition. While the West was impressed by the speed of reforms and the elections in 2012, the internal realities remain difficult. Zin stated that “we all know that the opposition will win the elections”, referring to Aung Sang Suu Kyi’s party, but pointed out that no bargain has been made yet between her and Thein Sein’s ruling party. If negotiations take place before the election then “2015 could be a benchmark for democracy in Burma”, he argued.

However, it also has the potential to lead to unrest. Aung Sang Suu Kyi’s achievements whilst in opposition have been mixed, noted Zin. He criticised her, as with other democratic opposition in Burma, for turning the election campaign into “good guy-bad guy” polarisation, rather than focusing on policy and sticking to her principles. This neglect is most evident, he argued, when looking at the rise in prejudice against religious minorities; the opposition has not adequately spoken out against this. Zin also assessed the current president, Thein Sein, an enigma who some claim is a genuine reformer and others see as a puppet of the military. He pointed out that when Thein Sein feels insecure he looks to the military, especially now that he is at odds with the speaker of the house, who supports Aung San Suu Kyi.

The military, government, and wider population still suffer from a “post-conflict mentality”, which has rendered them both xenophobic and nationalist. One such example of this is how critics portray Aug San Suu Kyi as a puppet of the West; another is the law against interracial marriage and cases of forced conversion. Zin argued that this racism is present in both ‘hardliners’ and supposed ‘reformers’. Socio-religious discrimination is on the rise, which emanates from the Buddhist centre, explained Zin.

The ultimate test of the transition, he concluded, is whether there is a real transfer of power after the election. The military have promised “free and fair” elections, but have yet to pledge to honour the outcome. The reforms of 2012 were intended to be “reform without losers”, but the by-elections, where the ruling elite lost all of their seats bar one, shattered this myth. He predicted “a long and protracted transition”, which cannot be effected or accelerated by the international community, be that from the West or China, or from the ruling elite. Any long-term change, Zin explained, must be value-driven and bottom-up.

Speaking about the transition in general, Zin stated “Politics based on memory is not healthy” and that to overcome the incredible barriers and to be a success, transition requires creativity and imagination, which is currently lacking in Burma.

The conversation was moderated by Anne Applebaum, Director of the Transitions Forum at the Legatum Institute.

About the Speaker

Min Zin took part in Burma’s democracy movement in 1988 as a high school student activist, and went into hiding in 1989 to avoid arrest by the junta. His underground activist-cum-writer life lasted for nine years until he fled to the Thai-Burma border in August 1997. His work regularly appears in Foreign Policy, New York Times, Irrawaddy, Bangkok Post, Far Eastern Economic Review, Wall Street Journal, and other publications. His latest articles for Democracy Lab, an online partnership between the Legatum Institute and Foreign Policy magazine dedicated to covering political and economic transitions around the world, can be found here.

The Transitions Forum is a series of projects dedicated to the challenges and possibilities of radical political and economic change.