- NBR - The National Bureau of Asian Research

Democracy in Burma: The Lessons of History

Mary P. Callahan

This essay offers a historical analysis of political and socioeconomic developments in Burma over the past fifty years and delineates the obstacles to democratic development in the country. The author argues that the failure of democracy in Burma should be attributed not only to the actions of the military regime, but also to decades-old political and socio-economic conditions, which include: (1) an inadequate basis for federalism in a multi-ethnic society; (2) a crisis in state capacity to govern, rooted in the fragmented nature of society; and (3) an institutional intolerance for dissent on the part of pro-democracy and authoritarian organizations. Under British rule, Burma was never fully integrated nor adequately controlled by a central government. As a result, political leaders after independence have found it difficult to govern regions with large ethnic minorities. The military emerged as the sole institution that was capable of consolidating widespread authority, as the army had been repeatedly deployed to enforce martial law or establish military administration during times of domestic crisis. The United States has sought to punish the current military regime in Burma by suspending economic aid, activating an arms embargo, and blocking international assistance. U.S. policy has been supported by a bipartisan coalition of human rights organizations, members of Congress, allies in the European Union, and expatriate Burmese. The author argues, however, that U.S. policy must address the obstacles to sustainable democratic rule in the country instead of focusing exclusively on deposing the military regime. A careful reading of events in Burma since 1948 generates sobering warnings about the complicated and deep historical roots of Burma’s contemporary troubles. The author asserts that these warnings must be heeded if U.S. pro-democracy policies are to be effective.