An Attempt to Build Democracy in Ethnically Diverse Burma
By Nehginpao Kipgen Wednesday, November 22, 2006


Burma’s 50-plus years of independence from the colonial yoke of the British has been beleaguered by many lingering issues—from democracy to ethnocracy—underscoring the need for meritocracy. 

Succinctly speaking, democracy may be defined as the reigning in of peoples’ power directly or indirectly into a given institution; while meritocracy simply means democracy o­n the basis of merits. These two concepts may not be of great interest to some developed countries, but it is an inherent question for Burma and its people to reckon with. The fact that Burma, at present, is a country of seven states and seven divisions is, however, self-evident.

The opposing ideologies of the de-facto military regime and their political co-rivals in exile are diametrically opposed. The basic principles of the constitution drafted at the National Convention guarantees a decisive role for the military as the ultimate guardian of the states, while advocates of a federal Burma are also unlikely to acquiesce. Many ethnic minority groups see the Burmans as o­ne ethnic group who should be accorded o­ne state in line with other ethnic groups.

However, the National Convention is designed to maintain the status-quo—seven states and seven divisions— and the seven divisions are primarily dominated by the Burmans. Divisions, according to basic constitutional principles, are to be changed to “regions.” In an attempt to pacify the longstanding grievances of minority ethnic groups in states and regions, self-administered areas (zones and divisions) are prescribed: five self-administered zones (one in Sagaing division and four in Shan State) and o­ne self-administered division (in Shan State). Will this mathematics solve the ethno-political problems of Burma?

Abraham Lincoln defined democracy as “a government of the people, by the people and for the people." Democracy has generally been practiced under two systems—parliamentary and presidential. This democratic structure itself can further be manifested in two different forms—direct and indirect (or representative) democracy.

Direct democracy is practicable o­nly in an institution where all members or citizens can present themselves in the making of public decisions. Therefore, it is feasible in relatively small numbers of populations, such as community organizations or other civil societies, where decisions are reached with consensus or a majority vote of the people. An example of the first direct democracy was ancient Athens where the assembly had electorates numbering five thousand to six thousand people.

In today’s world politics, the political system of Switzerland is a unique example of direct democracy where citizens above the age of 18 take part in voting o­n a wide range of issues, including amendment of the constitution. o­n the other hand, Great Britain, India and the United States of America, among others, can be cited for indirect democracies with elected representatives.

In the case of Burma, introduction of direct democracy may not even become an issue. Precise statistics may not be available; nevertheless, the population of Burma is estimated to be more than 50 million. The idea of a parliamentary form of democracy was an impetus for the National League for Democracy at the time it attempted to form a parallel government when the then State Law and Order Restoration Council refused to honor the results of nationwide, multi-party general elections in 1990 in which NLD won a landslide victory—winning 392 seats out of the total 485 contested. The military-backed National Unity Party won 10 seats.

A majority of the military hierarchy and ethnic Burmans may opt for a parliamentary system, but an overwhelming majority of other ethnic nationalities are likely to choose federalism. The question here is whether Burma is prepared to have a unitary government with a strong central government or a federation where states enjoy a greater role in the affairs of their own governments.

Wikipedia, the free Internet encyclopedia, defines meritocracy as “a system of government based o­n rule by ability (merit) rather than by wealth or social position. Merit means roughly intelligence plus effort.” The concept of meritocracy has no place in the psyche of the State Peace and Development Council. Arbitrary rule in a monopolized system reigns. Skills and merits in the workforce are intrinsically important for a society to grow and thrive. But, o­n the contrary, cronyism, favoritism and nepotism dictate the modus operandi of the military bureaucratic structure, which does more harm than good for the country and its people.

Failure to encourage meritocracy means that many skilled Burmese workers and intellectuals living abroad will not return to their motherland. This ensures a brain-drain for Burma as a whole.

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