I am the editor of a new special issue on Development Challenges in Myanmar that was recently published in the academic journal European Journal of Development Research. The PK Forum will be running a series of articles in the coming weeks from this series.
So why did I want to put together a special issue on the theme of Development Challenges in Myanmar? Why Myanmar in particular?
The reason is that so many challenges come together at the same time in contemporary Myanmar. This makes Myanmar unique and interesting in its own right.
But Myanmar is also a place where expectations on political development and its consequences for development are brought to a head in a way which is relevant for better understanding other contexts.
Although I have studied political development for many years, the context of Myanmar shed new light on the important role of expectations. From research we know that political development is not linear and automatic.
There is no such thing as a straight path from a military regime to full-fledged democratic rule. It is much more likely to be a winding road that may lead to stops along the way, to dead-ends, and even to backsliding. Nevertheless, a straight and easy path to democracy is often what is envisioned when a country starts to liberalize.
I have rarely experienced these expectations as vividly as when I spent some time in Myanmar around the time of the 2015 general elections. Democracy was “in the air” and expectations seemed to be sky-high.
Survey research conducted by IFES confirmed this general feeling. After the 2015 elections and the landslide victory of the NLD, support for democracy increased in the country and a full 78% of those surveyed thought that Myanmar had become a democracy. A large majority also thought that the country was headed in the right direction and that things would improve in the coming year.
These were of course positive and promising sentiments, but I remember that that they also frightened me. The election was certainly a major step in the right direction, but democratization is about so much more than that first step: it is a slow and long walk along that winding road.
These high expectations were also evident in the international community: aid started flowing into the country as never before. Everyone wanted to be in Myanmar, and everyone wanted to do their thing.
At the time around the election, I worked on a research project focusing on gender equality in politics. I was, at first, amazed at the interest in this topic among donors and NGOs. After a while, however, I became somewhat disillusioned seeing all the different reports and small scale investigations that individual organizations had to produce to demonstrate that they had engaged in the issue.
The engagement was often short-term and uncoordinated and did not necessarily persist as the international community became increasingly disillusioned with democratic development in Myanmar. For some reason, they had not expected the long, winding road.
High expectations on political development are not unique for Myanmar, but the extent to which they matter for the development of the country are unusually clear.
I decided to put together a special issue that looks at a variety of important challenges for Myanmar, while focusing on how these different issues – constitution-making, political representation of ethnic groups, land conflict resolution, gender equality, sustainable development, and economic reforms – are all dependent on persistent, coordinated, long-term support and perseverance.
While there is certainly a lot of hope for development in all these areas in Myanmar, the shared challenge is to not expect too much, too soon, but to prepare for that long, winding road.
Elin Bjarnegård is Associate Professor in Political Science and Senior Lecturer in Development Studies at the Department of Government at Uppsala University in Sweden.