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Kinds of democracy in Myanmar– participatory, deliberative and competitive

by Michael Breen

On the PK Forum we have have a lot of blogs about the importance – and challenges – of public participation in planning and development. One way to address some of these challenges is through deliberative democratic methods

In Myanmar in 2018, some colleagues and I ran some variations of Deliberative Polls on federalism (see Breen, He and Win 2018; Breen and He 2020) to try and better understand public attitudes to federalism and how they change.

Deliberative Polling uses social science techniques and a bottom-up approach to enhance participatory processes. We ran five sessions and surveyed over 160 people both before and after the deliberative sessions.

With this information, we were able to tell how support for federalism changed, how people felt about different kinds of federalism, and how their knowledge of the subject changed. We found that, after deliberation amongst themselves, almost everyone agreed Myanmar should have federalism, but most people though it (states and regions) should be based on factors like geography, resources and economy, rather than on ethnicity (If you want to know more, get in touch through the PK Forum team).

These results, which are different to the debates among elites, goes to some of the different ways of thinking about democracy.

The most common concept is that democracy is representative and competitive - in other words, an electoral democracy, which tends to be dominated by elites. Deliberative democracy and participatory democracy offer alternative visions that are more inclusive.

Deliberative democracy can be described as an ideal or approach that emphasises the role of the public in reason-based discussion amongst equals. It must induce reflection on preferences, and result in binding and legitimate decisions. In other words, decisions should be based on the “power of reason”, rather than political, economic or military power (“the power of the gun”).

In Asia, such public deliberation has a long history. The Panchayats (village assemblies) of India build on a long tradition of community-level discussion and decision-making, which has been called an “oral democracy” (Sanyal 2019).

Indonesia’s tradition of public deliberation – musyawarah – became incorporated into the state’s national ideology (Pancasila). I am sure Myanmar has its own as well. For example, customary land management and practice at local-level communities in ethnic states is a deliberative (and federal) kind of institutuion.

Participatory democracy, on the other hand, emphasises the direct involvement of as many people as possible in collective decision-making. It normally uses self-selection, to enable as many people as possible to participate. It emphasises quantity rather than quality. It is easier to do on the small scale, but difficult for national issues, like constitutional reform. Participation and deliberation are not mutually exclusive, and in fact, they more often go together.

However, there is a fundamental trade-off. The more people involved, the less likely they are to (be able to) have an informed and in-depth deliberation.

Deliberative democratic methods can be used to reconcile these tensions.

Deliberative Polling and Citizen’s Assemblies use random selection to create a representative “microcosm” of society, also known as a “mini-public”. In this way, it can be representative, participatory and deliberative.

In a Citizen’s Assembly, the participants are meant to reach an agreement, and then provide recommendations to decision-makers or the broader public. Deliberative Polling goes further and uses survey methods to provide clear, impartial and reliable information on participant’s preferences and how they change. This can then inform decision-making. In a Deliberative Poll, the participants do not have to reach agreement, which removes one source of pressure and compromise.

By using a Deliberative Poll, we can tell what people think now, and what they would think under more “ideal” conditions. That is once people have become informed about an issue, discussed it openly, and reflected on it. This gives a more “genuine” opinion than under a regular opinion poll, or indeed, many participatory processes.

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