Critics might say the momentum of reform waned in 2014, but the fact remains that press and economic freedom increased, people have more space to say what they like in public and non-government organisations are allowed to work more freely on important issues such as health and voter education. In many ways, the difference to the years under junta rule is night and day.
But under the surface the pace at which the transition is unfolding is arguably much slower and the legacy of five decades of military rule still influences the hearts and minds of the Myanmar people.
A national survey conducted by the Asia Foundation has yielded some telling results.
One of the most striking findings is that 77 percent of all respondents believe that generally most people cannot be trusted. The Myanmar still are wary of the army ánd their neighbours.
In the military era from 1962 until 2011, when the Thein Sein government assumed power, the army was a source of insecurity. It could confiscate land, seize harvests or force men and boys to act as porters. The Tatmadaw also failed to deliver on its promise for a transition to democracy as early as the end of the eighties.
There was ample reason to distrust your neighbours as well. As well as thousands of agents, Gen Khin Nyunt’s Military Intelligence organisation had informers in every ward. It was unclear who you could trust, so people kept their heads down and made every effort not to attract the attention of the authorities to avoid trouble.
Distrust is also a factor in the relationship between the National League for Democracy and the ethnic minority political parties. Many of the old guard ethnic leaders remember vividly that the NLD promised not to contest seats in ethnic minority constituencies in the doomed 1990 election for a constituent assembly. That the main opposition party did so anyway still rankles.
Another factor hampering the transition in the minds of people is a lack of understanding of what democracy. is Asked in the survey to define democracy, 53 per cent of respondents mentioned “freedom” but only 3 percent mentioned “government of the people”. A disturbing 35 percent of respondents said political parties disliked by most people should not be allowed to meet in their communities.
INGOs, NGOs and international organisations working in Myanmar will not be surprised by the survey’s findings, as they are well aware that even at high levels of government crucial concepts such as democracy and federalism, a key topic in the peace talks, are not always fully understood.
The survey also revealed that the Myanmar people have little knowledge of how the government machinery works and how holders of public office, such as the President, are selected. More than 80 percent of respondents were unable to name any branches of government. Only 4 percent could name their member of parliament.
“In order to sustain and promote further democratic reforms in Myanmar greater effort must be focused on increasing public knowledge of their government in easily accessible ways,” said the Asian Foundation’s country director, Dr Kim Ninh. “In many ways, the development of new terms and vocabulary across a variety of issue areas is critical in building a base of common understanding,” she said.
There has understandably been much focus on the highly visible, often top down, aspects of the transition. Whenever discussion turns to the momentum of the transition assessments of these factors dominate. There is value in that, as concrete benchmarks are beneficial in the dialogue with the government.
But the other transition, concealed in the hearts and minds of the people, should not be forgotten, although quick wins are not to be expected. Distrust will take years to erode and re-educating a largely unaware population brainwashed by a biased educational system and decades of repression and propaganda is a herculean task in itself.
This Article first appeared in the January 14, 2015 edition of Mizzima Weekly.
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