Soe Myint Aung is a PhD candidate in political science at the University of Oslo, and founder of the Yangon Centre for Independent Research (YCIR). He previously served as the Program Manager of the Open Society Institute and the National Democratic Institute for International Affairs in Myanmar (Burma). His doctoral research explores the characteristics of the contemporary political transformation in Burma and its implications for theoretical and country-specific analyses in comparative politics. See also:

Summary of Project:

Democratic transition or autocratic reforms? The character and outcome of the democratic opening in Burma/Myanmar 

Following five decades of military dictatorship, Myanmar saw a democratic opening after the change of government in 2011. The government of President Thein Sein and the Union Solidarity and Development Party (USDP) initiated a series of reforms in favour of formal democracy, economic liberalization and ceasefire agreements. This created new political spaces and strategic dilemmas for political parties, ethnic organizations and civil society organizations. It also altered Myanmar’s foreign relations, where Western states moved from economic and military sanctions towards normalized diplomatic and economic relations after 2011. These reforms created optimism about the prospects for democratization, peace and development, but there were also critical questions about the character and substance of the democratic opening. The USDP government and the military showed little willingness to move beyond limited reforms and to open up for constitutional changes in favour of democratic control over the military and substantive devolution of power within a federal state.

By 2013 the reform process seemed to have stalled. The political parties and popular movements that had championed the causes of democracy and federalism in opposition to the military regime remained politically excluded, while the benefits of economic growth and the negative impacts of investment projects was geographically and socially uneven. The critical question that emerged in this situation was whether Myanmar’s reforms constituted a democratic transition or rather a top-down process of concessions aimed at sustaining autocratic power with increased domestic and international legitimacy.

If, as today seems likely, Myanmar can best be understood as a case of autocratic reforms, what are the implications in terms of outcomes? What do autocratic reforms entail in terms of civil/military-, central/local- and state/society-relations? What, more specifically, are the prospects for progress towards substantive democracy and communal peace? Will the reforming autocratic state be able to prevent the formation and mobilization of broad popular alliances?