Seeking a balance: As the process of shaping a new political and economic landscape continues, significant challenges remain

A nation of over 60m people bordering five countries, Myanmar today is a place of crucial transitions. It is also a place with a long history, inhabited by a wide variety of ethnic and religious communities, many of which are currently facing major challenges, as the country goes through the process of shaping a new political and economic landscape. This recent sea change has led to the ending of Myanmar’s relative international isolation too, with this also having an impact on the domestic population. At the same time, while many of the challenges the country faces are new, others are old, with efforts to resolve these coming much more under the global spotlight. Meanwhile, the process of transition is still very much ongoing, with all the difficulties – as well as opportunities – that entails.

Settling Down

The earliest known archaeological evidence indicated that the region known as Myanmar today was inhabited approximately 13,000 years ago, and it experienced an early bronze age roughly contemporary to that of the Anatolian middle bronze age, in 1500 BCE. By 500 BCE, local peoples had begun utilising iron weapons and tools, and the region’s agricultural practices began including rice cultivation. The prominence of the region at this time was such that Burmese rice was traded as far away as southern China. By approximately 200 BCE, city-states had begun to form in the region, and these would characterise political organisation there for about the next 1000 years. The Irrawaddy River valley was not unified until around 1050 CE, under the leadership of the city-state of Pagan. The expansion of the Pagan empire saw the region’s populace brought under centralised rule, forming the basis for much of Myanmar’s national culture today – the dominance of the Burmese language and Theravada Buddhism. The Pagan empire flourished until it was toppled in 1287 by the Mongols. Political reunification was not attempted again until the Toungoo conquered the region in the 1500s.


Currently, the country is home to some 135 officially recognised ethnic groups. The largest of these is the Bamar, or Burman, who account for around two-thirds of the population and settled the area in the 9th century CE. The exact population is not currently known, as figures have not been collected for decades. The Burman speak the Burmese language, the country’s official tongue, mostly subscribe to Theravada Buddhism and are primarily grouped in the territory that surrounds the Irrawaddy River. This waterway runs through the centre of Myanmar and has long been the major economic and political artery of the region, as well as holding religious and historical significance. The Irrawaddy River was the centre of one of the region’s more recent and important empires under the Toungoo dynasty, with the 16th-century King Bayinnaung extending its dominion north into Assam and south to Thailand.

Melting Pot

Surrounding this Burman heartland is a series of other areas traditionally inhabited by other ethnic groups, which often practise different religions and look to a different history. To the north, for example, in rugged hill terrain along the border with China’s Yunan Province and India’s Nagaland and Arunachal Pradesh, are the Kachin. Known in China as the Jingpho and in India as the Singpho, the Kachin are primarily practitioners of Christianity and have a longstanding tradition of self-reliance.

To the north-west, meanwhile, and adjacent to the Kachin, lie the Shan states. Around 9-10% of Myanmar’s population are ethnic Shan, according to most estimates. The Shan people are closely related in their traditions and language to Thais and Laotians, with whom they share a border. The Shan also mostly practise Theravada Buddhism. Further south from the Shan, and also sharing a border with Thailand, are the Karen, or Kayin, who constitute perhaps 7% of the population of Myanmar. The majority of Karen practise Theravada Buddhism, although there is also a significant Christian minority. Elsewhere, the rugged coastal region of Arakan, to the west, is the traditional homeland of the Rakhine, or Arakanese, who constitute around 5.5% of the population. The Rakhine are Theravada Buddhists and are close culturally and linguistically to the Burman.

These are just the largest ethnic groups making up the Myanmar mosaic, with each in turn capable of further subdivision. There are also substantial populations of Anglo-Burmese, Burmese Chinese, Indo-Burmese and Gurkhas, while the expatriate population, mainly living in the US, UK, Thailand, India and China, also exerts significant political influence. Indeed, Myanmar’s history has been influenced by these different ethnicities and relations between them, with the modern country also facing the political challenge of creating and maintaining a sustainable political settlement between all its citizens.

The Road From Independence

Until 1989, modern Myanmar was known as Burma. The country was renamed to rid itself of a name inherited from the British, from whom the nation gained independence on January 4, 1948. The British had taken over the country after three Anglo-Burmese wars in the late 19th century and ruled the territory as a part of their Indian empire.

During the Second World War, the country was invaded by the Japanese, with many Burman nationalists in particular initially supporting the invaders as a way to gain independence from the British. Others, notably the Kachin, Shan and Karen, remained loyal to their old colonial rulers.

Burma was then re-conquered by British imperial forces (mainly Indian and West African troops) during 1944 and 1945, with the result that when the war ended, the country had been fought over twice and lay largely in ruins. Furthermore, the fighting did not stop with the end of the war.

Just a few years following the conclusion of the Second World War, a communist insurgency began. The victory of the Chinese communists in 1949 saw a large Chinese nationalist army flee from Chinga to the Kachin region of Burma, where it then imposed its own rule. Some of the country’s largest non-Burman ethnic groups also began pushing for either a more federal structure, or for outright independence, destabilising the parliamentary political system that had been established by the departing British. This had run under a 1947 constitution, drawn up between London and a Burmese delegation headed by General Aung San. This Burman leader, often seen as the father of independent Burma, was then assassinated, just prior to independence itself. In 1949, the Karen National Union (KNU) then began armed hostilities against the government, which was followed by actions by the Kachin Independence Organisation (KIO) in 1961.

By 1962, this continuing instability and conflict prompted the army to launch a coup d’état, led by General Ne Win. The military administered the country under the Union Revolutionary Council (URC), and imposed socialist-style economics. The Burmese Socialist Programme Party (BSPP) became the only legal political party. However, conflict continued, with the Shan State Army (SSA) starting its fight with the government in 1964.

After a decade of URC rule though, a new constitution was adopted in 1974, creating a People’s Assembly, with General Ne Win as president, and a system of local People’s Councils.

The general’s rule, however, also became gradually more unstable, with 1987 seeing the shock demonetisation of the country’s largest banknotes, a move that bankrupted many.

Constitutional Reform

In 1988, a new military grouping took over from the general. The new leadership initially moved to liberalise the economy and promised greater political reform. The 1974 constitution was abolished and martial law established under the State Law and Order Restoration Council (SLORC). This government was also unpopular in the West, which moved to impose additional sanctions on the country, further isolating it. Change, however, was coming. In 1989, with the beginning of the end of the Cold War, the communist insurgency in Myanmar also drew to a close. The former communists split, morphing into a series of more ethnically based armies, with much of the fighting easing or stopping. The SLORC also announced moves to draft a new constitution, which led to general elections in 1990. These efforts pitted the BSPP’s successor, the National Unity Party (NUP), against the National League for Democracy (NLD), which was led by General Aung San’s daughter, Daw Aung San Suu Kyi. The NLD won the election, yet the result was never implemented, with military rule continuing. In 1992, General Than Shwe then took over as head of the regime. Disagreements on the way forward between the military and the NLD led to the abandonment of efforts that were aimed at forming a new assembly in 1995, with many NLD leaders arrested or, like Daw Aung San Suu Kyi, held under house arrest. In 1997, the SLORC was abolished and replaced by the State Peace and Development Council (SPDC). Then, in 2003, Prime Minister U Khin Nyunt announced a seven-step roadmap to democracy. The roadmap established 2005 as the goal for completing a new constitution. In 2005, the capital was relocated from Yangon to Naypyidaw and a National Convention was established to write a new constitution, albeit without the NLD.

In 2007, widespread protests, sparked by moves against fuel subsidies, were followed in early 2008 by the SPDC announcing a constitutional referendum. This was held in the aftermath of the devastating Cyclone Nargis, prompting some criticism, and resulted in a new constitution and controversial elections in 2010. These were won by the military-backed United Solidarity and Development Party (USDP), after being boycotted by the NLD.

Just prior to the ballot too, the 1989 ceasefire with the KIO had broken down, with this conflict reigniting in 2011-12. In the past three years though, political reform has gained remarkable speed. In late 2010, Daw Aung San Suu Kyi was released from house arrest and in 2011, the SPDC was abolished. The NLD then participated in a series of by-elections in 2012, securing 41 out of 44 seats and establishing a significant presence in the legislature. Further reforms are expected as well, with the general elections now set for 2015 also likely to see open, multiparty politics return to Myanmar. In May 2013, too, a new peace deal with the KIO was struck.

Executive & Legislative Powers

The 2008 constitution, which has subsequently been subject to amendment, describes Burma as a unitary, presidential, constitutional republic. The president, currently U Thein Sein, is the supreme executive and head of state. There are also two vice-presidents, U Sai Mauk Kham and U Nyan Tun.

The president, who is elected indirectly by the legislature, oversees the Cabinet and appoints all of its members. Since September 2012, the Cabinet has contained the heads of 36 ministries, with the USDP holding almost all the posts. Many ministers are also former SPDC figures.

The legislature, meanwhile, consists of the bicameral Assembly of the Union (Pyidaungsu Hluttaw). Its upper house is the House of Nationalities and the lower is the House of Representatives. The upper house consists of 224 members, 168 of whom are directly elected and 56 appointed by the military. The 2012 by-election saw four NLD members elected to this chamber, which continues to be dominated by the USDP, with 124 members. The lower house, meanwhile, consists of 440 seats, 330 of which are elected and the remainder are appointed by the military. After the 2012 by-elections, the USDP had 212 seats, the NLD 37 and the rest were shared amongst 10 other parties, many of which are based around ethnic minority groups.

The elected members of the assembly are voted in through universal suffrage (although members of religious orders are barred from voting), with this right limited to those over 18 years old. A British-style, single-member constituency, first-past-the-post (FPTP), non-compulsory secret ballot electoral method is used. Terms for elected members are all five years, while for military appointees they are four years, with both houses elected simultaneously.

The 2015 elections, however, may be followed by some changes to this system, as the NLD and several ethnic parties are currently advocating constitutional reform. They would like to see the number of military appointees reduced in a phased manner, along with a move towards a more federal system.

The FPTP method has also been much debated, with critics arguing that it tends to squeeze out ethnic minority representation and over-rewards the larger parties. Yet a meeting between Daw Aung San Suu Kyi and the leaders of five major ethnic parties in June 2013 concluded that while FPTP had its drawbacks, it was still preferable to other systems.

Local Assemblies

Myanmar consists of 21 administrative subdivisions, with these composed of seven states, seven regions, six self-administered zones and one self-administered division. Each state and region has its own assembly (hluttaw), with its members divided between elected representatives and military appointees. The total number of members in each hluttaw depends on the total number of townships within the state or region, with the largest being the Shan State and Yangon Region. The last elections for the local hluttaws were held in 2010, when the USDP took control of all except one, in Rakhine State, where the Rakhine Nationalities Development Party (RNDP) gained control.

Judicial Matters

The Myanmar legal system is part based on English common law, while also referencing traditional codes. The medieval Dammathat, which covers many civil matters, and the Phyathon, a collection of royal court rulings, are thus both still important foundations for many judicial decisions in the country. In addition, recent Myanmar legal codes are also enforced.

The highest court in Myanmar is the Supreme Court, with a series of regional and state high courts beneath this. There are also special courts for the self-administered divisions and zones. The legal hierarchy then descends down through district courts, township courts and special courts, which look at juvenile, municipal and traffic offences.


The tentative peace agreement with the KIO signed in May 2013 marked the 11th such deal between the government and a major ethnic armed group since 2011. This shows both the scale of progress made in recent times and the scale of the challenge faced, with inter-ethnic, inter-communal and inter-confessional confrontation characterising much of recent political history. Indeed, violence in the Rakhine-Rohingya areas was still a major source of domestic and international concern as OBG was going to press.

Myanmar today faces the major challenge of bringing its different constituents together to forge a new, democratic consensus, while at the same time continuing democratic reform within its political heartland. In this, future elections are widely thought likely to see the NLD outperform the USDP, with the military thus facing the challenge of a loss of authority, both political and economic. So far though, the military has given every indication it is willing to support the continuing reform process.

Debate continues over the best path forward, and the outcome of debates on the role and status of ethnic minorities, land use, federalism and centralism will also likely affect the shape of the political system to come, although few expect major constitutional changes before the elections in 2015.

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