Old mindsets could impede Myanmar’s progress

Like most residents of Yangon, Hlaing Tint, a 37-year-old assistant lecturer, rides the bus daily.

In this old capital of Myanmar, on the cusp of a new era, buses are usually crowded during rush hours, more so around the bus door. Yangonites love to stay close to the door for an easy exit, even though the human congestion makes it harder to get out.

Even if Mr Tint asks his fellow passengers to move further inside the bus, it makes no difference. There is little spirit of cooperation in giving space to others. Mr Tint has to push his way on and off the bus.

Each bus has a special employee — separate from the driver — whose task is to keep people moving inside, dispersing the crush by the door. This usually involves shouting. And, even then, people shuffle just a little towards the back of the bus.

This normally means the employee must shout again. And the shuffle repeats. Like other Yangonites, Mr Tint encounters this almost every time he rides a city bus.

This shout and shuffle on public buses has a parallel to Myanmar politics.

In the 2015 elections, the citizens of Myanmar gave their overwhelming support to Ms Aung San Suu Kyi. The slogans “Vote for the party, not for the person” and “genuine change” became the rallying cries for her political party, the National League for Democracy (NLD). The slogans reflected the true wish of the Myanmar people — a real change of government.

These slogans were successful at the time of election. Most people voted for the NLD without thinking too much about the actual candidate they were voting for.

In fact, in several townships, the candidates from the ruling Union Solidarity and Development Party (USDP) were far more well-known and established, but the majority of votes still went to the NLD candidates.

For most people, they were voting for Ms Suu Kyi and her party — which they believe would bring hope and change to the country — and not necessarily the candidate.

Public participation in the 2015 election was amazing for Myanmar, a democratic nation in its infancy. Inspired by the winds of change sweeping the country, thousands of Myanmar people became election volunteers, especially for Ms Suu Kyi’s NLD campaign.

Since the 2015 election, however, it looks like the Myanmar people’s newly revived interest in politics has waned.

There is a saying which could explain citizens’ political behaviour. One proverb which shows how the public keeps away from daily politics or becomes apolitical is “Tain-taung-tha- phwe-min-ye-kyeh”.

The proverb means that government affairs and politics are beyond the knowledge of the people, and they are better off not being involved.

This saying is evident in recent events. Right after the election, the NLD started organising people to clear rubbish. Let us clean the city, Ms Suu Kyi told residents.

Across the country, people in NLD uniforms, including newly elected Members of Parliament and volunteers in white T-shirts, were collecting rubbish on the streets. Residents like Mr Tint were excited to see this unusual sight.

Unfortunately, party members and others soon lost their fervour for this project. The campaign lasted for a few days, and only when Ms Suu Kyi asked her MPs to get involved. When she stopped talking about cleaning up, the project was aborted.

PUBLIC APATHY

There are many such examples as Myanmar shuffles towards democratisation. For the country to move forward under a genuine and disciplined democracy, should we expect Ms Suu Kyi to be like the bus worker who has to yell at passengers to move in?

Residents like Mr Tint may not be comfortable if this happens repeatedly. He may be frustrated with democracy eventually. If so, what are the prospects for democracy to thrive where public participation matters?

Perhaps Myanmar is not a special case when it comes to public apathy. It is, of course, an important subject for democracies around the globe, including in South-east Asia.

In fact, it is difficult to achieve democratisation without participation from the public. But how to get the public to move along is not an easy question to answer.

The new administration in Naypyidaw recognises this, and has listed public participation as one of the NLD’s guiding principles. From time to time, Ms Suu Kyi and her ruling elites have noted that the country can only move forward with the participation of all the citizens of Myanmar.

In particular, pro-NLD-government newspapers have mentioned that public participation plays a major role in the country’s development and brings real change.

On the one hand, the public has remained unchanged, despite its trust in leaders like Ms Suu Kyi. Perhaps people are holding on to old mindsets that have been ingrained by the former military rule.

This is the mindset of blaming others (especially the government), and working less whenever possible.

As for civil servants, there is a saying that it is good if the staff keep “three khas” and “three mahs”.

The “three khas” refer to “khaw-yin-thwar, khaing-yin-loke, khan-ma-pyaw-ne”; meaning go when you are summoned, do when you are ordered to do, and do not talk back.

The “three mahs” mean “mah-lok, mah-shoke, mak-pyoke”; meaning do not work, do not get involved, and do not get fired. Will Ms Suu Kyi and the NLD be able to change this view?

Ms Suu Kyi perhaps holds the answer to Myanmar’s democracy dilemma. On the one hand, she has unified the country and roused the citizens’ interest during the election.

But on the other hand, Ms Suu Kyi’s cult of personality power also weakens the overall processes through which power and political structures are institutionalised.

For democracy to flourish, it takes time to nurture the political culture of participation by all citizens and the establishment of institutions that would safeguard the new political system.

Instead of blaming the Tatmadaw (Myanmar Armed Forces) rule, however, it is fair to say that Myanmar’s political culture may have had authoritarian characteristics even before the era of British rule.

This might be one of Myanmar’s national weaknesses, its people’s generosity notwithstanding. Furthermore, there is a real threat that the Myanmar people’s historic achievement at the last election might be undone by the people themselves.

ABOUT THE AUTHOR:

Dr Lin Htet Aung is Assistant Lecturer in International Relations at East Yangon University, Myanmar. This article draws on his remarks to the Myanmar Forum 2016 held in Singapore last month under the joint auspices of the ISEAS-Yusof Ishak Institute and the University of Michigan.

 

Source: Today Online

 

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