This thesis is a study of the ethnopolitics of democratisation in Burma. I analyse the consequences of democratisation for ethnic relations from the country’s independence in 1948 until the military coup d’état in 1962. As Burma has been under military rule since 1962, these fourteen years represent modern Burma’s sole experience with democratic rule.
The thesis is a historical case study. However, it also provides a background for assessing the future prospects of democracy in Burma. Indeed, ethnic identity has played a key role in Burmese politics since the colonial era, and it remains a significant factor for the understanding of current Burmese politics and the lack of democratic development in this country. Ethnicity continues to shape Burmese politics, together with the impact of Burma’s colonial past, the emergence of the armed forces as the dominant political and economic actor in the country as well as the ongoing civil war.
The first part of the analysis follows a thematic and chronological path. It begins with an examination of the development of a modern state in Burma, followed by a study of the emergence of Burmese nationalism and changes in ethnic relations during the colonial era. This section of the thesis provides a framework for the core of the analysis, which centres on political, economic and social developments after 1948.
There are three foci to the main analysis. Firstly, I examine to what extent ethnic fragmentation in Burma was an impediment to decolonisation and the transition to democracy after World War II. Secondly, I engage in a critical analysis of how the Panglong agreement and the constitution drafted in 1947 sought to address issues concerning Burma’s ethnic minorities and the integration of various ethnic groups. I also examine how democratic processes, such as elections and party formations, affected ethnic relations after 1948. Finally, I identify which nationality policy strategies (political, economic and cultural) were applied after independence and what consequences these strategies had for the consolidation of democracy and for ethnic relations in this country. The analysis ends with a study of the outbreak of the civil war, which occurred in two phases - first in Burma Proper in 1948-1949, and then in the former Frontier Areas from 1959 onwards. I analyse the causes of this pattern as well as the consequences of the failure to manage ethnic diversity after 1948, until the collapse of democracy in 1962. The thesis concludes with a mixed record for democracy in Burma. While there was progress in the process of democratisation before 1962, there were also impediments to the consolidation of democracy.
While recognising that much has changed in Burma since 1962, I argue that the case of Burma remains an example of how ethnic fragmentation complicates democratisation in a multiethnic society. Burma’s history shows that while it remains possible to design democracy in order to deal with fragmentation, such design ought to be done with great care. Still, constitutional design remains insufficient for the consolidation of democracy in a multiethnic state. Burma’s history is testimony to the need to devise a comprehensive solution to deal with ethnic diversity and to include all relevant actors in this process. It also shows that ethnic diversity cannot be addressed solely by constitutional design at a given point in time, because ethnic relations are also shaped by the dynamics of everyday politics. The full impact of democratisation on ethnic relations cannot be regarded solely as the result of various political processes. Democratic consolidation hinges on policies that seek to address ethnic fragmentation in the political, as well as in the economic and in the cultural arenas. A country’s political elite plays a key role in advancing integration or bringing about further fragmentation through its activities in each of these arenas.