Myanmar’s Transition Echoes of South Korea

No one was predicting Myanmar’s rapid political and economic reform when Than Shwe, the military leader and the chairman of the State Peace and Development Council (SPDC), announced a national election would be conducted in 2010. However, Myanmar has been going through numerous changes toward democratization for the past couple of years, the foremost being the release of Aung San Suu Kyi after a 21-year house arrest. She led a landslide victory of the biggest opposition party, the National League for Democracy (NLD) in the by-election in April. The Myanmar government eliminated provisions prohibiting basic freedoms, freed many prisoners of conscience, and sent invitations to high-profile activists and political exiles to return home.

Myanmar has a lot in common with South Korea, which has achieved astonishing political developments since the 1990s after overcoming a dictatorship. Both states have colonial experience and have been ruled by military junta over several decades. Aspirations in South Korea for democracy was very high, not only among politically persecuted people, but for all ordinary citizens. The “5-18 Pro-democracy Movement” in Gwangju is analogous with the “People Power Uprising” in Yangon in terms of voluntary-based democratic uprisings led by citizens protesting against atrocities of the government. The late Korean former president, Kim Dae-Jung, was kidnapped, tortured, and sentenced to death under the dictatorial regime. After being extenuated with the intervention of the US and spending several years abroad in exile, he returned to South Korea and facilitated a peaceful power transfer from the ruling party to the opposition party. He won the Nobel Peace Prize in 2000 for his continued dedication toward democracy and human rights, just as Aung San Suu Kyi did in 1991.

Myanmar is now at the beginning of a new era, as was South Korea about two decades ago. With all possible caveats and differences considered, South Korea’s success story could serve as a model of political and economic development for Myanmar.

Development Track of South Korea

Despite the fact that South Korea is a democracy today, it had strived to eliminate relics of a dictatorship and the process is still ongoing. The first step was to deal with the legacy of the military junta, a very complex and controversial issue. In 1995, the government enacted “Special Act for 5-18 Pro-democracy Movement” to administer punishments and compensation. The prosecutors arrested two former presidents, Chun Doo-hwan and Roh Tae-woo, for the charge of rebellion and issuing arbitrary death sentences and imprisonment orders by excluding the statute of limitations. They also investigated and indicted the people involved with the former presidents’ slush funds, as well as the “12.12 Military Insurrection.” The government also promised compensation and help with reinstating reputations for people who had participated in the pro-democracy movement.

South Korea also had developed strong government institutions based on rule of law and democratic principles. Former president Kim Young-sam (93-98) and Kim Dae-jung (98-03) enacted numerous special acts for political and financial reforms to build democratic procedure and to prevent corruption. In South Korea, regionalism had been one of major causes of conflict, sparking political violence among parties and people; it prevented political development for a long time. The government is still trying to break through it by implementing a balanced regional development plan and encouraging fair competition.

Another big challenge was to develop a democratic discourse among different ideologies. The Korean peninsula conflict has caused numerous ideological conflicts in South Korea’s domestic politics, and political parties are deeply divided by ideological disputes. But a democratic system was built to allow for a political space that accommodates different perspectives. Participants in domestic politics acknowledge diversified opinions to develop productive discussions according to democratic procedure.

South Korea achieved astonishing economic developments by aggressively implementing a government-led development plan in the 70s and 80s. It is controversial to attribute its achievement to the military regime, but it is true that five consecutive “5-year economic development” plans from 1962 to 1986, and pan-national local development plan called ‘Saemaul Movement’ in the 1970s and 1980s conducted by a powerful government became the cornerstone of the Korean economic boom. Since South Korea did not have abundant natural resources and manufacturing infrastructure, the plan facilitated rapid industrialization by attracting foreign investment and developing Social Overhead Capital (SOC) for public infrastructure such as railroad and electricity. However, these policies also increased inequality and corruption, and facilitated the emergence of the so-called Chae-bol, a negative form of business conglomerate, often controlled by one family with major political influence.

Challenges of the New Regime

Myanmar’s political and economic reform is not going to be easy. The biggest issue is how to successfully overcome the legacy of the military regime during the transition period to democracy. Myanmar has experienced serious political conflicts between military and protesters (as South Korea did from 60s to 80s) which reached its peak when the military forcefully seized power and refused to accept the general election results that gave an overwhelming victory to the NLD in 1990.

Though the victory of the NLD in the recent by-election means an increased possibility of political participation, grassroots-level democracy might not be coming in the near future. The ruling party should lead a productive dialogue with opposition parties, but that is unlikely without true compromise. The political capacity of opposition parties led by the NLD and its leader Aung San Suu Kyi is still too weak to face down the ruling party that has been controlling every aspect of society for decades.

Whether the regime will fully guarantee free political participation or not is still an open question. Political conflicts will intensify again if the ruling party is not fully committed to a democratic process. How to lead the next election peacefully and legitimately will be another turning point in the long road toward democracy in Myanmar, as it was for South Korea in the 90s. Exterminating the legacy of military regime would be a tough work requiring slow change in recognition and attitude for democracy.

The type or cause of conflict in Myanmar is different from South Korea where ideology and regionalism has been a major issue. But building stable institution based on rule of law and mitigating conflict by incorporating different perspectives would require similar initiatives as in South Korea. The Myanmar people are suffering from local violence caused by religion or ethnic differences. The government signed 11 ceasefire agreements with ethnic minorities and local militias since September last year, but conflicts are still continuing, such as in the Rakhine state. Unfortunately, despite the many years in power, the government does not have the capacity to properly control all provinces, due to lack of law enforcement and weak rule of law. Enhancing the government’s capacity and territorial control will be a key challenge for Myanmar, and external donors should focus their support on building this capacity.

Another issue is overcoming poverty. Myanmar has long been isolated from the global economy, due to the oppressive regime and international sanctions. Its infrastructure is non-existent and agriculture is the main economic occupation. However, it has high potential for development. It has abundant natural resources, including oil and natural gas, as well as low-cost labor forces with a high literacy rate of up to 90 percent. Its geographic location is also an asset, with easy access to India and China, the Middle East and the Southeast Asia.

As economic sanctions are lifting, many states are seeking to invest in Myanmar. The country seems poised to experience a fast economic boom in the near future, with increased international and state investment, as well as ODA contributions. Balancing economic development with equal and sustainable growth will be another challenge for the future of Myanmar, as inequalities and corruption could provoke further conflict. If wealth will remain concentrated in the hands of few, people’s frustration could trigger social unrest. Myanmar should lead balanced local development plans as well as well-organized long-term initiatives to transform its industry structure and to support its people getting out of absolute poverty, just as South Korea did in its initial development stage.

Myanmar’s incumbent president Thein Sein seems to be open to reform, possibly to avoid becoming isolated from other states or to overcome financial difficulties. But a considerable proportion of the present government is hard-liners left over from the military junta, and he received full support from Than Shwe, the notorious former military chief. And the potential of the opposition parties, mainly the NLD, to lead economic reform have not been verified yet.

In this tough situation, Myanmar should develop democracy and economy at the same time; South Korea achieved the former based on the latter. A series of political and economic reform plans would fail unless the government concentrates on building fair institutions and developing democratic procedure based on rule of law, as well as increasing the total wealth of the state transferrable to grassroots level. Mistakes and steps-back will be unavoidable in this difficult process, so the international community should support the state with incentives for reforms in right direction.

Cheong Ju Kim is a graduate student at Columbia University completing his Master of International Affairs.

About the photo: Kim Dae-jung, the first opposition party leader to take power, at a rally in Seoul in 1989. Photo credit: Yonhap News Agency