Myanmar’s political reforms and steps taken by the NLD government over the past four years would come under scrutiny during the forthcoming elections. There is no doubt that at this moment Daw Aung San Suu Kyi is the most popular leader and NLD has significant support and good will among people of the country. At the same time, the popular press and social media has also been abuzz with a view that ‘it’s a below the par performance of the government over the past four years on several counts, especially on much anticipated and expected political reforms. Not much has progressed on issues like power sharing arrangements, spaces for democratic practice, civil society activism, press freedom, decentralization in governance, practice of federalism, peace process, practice of secular politics. How extent the government has been able to meet the expectations of people, able to demonstrate its commitment and change people’s perception is a matter of concern.
More importantly, how people across the country perceive and understand the ideas and concepts that they relate to an emerging democratic transition country is critical. What are the levels of knowledge and understanding of citizens on basic principles of democracy, federalism, decentralization, self determination, gender justice, idea of a secular state and peace process and its prospects in Myanmar assumes significance in the run up to the elections. Varying perceptions of political parties and sections of people on these issues are a reality and political parties will get opportunity of airing their positions in the coming elections.
It is in this backdrop that results of a recent study (June 2020) on Public’s knowledge on some of the political ideas need to be located. Its a two year study conducted between 2018-20, by one of the country’s premier think-tank, Centre for Development and Ethnic studies covering over one thousand respondents – leaders from civil society organisations, political parties, youth networks and women unions, university students and persons with disabilities and independent activists across the country (Except Yangon city and Rakhine). The study brings out evidences on their knowledge and understanding levels on key ideas related to the political and social development of the country. While it is not a representative sample of ordinary citizens, it reflects the views of politically active citizens who participated in the trainings conducted by the organisation over the past two years. Thus these findings have far more significance.
The survey shows very limited knowledge and understanding of among respondents - not more than one third - on various facets of political and social issues facing the country. Results of none of the eight categories on which opinions sought, were seen to cross more than 35%.
About 33% of the respondents have understanding on democracy; only 20%-22% of them have understanding on decentralization and federalism; 18% of them have understanding on the idea of secularism in the sense of separation of politics and religion; on peace there appears to be relatively better familiarity, with over 31% reporting a positive outlook on the prospects of peace in the future.
The idea of democracy as separation of powers, representation, elections and freedom of expression is found to have takers significantly in Kayin, Kayah, Tanintharyi and Chin states compared to other parts of the country. Among the regions, respondents from Sagaing has relatively higher levels of understanding on this compared to others. Federalism is often described as division of powers between union and state/regions, self-rule or shared rule. The levels of understanding of this concept appears to be very low across all the regions and states of the country. Except in Nay Pyi Taw (31%) and Chin State (30%), very few respondents from the rest of the states/regions show awareness and understanding on this very crucial aspect that determines the future body politic of the country. Similar low levels of awareness can be seen also on the idea of decentralization- except for respondents of Chin (33%) and Tanintharyi (35%), very few respondents from other states/regions show awareness on this. The numbers range between 10% and 27% in rest of the states and regions.
Awareness on self-determination which is a critical and contentious issue in the broader framework of future federalism discussions appears to be also low among many respondents from the regions. Except those from South East and Chin rest of the respondents from state/regions express low understanding of the concept.
There appears to be a clear pattern in terms of responses from states and that of regions. While 37% of respondents have understanding on democracy, the same among respondents from regions is 30%. Similarly 28% of respondents of states have understanding on the idea of self-determination, while only 18% of the respondents of regions show such an understanding. The idea of secular state is understood more among the respondents of states compared to those from the regions. Similarly over 32% respondents from states had understanding on gender equality while 23% per cent from regions showed understanding on gender equality.
However, a bigger point to ponder over is the fact that these numbers reflect very limited reach of political and civic education among the communities across the country even during this period of democratic transition and political reforms. The situation can improve if there are more spaces for citizens and civil society to engage in conversations on these sensitive topics. These results are indeed a wakeup call for all stakeholders to identify strategies for enhancing civic education and political understanding among citizens.