Myanmar’s Push Toward Democracy: A Sisyphean Endeavor?


If I had to choose a single word to describe Yangon, Myanmar from an outsider’s perspective, it would be “incoherent.” No amount of photography could do the experience justice. When you are stuck in a five-way intersection with no traffic lights nor policemen to calm the frenzy, you can’t take a snapshot of the hordes of jaywalkers in traditional attire amidst the masses of recently imported cars—all trying to maneuver rush hour. Apparently, photography communicates the opposite of reality.

Oddly, I heard my photographs described as “glamorous.” Any person who has visited Yangon would know how inaccurate of a description that is. In Yangon, each visitor is an intrepid explorer. There is a high chance at any given time of either being hit by a zooming car while walking along the road, or stepping into a semi-hidden hole in the rare, broken sidewalk, which, of course, sits atop the sewage drains.

myanmar1Lane Feler / Morningside Muckraker

Yangon is not exactly glamorous. It is pretty gritty and grimy by Western standards, with sweltering heat, lackluster communication technology, and terrifyingly disintegrated buildings. Not to be totally blind or close-minded. Myanmar has its own real pockets of romance: imagine the sunset over the Shwedagon pagoda, accompanied by clouds of incense and hypnotizing chants as the light picks up the golden glints of the structure. Or, Inle Lake with a mist hanging over it, as men guide their boats in the traditional manner: with one leg wrapped around a paddle, hands occupied pulling in the catch. The ancient always carries some amount of mystique that tantalizes those of us raised in newer civilizations. It has the strange ability to make the grit bleed away for a moment, in this case carried away by the cross breeze.

myanmar2Lane Feler / Morningside Muckraker

The incoherence I sensed manifests in many ways, such as the odd mix of old and new meeting in one unholy mess. But to choose the word incoherent, suggesting disarray and disorder, seems strange against the political and historical background – still today, the word “order” is essential when one considers Myanmar’s politics and governance. Even so, Myanmar’s politics is what has ultimately given life to that present incongruity.


In 2011, Myanmar (formerly Burma) shifted from nearly 50 years of military rule to a partly civilian government. In 1962, Myanmar’s former British colonial status had yielded to a regime with a less-than-stellar human rights record: couple stringent social and political constraints and rule by law with internationally imposed sanctions, and you get a visual similar to, if not worse than, that of Cuba. There is no generally accepted explanation as to why the government suddenly shifted course in 2011 and set upon achieving a “democratic” state. But before then, the state was a cesspit of human rights violations, as the military junta “committed human rights abuses with impunity.”[1]

myanmar3Lane Feler / Morningside Muckraker

The extent of reform is questionable to this day.[2] I was stunned by the still open-faced acknowledgment and acceptance of intimidation and violence in the normal course of things—not just bribery. For one, we think of legal recourse here in the United States as at least a tenable guarantee. In Myanmar, lawyers have their licenses revoked if they agitate; expert witnesses receive employment reassignments to distant regions so they will not testify; litigants are threatened in turn with litigation by the government—and jailed. These concerning realities say nothing of the overwhelming poverty and suffering encountered with every turn on those chaotic Burmese roads.

With the transition, Myanmar also opened its door to outsiders and their caboose of resources. As sanctions often do, limited international interference and support helped cripple the population in a bleak, obvious way. At times, the international community extended an olive branch, only to be rejected by the Burmese government. I found myself at a former hand-blown glass factory in the city. It had been utterly destroyed in a once-every-hundred-years cyclone in 2008. This was not too soon after the 2004 tsunami, but aid levels to Myanmar were minimal since the government resisted issuing visas for entry. The owner of the glass factory told a tale of a neighbor whose entire family—about 40 people—disappeared, swept into the rivers and ultimately the ocean, he imagined.

I find myself somewhat curious as to what it was that drove the government under now-President Thein Sein to pursue a new course. It seems too naïve to think that it was simply the matter of a shift in mindset; pursuing democracy or a veneer thereof ultimately behooves the state in that it opens the doors to resources previously denied to it. Perhaps no one will ever have a complete answer, but it is relevant inquiry in that it can illuminate the prospect of a continued commitment to democratization. In the end, international engagement is a small facet of the current reality of Myanmar. The glass factory will never reopen because the government raised the price of natural gas even before the cyclone. Any income comes from the odd wanderer picking through the piles of abandoned art. The only meaningful political relationship to the average resident of Myanmar continues to be the one between citizen and state.


There is a plot twist, of course: Aung San Suu Kyi, otherwise known as “The Lady.” Locked up by the military government in 1989 for about fifteen years of house arrest; prevented by the current constitution from running for the presidency, owing to the foreign citizenship of her husband and children. Her father, Aung San, negotiated Myanmar’s independence from the British Empire in 1947 before being assassinated, and her mother served as an Ambassador to India and Nepal in 1960. Politics, leadership run through her veins.

But her own achievements, not her lineage, have resulted in her emergence as a political target political targeting as she gained recognition as a worthy adversary to the existing regime. In 1988, she helped found the National League for Democracy (NLD), firmly committing herself to democratization amidst a heavily entrenched military regime. The constitutional quandary, a thinly veiled rule preventing her political ascendance, is hoped to disappear with the renewal of the Constitution this year.

The upcoming elections scheduled for November will be a critical moment for Myanmar as a nation – The Lady, now leader of the Myanmar opposition and serious candidate for the Presidency, stated in early April that the NLD may boycott the coming election if the current Constitution remains unchanged. She continued to criticize American praise of the current government, which she believes has made the government “complacent” about reform.

And it is indeed reform that Myanmar needs. Myanmar is the old buildings left to crumble, the new buildings not built to last; it is the coffee joints sprouting up to accommodate the influx of tourists, the foreign travel restrictions to the exploited Shan state; it is the absence of libraries and books to read, it is the extraordinarily high literacy rate; it is the still-powerful and power-hungry military, the hopeful NLD and Justice For All Myanmar and U.N.D.P., amongst others.

It is incoherent, it is unsure, but it is there and it is alive, thirsting for resolution.

 myanmar4Lane Feler / Morningside Muckraker



[1] Freedom House, Freedom in the World 2011.

[2] See, e.g.,

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