Myanmar's Twin Transitions: Challenges and Choices


Last week, the Arakan Rohingya Salvation Army (ARSA) attacked police and border outposts in Rakhine State of Myanmar, stating that it was taking ‘defensive action’ for fighting against persecution of Rohingya Muslims. This further led the Myanmar police and army to counterattack leading to a death toll of 63.  The international media has given wide attention to the crisis in the religiously divided Rakhine, as well as the issue of persecution of Rohingyas, while other ethnic movements as well as the peace process in Myanmar remain at the fringes of global media coverage. The focus on Rakhine and Rohingyas, however, should be viewed in the wider context of Myanmar’s different peace and transition processes, as Rakhine State presents only one of the many vectors of conflict in Myanmar.  A broader examination of Myanmar points to the need to understand the relationship between its twin transitions: one, from authoritarians to democratic rule, and the second, between the state and ethnic and separatists conflicts through a peace process.

Attempts to end conflicts in different ethnic areas through bilateral ceasefires between different ethnic armed organisations, and the military are not new in Myanmar. However, a more comprehensive peace process with an element of political dialogue built into it only started after the Thein Sein government announced that its commitment to prioritize the peace process in August 2011. One significant development was an agreement on the content of the National Ceasefire Agreement in March 2015. The technical advisor to the government on the peace process, Dr. Min Zaw Oo aptly summarised its significance by stating that it was Myanmar’s only experience with multilateral negotiations since the country’s independence from Britain in 1948(Oo, 2015).

The peace process, however, overlaps with Myanmar’s struggle to democratize. Since the takeover by General Ne Win in 1962, Myanmar has endured authoritarianism and isolation, and even when elections took place in 1990, a transfer of power to the winning party – the National League of Democracy ( NLD) – was denied. While the name of the political forces behind authoritarian rule changed from the State People and Development Council (SPDC) to State Law and Order Restoration Council (SLORC ) and people at the helm of state power have changed, a real transfer of power is still impending and a matter of struggle. While the NLD forms the current government, its capacity is inhibited by a Constitution which requires 25 % of seats in both houses of the Parliament and regional assemblies  as well as three key ministries; Defence, Home Affairs and Border, to be allocated to the military.  The peace process needs to be understood as distinct and yet tied in together with the democratization process – part of twin transitions, rather than a unitary transition.

Peacebuilding literature and democratization literatures have often been distinct: peacebuilding literature has not fully engaged research on democratization, and similarly the literature on democratization has paid little attention to war and its aftermath(Call & Cook, 2003). In Myanmar, we see the twin process, of peacebuilding as well as democratization taking place simultaneously. While support for democracy-building features in the menu of things peacebuilding aims to achieve, in practice not all good things go together:  the two processes might incentivise each other in some issue areas, but imperil each other in others. So how have Myanmar’s twin transitions facilitated or inhibited one another?

The impact of democratization on the peace process is at least three fold.

First, with the process of democratization ongoing, the formal power of the state is divided amidst two centres in Myanmar: the democratically elected government and the military, which has a sizeable representation in the Parliament, and overwhelming control over security affairs, which include power and responsibility for fighting by ethnic armed groups (EAOs). EAOs negotiating the peace process are thus left to deal two power centres, often leading to discrepancies in how they move forward.  One very visible example, is that of the three EAOs (Arakan Army, Myanmar National Democratic Alliance Army, and Ta’ang National Liberation Army) who have been invited by and attended the 21st Century Panglong Conference initiative hosted by the National League for Democracy (NLD), while the Tatmadaw have so far refused to accept their participation in the peace process (despite their desire to sign the ceasefire). Senior Kachin Independence Organisation (KIO) official General Sumlut Gun Maw in a recent interview with the Frontier Myanmar, in January 2017, thus rightly remarked, ‘They [the NLD] have the willingness to change the policy toward ethnic people in Burma, but they don’t have the capacity to [do so]’.  This statement could perhaps be flipped for the Tatmadaw, where they have the capacity to change the policy, but not the willingness.

Literature looking at the relationship between the democratic credential of states and how war prone they are, that is the relationship between democracy and peace is divided. At one end of the spectrum are scholars who conclude that countries in early stages of democratization states are more likely to become war-prone (Mansfield & Snyder, 1995), while other argue that democratization reduces risks of war (Ward & Gleditsch, 1998). Democracy is often one of the deliverables of peacebuilding programmes and the peace process, however, in Myanmar, the difficult question is how to facilitate and incentivize the EAOs to partake in the peace process and transform them as a political force in a democracy. One function of the peace process is to mainstream the rebel groups into the political system. However, political parties or forces outside the Tatmadaw can barely command any authority; electoral victory can barely give a credible recognition within the parliament; and political parties have virtually no say over border, security and defence affairs, which are controlled by the Tatmadaw.  The incentives for EAOs to transform into political forces are therefore low.

Third, the international focus on democratization, and on Myanmar’s democracy icon Aung Saan Suu Kyi, has meant that the NLD government has clear incentives not to want to rock the boat with the military and risk the democratic gains being reversed. This has led to them being silent on Tatmadaw’s heavy handedness and excessive use of force, derailing the confidence of ethnic groups on the commitment of the government in the peace process.  They may also have reservations as to the types of self-government that the EAOs are likely to demand.

The relationship between the two processes has not been a one-way street. The peace process in Myanmar has also had an impact on the components of democracy-building. The most visible is the idea of ‘representation’, which is fundamental to democracy. Much of the peace process is governed by the idea of ethnic groups commanding  certain legitimacy and representing the people of that group. This is despite the fact that ethnic political parties performed exceedingly badly in the last elections, winning only 11.2% of seats in the bicameral national parliament, leading one to question the idea whether ‘ethnicity’ as a factor is that prominent in Myanmar politics. Robert Taylor writes, ‘Whether these armed groups represent the people, as they claim, remains in doubt, at least if the election results are an indication of the degree of national coherence that exists in Myanmar’(Taylor, 2015). However, while ethnic grievances and desire for powersharing and federalism are well-founded, the concern is the overwhelming focus on ethnicity privileges ethnicity over other forms of identity (region/ class/ gender), as well as other changes Myanmar is witnessing in terms of demography, economy among others.

While distinct, the peace process and democratization have some key common goals, in that at the heart of both the peace process and democratization in Myanmar is the need to address the Constitution of 2008 in Myanmar. Further, both processes need international attention, moral and monetary support, as well as space for domestic actors to lead to become engaged. As a unique country, with the two process running simultaneously, Myanmar’s twin transitions, will have a lot to impart to other countries with respect to how to make the peace process and democratization process incentivise and support each other.


Call, C., & Cook, S. (2003). On Democratization and Peacebuilding. Global Governance, 9(2), 233–246.

Mansfield, E. D., & Snyder, J. (1995). Democratization and the Danger of War. International Security, 20(1), 5–38.

Oo, M. Z. (2015, December 2). Ten lessons from Myanmar’s peace process. Nikkei Asian Review. Retrieved from

Taylor, R. H. (2015, December 4). Fog of ethnicity weighs on Myanmar’s future. Nikkei Asian Review. Retrieved from

Ward, M. D., & Gleditsch, K. S. (1998). Democratizing for Peace. The American Political Science Review, 92(1), 51–61.

Authors: Monalisa Adhikari and Hkawn Htoi

Monalisa Adhikari is a PhD candidate at the  School of Social and Political Science, University of Edinburgh.  She is funded through the Political Settlement Research Programme.

Hkawn Htoi is a senior researcher of International Investment Study Group based in Myanmar. Her research emphasizes on peace and conflict, and international investment in Myanmar. She can be reached at