Myanmar research community contributes to electoral policy debates

October 13, 2020
A man reads the headlines in front of a newspaper stand in Yangon, Myanmar.
Claire Backhouse
Support for policy-relevant research helps to inform electoral debate in Myanmar.

Timely and relevant research can help support countries transitioning toward democracy, especially during election periods. Electoral debates rooted in research generate confidence in the electoral process and promote effective, participatory governance and consensus building.

With general elections in Myanmar scheduled for November 8, 2020, support from the Knowledge for Democracy Myanmar (K4DM) initiative is enabling researchers to contribute data and evidence to policy debates. Think tanks and researchers have been presenting and sharing findings that are relevant in the leadup to the election and after voting day, on issues such as decentralization, responses to COVID-19, the peace process, gender and conflict, and women’s participation in democracy.    

Research highlights

  • The Knowledge for Democracy Myanmar (K4DM) initiative has supported researchers who are contributing to policy debates with evidence ahead of elections in the country.
  • Emerging research highlights policy issues in decentralization, the COVID-19 pandemic, the peace process, and women’s political participation. 

Varying views on decentralization a challenge

Decentralization in Myanmar, a process that began with the establishment of 14 sub-national governments in the 2008 Constitution, has strong implications for democracy in the long run. During an online presentation convened by K4DM on decentralization and the elections, researchers discussed the implications of their findings on this issue.

Research by the University of Toronto, Canada and the Myanmar Institute for Peace and Security (MIPS) examines some of the structural and practical challenges that the central government will have to address to advance decentralization. Through surveys on government service provision in ethnic minority states, they found unclear opinions about decentralization among the general public. For example, many respondents still think both the central and state or regional governments should be involved in the provision of public goods such as education and health. Jacques Bertrand, a professor at the University of Toronto, and Alexandre Pelletier, now a post-doctoral fellow at Cornell University, reported that the central government continues to invest in public service provision in states and regions. The researchers conclude that there is no consensus about what decentralization really means and how to implement a federal state in Myanmar.

COVID-19 responses: an election issue

As in other countries worldwide, COVID-19 has transformed policy in Myanmar and it brings unforeseen challenges that a new government will have to address as soon as it takes office.

Kai Ostwald, assistant professor at the University of British Columbia, Canada, and Tun Myint, a consulting epidemiologist in British Columbia, spoke of Myanmar’s weak and unequally distributed health infrastructure during an online event co-hosted with the University of Victoria, Canada. Mostly concentrated in Yangon and Mandalay, healthcare capacity is less robust in peripheral areas, particularly those hosting large numbers of internally displaced persons, often concentrated in over-crowed camps.  Ostwald is part of a K4DM-supported effort to build the capacity for policy research in Myanmar. He pointed out that COVID-19 has been the country’s first large-scale policy response under a more decentralized and federal model of governance. Beyond some broad directives from the central level, sub-national units have overseen COVID-related policy.

Researchers highlighted during the presentation that the current economic slowdown is Myanmar’s first global economic crisis. The country’s previous isolation largely shielded it from external shocks. Because of the economic impacts in the region, remittances to the country have dropped, and the tourism and garment industries — sectors often dominated by women — have suffered. Ngu Wah, senior policy advisor at the K4DM-supported think tank, Centre for Economic and Social Development, Myanmar, concluded, “COVID-19’s health and economic challenges will loom heavily over voters’ choices.” 

Monitoring the peace process

The Centre for Development and Ethnic Studies (CDES), a K4DM-supported think tank in Myanmar, regularly publishes briefing and monitoring papers on the peace process involving the government, military, and armed groups. In a June 2020 webinar on the peace process and the elections, CDES advisor Zaceu Lian reported on interviews suggesting that ethnic armed groups and their corresponding ethnic political parties have different views about the peace process, ranging from the idealistic to the more pragmatic, but most continue to be engaged. Issues such as guarantees from ethnic regions not to secede, a unified single armed force, state monopoly of power, security sector reform, and the disarmament, demobilization, and reintegration of combatants will feature in the peace agenda for the foreseeable future, Lian said.

Factoring in gender to understand the effects of conflict

The gender dynamics of conflict are often overlooked in discussions of Myanmar’s peace process and the country’s future. The University of Toronto and MIPS research on decentralization included interviews with local stakeholders such as women’s organizations, ethnic armed organizations, politicians, and government officials as well as a survey of 2,747 household heads in Chin, Kachin, Karen, and Magwey regions. Research team members have shared emerging research conclusions in webinars and recent articles for the Tea Circle, an online forum for perspectives on Myanmar.

PhD student Jae Park at the University of Toronto and Alexandre Pelletier are finding that gender considerations are missing when examining conflict. For example, the economic, social, and psychological impacts of men’s experiences as soldiers have been neglected in Myanmar. Norms of masculinity may be preventing men from talking about their particular experience of conflict, war, and trauma, the authors argue in their Tea Circle article on gender and conflict. Women suffer economically from conflict and they become more vulnerable to sexual and gender-based violence. Provision of security services at the local level plays a key role to support women, since most victims of sexual violence seek the help of community leaders.

Research team members Sakshi Shetty and Kassandra Neranjan, who now studies law at McGill University, recommended the collection and sharing of more disaggregated data on age, gender, disability, and marital status, to advance much-needed policy-relevant research on gender and inform interventions related to conflict and peace. The COVID-19 pandemic has made the consideration of gender, using this multi-perspective approach, more urgent, as Shetty and Neranjan discuss in their Tea Circle article on women and the pandemic.

Increasing women’s political participation

A research team, led by the Enlightened Myanmar Research Foundation (EMReF), in collaboration with McMaster University, Canada, carried out large national surveys on women’s political representation in ethnic states. On average, women represented just under 10% of elected officials in state and regional parliaments. A working paper published in April 2020 reports that there is wide variation across different ethnic states and across parties on women’s participation. For example, 19% of members of parliament in Mon State are women, while in Rakhine and Chin, the number of women is below 1%.

The working paper also shows that Myanmar’s political parties are heavily male-dominated, and most existing female representatives come from political dynasties, such as State Counsellor Aung San Suu Kyi herself. With an eye on the elections and based on their research findings, EMReF published and disseminated a policy brief identifying specific barriers of entry for women at the party level, such as centralized and hierarchical candidate selection and the personal safety risks to candidates campaigning in conflict-affected areas.

Evidence-based policy for a better future

K4DM continues to support think tanks and organizations to contribute to debates grounded in evidence. Three years of IDRC support, collaborations between Canada and Myanmar academics, and capacity building have positioned various local Myanmar partners and researchers to respond and provide sound policy advice that could determine Myanmar’s future and assist a new administration in Naypyidaw, Myanmar’s capital.