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Democracy in Myanmar and Taiwan: The fight for rights

April 1st, 2016

By Bárbara Matias – Research Assistant

Led by two tenacious female politicians,  Myanmar and Taiwan have recently overcome their oppressive legacies by voting democratic parties into a majority government. We explore the way forward in their pursuit of better international standing.

Covered by developing countries, the Southeast Asia region has proven to be an up-and-coming hub for human rights and industrialized economies. Between the end of 2015 and start of 2016, the world celebrated alongside the Burmese and the Taiwanese populations in welcoming new leaders through free and fair elections that asserted their democratic resilience and aspiration. Not only did they overwhelmingly vote into power their respective opposition Democratic parties, but also for the first time welcomed two female politicians to their highest rank positions – Aung San Suu Kyi from Myanmar’s National League for Democracy and Tsai Ing-wen from Taiwan’s Democratic Progressive Party.

In this brief we look into why both elections were such landmark political events by examining each State’s struggle to see their civil rights and democratic purposes upheld. In the final International Policy Recommendations chapter, we analyze the possible way forward for these up-and-coming regional and global players.

The long road to proper international standing of Myanmar and Taiwan is most objectively evident in the official state designation: Union of Burma is a legitimate way to designate the state officially known as Republic of the Union of Myanmar, just as Taiwan is commonly used in place of the state’s official title of Republic of China. In the case of the latter, Taiwan refers to the name of the territory itself whereas Republic of China (ROC) refers to the governing force over the territory – in this brief we will use Taiwan, following the territorial designation rather than the political one. Regarding Myanmar’s etymology, the ruling military government changed the country’s name from Burma to Myanmar in 1989 and, while the United Nations and most countries accepted this change as the prerogative of the government in power, a myriad of countries (United States[1], United Kingdom, Canada, several NGOs such as the Human Rights Watch[2]) don’t recognize the then government’s authority following a coup d’état and declaration of martial law that enabled such rename, therefore regarding the change as illegitimate and retaining the use of Burma or Burma (Myanmar). For purposes of this brief, we will use Myanmar, according to its current official state designation.

Both these introductory hindrances already mirror a fractured national identity which we will proceed to further analyze separately.

MYANMAR: military legacy overruled by landslide win of a democratic political activist

An ASEAN member since 1997, Myanmar presents itself as a largely rural and underdeveloped country, marred by decades of stern military rule and mismanagement of their economy and natural assets. This Southeast Asia country ranked 148 out of 188 countries in the Human Development Index’s 2014 report[3], showcasing a very low level of life expectancy, education, income per capita due in part to decades of isolation and economic sanctions.

Having attained independence from the British Empire in 1948, Myanmar’s modern history properly began with the military coup of 1962, which initiated a period of corrupt military rule that lasted until 1988 and was characterized by tight state control and industrial nationalization which prevented the economy from developing, as well as isolated the country and prompted constant civilian insurgencies. This, in time, incited a general election to be called in 1990, which gave victory to the National League of Democracy (NLD), the liberal democratic party led and founded by a renowned political activist Aung San Suu Kyi, in 1988. The purpose was to create a party that sought to establish a democratic society and civilian government in a country exhausted of the ongoing military grip on power. Yet instead of admitting defeat, military leaders placed Suu Kyi under house arrest, consolidating her status as one of the most influential activists of our time, a feat confirmed by the bestowal of the Nobel Peace Prize in 1991 for ‘’her non-violent struggle for democracy and human rights[4], among many other international recognitions. Following in the footsteps of her father Aung San, a renowned 1940s liberation movement leader himself, Suu Kyi was forced to halt her political career as she remained under house arrest until 2010, the same year the first multiparty general election in 20 years was held in Myanmar. Despite a disappointing level of transparency, the election still brought about an important relinquishment of state control and a series of reforms that triggered a democratization process: civil society restrictions were eased as pre-publication censorship was lifted, many international websites were unblocked, privately-owned newspapers were allowed to go into circulation, and hundreds of political prisoners were freed.

After decades of imposed diplomatic isolation, Myanmar began turning over a new democratic leaf and the world took notice: the United States not only lifted the economic sanctions it had been imposing given ‘’the Government of Burma (then ruled by a military junta) committing large-scale repression of the democratic of the democratic opposition in Burma’’[5], but also organized a historic visit by then Secretary of State Hillary Clinton to Rangoon in December 2011, who separately met President Thein Sein and Suu Kyi. Newly-elected President Obama further consolidated the renewed bilateral relationship by visiting Rangoon in 2012 and in turn hosting President Thein Sein in 2013, the former event in which he praised the positive democratic path the Burmese government has chosen, having ‘’the steps that [President Thein Sein] has already taken for democratization, elections, the release of prisoners of conscience, a commitment to work with us on a human rights dialogue all can unleash the incredible potential of this beautiful country’’[6]. It was within this favorable political framework that, on 8th November 2015, Myanmar held a landmark national multiparty election, which resulted in a landslide victory of National League of Democracy: the opposition party took just under 80% of the available Upper and Lower houses of Parliament seats[7], considering the military had already safe-kept 25% of the disputed seats under Article 109[8] of their 2008 Constitution (therein limiting the power of any ruling party to make significant changes to the Constitution and having a too-imposing voice in Burmese affairs). Therefore, 25 years after the NLD’s initial win and subsequent discouraging military overrule, the Burmese people proved their commitment to a modern, promising, representative nation. Outgoing President Thein Sein himself even declared his support to the new government in underlining that ‘’the 2010 election was considered as the initial step on the path to democratization in Myanmar, and the 2015 election was a further step along the same path’’[9].

While Suu Kyi certainly led the NLD to its triumph with her unyielding drive and passionate speeches – ‘’Some people say ‘it’s not time for us to achieve real democracy yet, but I think it’s just because they don’t want to give it to us; everyone deserves democracy’’[10] – she will not be able to serve as President of the country. This is due to her sons holding British passports and the Constitution’s Article 59-f defining one is barred from Head of State if their ‘’children or their spouses (…)enjoy the rights and privileges of a subject of a foreign government or citizen of a foreign country’’[11] – a clause many believe was added by the military junta with the female activist particularly in mind. The title of President of Myanmar was decided on 15 March 2016, with the parliament joint session electing Htin Kyaw, a loyal friend of Suu Kyi, who will take office on 1 April. Upon his election, Kyaw stated that “this is a victory for the people of this country. This is also the victory of Aung San Suu Kyi[12].

All eyes are now set on transition talks taking place between Suu Kyi and the military junta, having the iconic political activist already assured that she will take on a role ‘’above’’ the President.

TAIWAN: nationalists lose majority as a historic democratic government takes office

Taiwan has likewise stood firm throughout an arduous fight for self-rule. A small democratic island off the Eastern coast of China harboring over 23 million people[13], the sovereign state of Taiwan has enjoyed an autonomous self-rule since the 1950s, even under the Communist Party of China (CPC)’s watchful eye.

The start of the China’s communist rule under Mao Zedong in 1949 incited the start of Taiwan’s self-rule, since millions of ousted nationalists fled the People’s Republic of China (PRC) towards Taiwan in an attempt to keep their political purpose of a non-communist China alive until the mainland could be recovered from the CPC. They settled into power in Taipei as the Chinese Nationalist party (KMT). A single-party state was established and henceforth remained for several decades, albeit gradually liberalizing their political system through reforms put in place by incoming presidents – Chiang Ching-kuo’s mid-80s government brought about the foundation of the Democratic Progressive Party (DPP), the first opposition party, in 1986, and his successor Lee Teng-hui promoted a localization movement of Taiwanese political, economic, cultural and societal affairs. Also dubbed as Taiwanization movement, it defied the KMT’s unification stance and the PRC’s view as sole legitimate government of an undivided China, given the PRC’s unconditional non-recognition of Taiwan as a sovereign state of its own. As the transition to greater liberties advanced and the democratization process expanded, so did the Taiwanese identity and issue of the international status of the country. In 2000, Taiwan held elections that not only confirmed its status as a multi-party democracy, but also voted into office its first non-KMT President, the DPP’s Chen Shui-bian. While his pretensions for a formal Taiwan independence strained relations with Beijing, the Nationalist revival after the 2008 elections once again strengthened ties with the mainland and welcomed Chinese influence on Taiwanese activities.

Matters changed when, on January 16th 2016, the 6th direct presidential elections took place and gave an overwhelming 56%[14] majority win to the DPP’s independence and liberal agenda. It was the first time the KMT lost majority in the legislature, meaning the DPP can finally secure its own political agenda as a majority governing force, as well as the first time a woman was voted into the highest rank – come May 2016, Tsai Ing-we, current leader and chairperson of the DPP, will take office and become the first female president of Taiwan. With an impressive scholarly background covering graduate studies at Cornell University and the London School of Economics, Tsai vouches for a legal and political system that is rooted in human rights and democracy, and protects a Taiwanese identity. In her victory speech, the President-elect emphasized that ‘’both sides of the Taiwanese Strait have a responsibility to find mutually acceptable means of interaction that are based on dignity and reciprocity. We must ensure that no provocations or accidents take place[15]. This alludes to the fact that, despite Taiwan visibly growing into its democratic and independent chapter, the ever-present ambiguity of its political standing still plagues the state – the communist forces governing the opposite side of the strait repeatedly hinge any too-ambitious clamors of formal declaration of independence with military threats. China, a country with a privileged international voice given its status as Permanent Member of the United Nations’ Security Council, restricts the developing Taiwanese national identity by preventing it from establishing proper bilateral or multilateral ties with global actors, and objecting its membership to international organizations (i.e. ASEAN). Consequently, Taiwan only has full-fledged diplomatic representation in around 20 countries, in addition to other countries they hold non-diplomatic relations with (i.e. European Union[16] and United States[17]). After the DPP’s historic win, Beijing’s official reaction was clear in reiterating that ‘’the Chinese government never tolerates any separatist activities aiming at ‘Taiwan independence. (…)We hope and believe that the international community will adhere to the One-China Principle, stand against any forms of ‘Taiwan independence,’ and support, with concrete actions, the peaceful development of the cross-Strait relations[18]. This regards the ‘One-China Principle’ outcome of the 1992 Consensus reached between the KMT and the CPC, which foils recognition of independent sovereign states on both sides of the strait, but rather that ’’the two sides of the Taiwan Strait both belong to one China’’[19].

Despite this diplomatic isolation, Taiwan has pushed through and affirmed itself as a main regional trader. Besides its rapid-growth industrialization (computer technology being its main field of high tech production and global expertise), its open-market economy established the state as one of the Four Asian Tigers, a term used in reference to the 1980s high economic growth in some East Asia newly industrialized states (Hong Kong, Singapore, South Korea, and Taiwan). Nonetheless, the main export market for Taiwanese goods is China, in line with its coerced limited political realm

In their own words, the Democratic Progressive Party proudly proclaims that ‘’we’re the party of democracy, freedom, human rights, and a strong Taiwanese identity. It’s in our roots. From our role in toppling the KMT’s one-party dictatorship to our continued fight for the freedom of speech, assembly and the press’’[20] – it is now their time to come through for a thriving future for Taiwan.

Policy Recommendations

As we examined before, the November general election in Myanmar granted the National Democratic League (NLD) the vast majority of available parliament seats, while the military retained some decision-making weight by locking 25% seats as their uncontested own. Negotiation will be the keyword to accomplish the NLD’s program for this new chapter in Burmese history, one of a liberal and democratic Myanmar that is finally open to freedom, foreign investment and a bountiful economy. Here are some topics that should be on their agenda.

  • Fundamental human rights should be abundantly assured and restrictions on personal freedoms fully eased – the Freedom House’s 2015 report on Freedom in the World[21] declared Myanmar to be ‘’Not Free’’ and with a worrisome 6-point rating in both political rights and civil liberties. It is still plagued by serious human rights violations, such human trafficking linked to sexual exploitation (in which Myanmar is a vulnerable transit country[22] for victims in dire need of a tougher prevention plan), and child labor[23] (spawning sewing, food factories or water delivery and demanding immediate laws for the withdrawal and protection of minors). Additionally, international watchdogs (i.e. Transparency International, Human Rights Watch, International Crisis Group, etc.) should also monitor the country’s progress on the freeing of all political prisoners[24] and social media activists[25] who remain shunned from civil society. This encourages stronger national integrity and international legitimacy, and should be progressively overseen by the international community;
  • There is a need to break with the secluded military legacy and open up the country, steering more direct foreign investment and economic growth – a transparent democratic society necessarily attracts more trade partners globally, generating better access to international resources and networks. In 2015 the Asian Development Bank[26] confirmed this link by calculating that the economy expanded 8.3% under the democratization process’ effect last year. The global market, particularly Southeast Asian countries’ sustained investment and among which Myanmar is a respected member of ASEAN, should seek to involve and better commercial ties with Myanmar, as it will encourage its fragile economy;
  • An important task the new government has under its wing is the attempt to change the Constitution in place – Myanmar is currently governed by the 2008 Constitution the military junta drew up to shield their interests in the event of a loss on power. In this sense, any change to this somewhat democracy-hostile Constitution will demand negotiation talks not only with the Head of Army, but also the 25% parliament representatives, in order to avert any risk of political gridlock. The NLD can only assert their governance and liberal rule by bypassing this stalemate and should therefore be fully supported by the international community in this fight against remaining caged within the prescript enforced by their predecessors.

In this same line, it is clear that Tsai Ing-we’s majority government in TAIWAN shows much promise. Here is a possible way to further their international standing within democratic self-rule.

  • Develop peaceful and cooperative relations with Mainland China and global actors – now with bigger legislative control than ever before, the DPP’s voice in cross-strait relations is more powerful and a review of the mode of mutually accepted interaction (which the 1991 Consensus is not) between Taiwan and China is needed to avoid a constant political stalemate. Additionally, with China as Taiwan’s biggest export market and trade partner, the island should focus on trade networks with regional and global players, which will not only boost a dynamism of the Taiwanese economy, but also weaken dependency on China. International actors should therefore look to better involve Taiwan in their trade networks;
  • Support a Taiwanization of the state – while rejecting any possibility of eventual unification with China is unadvisable considering, keeping up with a localization movement that appreciates Taiwanese culture, history and dialects should be a priority of the new progressive government. In line with this, international policymakers should voice their support for the growing national identity, instead of adopting a passive approach towards China’s oppression. If the international community doesn’t actively support China in repressing Taiwan’s localization efforts, the state will be able to properly develop its full economic and political potential, given its strategic importance as and emergent regional industrialized hub.

A Nobel-winning political activist and an Ivy League doctorate. These are the two female figures that lead the democratic movements currently revolutionizing Myanmar and Taiwan, respectively. As two of the Southeast Asia countries with the most troubled national modern histories, the international community now has its eyes set and hopes on their incoming governments’ ability to deliver liberal values and encourage further resilience in favor of freedom and democracy.

[1] CIA, 2016 [Link]

[2] Human Rights Watch, 2015 [Link]

[3] Human Development Index, 2014 [Link]

[4] Nobel Prize Organization, 2016 [Link]

[5] US Department of the Treasury, September 2015 [Link]

[6] The White House, November 2012 [Link]

[7] BBC, December 2015 [Link]

[8] Constitution of the Republic of the Union of Myanmar, 2008 [Link], pg.47

[9] President Office of the Republic of the Union of Myanmar, January 2016 [Link]

[10] CNN, November 2015 [Link]

[11] Constitution of the Republic of the Union of Myanmar, 2008 [Link], pg.26

[12] Euronews, March 2016 [Link]

[13] CIA, 2016 [Link]

[14] The Economist, January 2016 [Link]

[15] BBC, January 2016 [Link]

[16] European Union External Action, 2016 [Link]

[17] US Department of State, February 2015 [Link]

[18] The Diplomat, January 2016 [Link]

[19] The Diplomat, January 2016 [Link]

[20] Democratic Progressive Party, 2016 [Link]

[21] Freedom House, 2015 [Link], pg.24

[22] Human Trafficking.org, 2012 [Link]

[23] International Labor Organization, October 2015 [Link]

[24] Assistance Association for Political Prisoners (Burma), February 2015 [Link]

[25] Assistance Association for Political Prisoners (Burma), October 2015 [Link]

[26] Asian Development Bank, 2015 [Link]

About Barbara Matias

Bárbara Matias is a Research Assistant in the Human Rights and Conflict Resolution research division. Her research interests include the enforcement of human rights, gender issues in the developing world, transatlantic relations and the Middle East.