Myanmar: Developing Democracy

With New Zealand’s embassy in Myanmar currently closed due to COVID-19, Ambassador Steve Marshall is in Wellington, awaiting the heads-up to resume his job. Ambassador Marshall has held the position since mid-2016, during the period of transition to democracy, and more recently the threat posed by COVID.

Steve Marshall sat down with the Asia Media Centre's Graeme Acton to discuss Myanmar’s future, and the moves towards fundamental political change.

It's no particular secret that Myanmar faces some major problems, and not all of them are to do with the COVID 19 virus. In fact deaths from COVID number under ten, with total cases just over 350, an impressive statistic for a country of 53 million people.

Aung San Suu Kyi’s National League for Democracy (NLD) took charge in early 2016, after a landslide election which removed the military’s hands from many levers of power, but didn’t oust them from the Parliament altogether.

The NLD leader and Chief counsellor has since presided over an administration frequently accused of political naivete, and bureaucratic inexperience.

But while the victory of the NLD was framed by many media as a victory of democracy over repression, Steve Marshall points out the transition actually started with the army, the Burman- dominated Tatmadaw.

“ One of the things that made them want to change was the international sanctions that were in place, because they had an indirect effect of making Myanmar too close or too dependent on China… they wanted to balance that.”

“In 2010, there was the first election and the first government took over in 2011, with the civilian USDP party, which was aligned to the military.”

The USDP government was installed to work with the Army in partnership working towards achieving the environment that would enable transition, A process described by the Generals as  “disciplined democracy”. 

“It was not open Westminster democracy, and to do them justice, the USDP made huge changes in the first five years, and much of the reform that took place happened under that military aligned government, because they were adjusting to come out of the dictatorship into a more open semi-democratic environment, which was open to the world, an independent sovereign state, free trading , all of that.”

 “Then in 2015, there was the second election, and Aung San Suu Kyi and the NLD won … I think probably much to the surprise of the military, who thought that the people loved them for the changes that they introduced.”


NZ's Ambassador to Myanmar, Steve Marshall / photo ANZF

As Steve Marshall took up his role as NZ Ambassador in mid-2016, the NLD was taking its first steps in a Parliament where the military still held a controlling hand under the Constitution.

“So suddenly, you have the two main political forces sitting in the same cabinet with three ministers reporting to the commander in chief and the rest of the ministers reporting to Aung San Suu Kyi.”

“Not on the same page, and with differing visions, so it’s actually not a real surprise that every step has been a major issue, because in fact, you have the military still looking towards their vision which is at odds with the NLD’s in some fundamental ways.” “Myanmar’s not about institutions, Myanmar’s about personalities”


With Myanmar due to go to the polls in November, Steve’s expecting another NLD victory, but also some new political actors are beginning to emerge.

While the NLD has been dealing with constitutional issues, the process of ending the country’s numerous ethnic conflicts has continued, albeit painfully slowly.

Ten of the large ethnic armies currently have a ceasefire with the Burmese-dominated Tatmadaw, and all sides appear poised to enter a new round of peace talks later this month, during which an enduring peace can be thrashed out.

NLD supporters

NLD supporters confident of a second election win in November/ photo ANZF

“The effort at the moment is to try and bring everybody on board by outlining a draft set of principles which people, whether they're signatories or not, would be able to sign up to say yes, that's something that we would be prepared to think about…”

“What they’d like to see is some movement towards the concept of a Federated States of Myanmar… and if that does happen you will see need for a constitutional rewrite.”

" It has to be driven by Aung San Suu Kyi, and the Army head Min Aung Hliang, along with the current President Win Myint... Myanmar's not about institutions, Myanmar's about personalities." 

“So the way it would work, as I understand, is pretty much on the same sort of political structure that it is now.  At the moment, for example, there is a Parliament in each of the 14 states and regions. And that parliament is actually subservient to the Union Government in the capital, Naypyidaw.”

“It would be a reversal of roles and the state and regional Parliament's would have a certain amount of local autonomy but  they would all be part of a central Federation. ..and the Federation will be looking at the issues of national defence, trade, that sort of big picture stuff.” says Steve.

yangon street

Myanmar's largest city Yangon, formerly Rangoon / photo ANZF

 So – a new peace deal, a new constitution, and in some ways a new Myanmar, one where all ethnicities are recognised.

Steve Marshall believes it’s an area where New Zealand can play a very useful part as a role model, using some of the broad principles behind the Treaty of Waitangi.

“I brought representatives from some armed ethnic groups to New Zealand in 2018, and introduced them to Maori-run incorporations, they looked at how the Maori relationship with the Crown works, and how the tribes have relative autonomy, but are all NZ citizens”

Currently in Myanmar citizenship flows from indigenous rights held by specific ethnicities, known as the “national races” or taingyintha, and if you are not included in those ethnicities – you are not a citizen.

“So, if in fact we start looking at the situation in the peace process where the indigenous people are talking about their preservation of their language, their links to the land, the traditional cultural issues of an ethnicity, that removes the pressure from the citizenship side.”

“No particular model is going to be the right one, they need to develop something for them. But they can use modelling and ideas from other places, and we're working with them on that and there is a definite interest, but it’s very early days.”


-         Asia Media Centre