Taken from Myanmar Times

The Democratic Party (Myanmar) holds a meeting in Thayarwady township in Bago Region in 2010. Photo: Christopher Davy

The Democratic Party (Myanmar) holds a meeting in Thayarwady township in Bago Region in 2010. Photo: Christopher Davy

Despite the excitement of upcoming elections – with understandable attention on voting preferences – and necessary attention to ethnic conflict, the main priority of ordinary Myanmar is the economy. Nearly half of respondents identified bread-and-butter issues, such as jobs, salaries, inflation and cost of living, as the most important problems facing the country. When asked to choose between economic development and democracy, the economy won out by a margin of 20 percentage points. The public perception is that economic conditions have not significantly improved compared to the past, suggesting that the rapid growth Myanmar has experienced in recent years has yet to effectively trickle down.

What is impacting citizens is religion. We do not have a comparative tool to see how important religion was a few years ago but today religion stands out as one of the most prominent feature affecting political life. The ABS findings show that people in Myanmar are deeply religious and advocate for religious authorities to play a political role. Yet, at the same time, they are divided over religion, with sharp differences over treatment and rights. The findings reveal that divisions over religion are arguably the dominant – and most worrying – political cleavage facing the nation. In contrast to recognised ethnic differences – where there was considerable common ground across ethnic communities over possible solutions, such as devolution and federalism – there are divergent views over religion that have yet to be reconciled. These call out for measured and wise interventions.

The ABS shows that Myanmar have deep respect for their leaders, especially those that are seen to be earning merit. This respect is rooted in the country’s political culture. The fascinating role that culture plays in politics comes out in the survey findings, marking Myanmar as one of the most conservative political societies in East Asia. This conservativism contrasts sharply with the calls for democratic political reform and frank recognition of governance shortcomings that came through in other parts of the survey. Nevertheless, it reinforces the need to bring in greater appreciation of culture and historical framing into our analyses.

In studies of Myanmar politics, especially in news reports, there is a tendency to emphasise the actions of leaders to the detriment and often exclusion of ordinary voices. The Myanmar public are treated as subjects rather than agents in bringing about political change. The ABS shows that people in Myanmar are indeed actively engaged in political life, especially in their communities. For Myanmar, politics is primarily local. There is an active culture of joining organisations and strong horizontal ties in social networks for assistance and engagement. Myanmar disproportionately join religious organisations, charity groups, and residential and community associations, in areas such as volunteer funeral services. Myanmar people have filled the available democratic space by helping each other and have done so for a long time. The ABS findings show that Myanmar people are active in solving local problems and are inclined to further participation in political life.

Where there is a gap in political engagement, it is in political knowledge: People in Myanmar do not seek out political information in line with their professed political interest. This lack of understanding of issues, including the electoral process and electoral system, points to potential misunderstandings that can widen the already serious gaps and suspicions that exist in Myanmar politics. This should serve as a clarion call to scholars, practitioners and media alike to improve the quality of information given to the public and increase its accessibility.

This week we released the findings of the ABS survey. The key findings, along with the technical reports, can also be found on the Asian Barometer website. We welcome your feedback and questions. We will be publishing the final report on the findings next month and will work to incorporate the feedback into our analysis.

As the senior adviser to Myanmar and a member of the ABS team, I would like to thank the national, state and local authorities for facilitating access to conduct the survey, and the survey team – young dynamic interviewers whose dedication and hard work were inspiring. Most of all, however, I would like to thank the Myanmar people who graciously gave of their time to share their views. Compared to other countries in East Asia, Myanmar citizens were among the most willing to participate in the research. The ABS experience emphatically shows that Myanmar want a voice in political life and to be heard.