The national elections in Burma on November 8 were a historic event for the country. However, following 50 years of military rule and only four since the nominally civilian government was introduced in 2011, the landslide victory of the National League for Democracy (Aung San Suu Kyi’s party) can only be considered the beginning of a delicate period of democratic transition for the country. 

The Blavatnik School’s associate professor of government and public policy Dr Maya Tudor was asked to be an official international observer with the Carter Center and followed the events from Burma.

As an expert in democratic transition – in particular that of South and South East Asia’s countries - Maya shared her views in this piece for the Washington Post’s political science blog Monkey Cage. Her article highlights four questions upon which the democratic future of Burma hinges:

  1. The evolution of the military’s role in politics: democratic transition requires the reduction of military power. What are the regional precedents for a military retreat from political power and which path will Burma follow?
  2. The incoming government’s programmatic agenda: The incoming National League for Democracy (NLD) government possesses both enormous political capital and the burden of high expectations. Yet we know little about what policies the NLD hope to prioritise and implement. On what basis will it govern?
  3. The development of the NLD leadership beyond Aung San Suu Kyi: a strong, well-organised party with multiple experienced leaders is a crucial for the country’s stable democratisation. Yet Burma’s incoming government remains deeply centralized. Will this change?
  4. A clear political stance on the Rohingya persecution: now the electoral campaign is over, Suu Kyi’s actions on this issue will have important consequences for the future fabric of Burma’s democracy. Will she condemn Rohingya violence and establish an egalitarian basis to Burma’s nationalism?

Speaking about the experience, Maya said: “It was a huge thrill to be able to observe these historic elections with the Carter Center, which had been professionally operating in the country for over a year before the elections. The determination with which millions of Burmese cast their votes – many of them standing in line for hours – was a heartwarming testament to the enduring appeal of the democratic ideal.

"At one point on election day, I spoke with a man standing in line to vote who had been imprisoned in Yangon’s most notorious prison for three years. His crime? Marching to celebrate the founding father of the country in 1989. To watch him cast his ballot for the first free election of his lifetime was an experience I will never forget. Moments like those are why I study democratic transitions.”

Maya’s research focuses on the origins of stable democracies in the developing world with a particular focus on South Asia. Last year her book The Promise of Power was released and presented as part of a series of talks in New Delhi, including at the Centre for Policy Research. The book explores the reasons why, after independence and partition, India was able to quickly build the institutions it needed for a functioning democracy, while Pakistan lurched from one crisis to the next and finally succumbed to years of autocratic rule.

Maya also recently co-authored a working paper, How nationalism can promote democracy: evidence from South and Southeast Asia, which looks at the origins of two of the biggest Asian democracies – India and Indonesia - and compares them with their closest neighbours: Pakistan and Malaysia, respectively.

She is currently convening the “Democracy and Difference Seminar Series” a series of talks that brings scholars from universities around the world to Oxford to present and discuss democracy and political science. The series runs for the whole academic year - the programme is available for download at the link below.

See Dr Maya Tudor’s profile