- Asian Barometer

April 2016, Volume 27, Number 2 $14.00
Latin America’s New Turbulence
Benigno Alarcón, Ángel Álvarez, and Manuel Hidalgo
Noam Lupu Marcus André Melo Gustavo Flores-Macías
Forrest Colburn and Arturo Cruz S.
The Puzzle of the Chinese Middle Class
Andrew J. Nathan
Turkey’s Two Elections: The AKP Comes Back
Ziya Öniº
Arch Puddington & Tyler Roylance on Freedom in the World
Jacqueline Behrend & Laurence Whitehead on Subnational Democracy
Sheri Berman on Democratic Waves
Burma Votes for Change
Min Zin Igor Blaževiè
Bridget Welsh, Kai-Ping Huang, and Yun-han Chu
Burma Votes for Change
Clashing Attitudes
Toward Democracy
Bridget Welsh, Kai-Ping Huang, and Yun-han Chu
Bridget Welsh is professor of political science at Ipek University (Ankara),
senior research associate at National Taiwan University’s Center for East
Asia Democratic Studies, senior associate fellow at the Habibie Center (Jakarta). Kai-Ping Huang is postdoctoral fellow at the Center for East Asia
Democratic Studies, National Taiwan University. Yun-han Chu is senior
fellow at the Institute of Political Science at Academia Sinica, professor of
political science at National Taiwan University, and director of the Asian
Barometer Survey.
All eyes are watching Burma’s political transition, first from mili-
tary dictatorship to pseudocivilian rule, and now to a genuinely civilian elected government. What has been a gradual process of economic
and political liberalization began in 2008, when Burma’s military junta
drafted a new constitution. The high point in this process so far has been
the November 2015 general elections, in which the opposition National
League for Democracy (NLD), led by Nobel laureate Aung San Suu
Kyi, won a resounding victory over the ruling military-backed Union
Solidarity and Development Party (USDP). The USDP government is
expected to hand power over to the NLD as scheduled at the end of
March 2016. This does not mean, however, that Burma’s prospects for
democracy are all rosy.
Survey data provide some insights into the longer-term obstacles
ahead. At the least, the new government will have to improve governance
and encourage broader civic engagement in order for democracy really
to take hold. Studies of Burma’s ongoing transition—like most transition studies—have interpreted the changes as being driven by bargaining among elites rather than public pressure and protest.1 Yet Burma has
experienced significant popular challenges to military rule—notably, the
1988 student protests, the 1990 elections (which were also swept by the
NLD), the 2007 Saffron Movement, and most recently the 2015 elections.
While the events of 1988 and 1990 led to a military coup, the developJournal of Democracy Volume 27, Number 2 April 2016
© 2016 National Endowment for Democracy and Johns Hopkins University Press
Bridget Welsh, Kai-Ping Huang, and Yun-han Chu
ments since 2007 so far have seemed more promising. What does a view
from below reveal about Burma’s long-term prospects for democracy?
In order to answer this question, we analyze data from the Asian Barometer Survey (ABS) conducted in Burma from January through March
2015. This was the first time that the ABS, now in its fourth wave, was
carried out in Burma. After completing a pilot survey in the region of
Pegu, the ABS surveyed a national sample of 1,620 people across all fifteen regions and states (including the capital, Naypyidaw), using national
population data provided by the government for rigorous sampling. Given
that we do not yet have time-series data for Burma, we compare the results
from Burma with those from other countries in Southeast Asia.2
The ABS found that Burma’s citizens are strong advocates for democracy, but a large majority of them do not hold the liberal political values that
undergird democratic practices. When asked to choose between democracy
and an authoritarian alternative—one of the most extensively used indicators for measuring popular support for democracy—72 percent of respondents said that “democracy is always preferable to any other kind of government.” This is the highest share in the region. By contrast, only 57 percent
of Cambodians and 47 percent of Filipinos embraced democracy wholeheartedly. (See Figure 1 below, which compares Burma with its neighbors
in Southeast Asia.) Most notably, a mere 4 percent of respondents in Burma
said that “under some circumstances, an authoritarian government can be
preferable to a democratic one,” whereas 31 percent of Thai respondents
agreed with this statement.
Throughout the survey, in fact, respondents in Burma registered high
support for democracy. When asked if democracy, despite its problems,
“is still the best form of government,” 90 percent of Burma’s respondents agreed. Nearly as many (89 percent) said that “democracy is capable of solving the problems of [their] society.” Of Thai and Filipino
respondents, only 70 percent and 65 percent, respectively, placed confidence in democracy’s problem-solving capacity.
Respondents in Burma also seem to conceptualize the meaning of
democracy differently from respondents in other Southeast Asian countries. Traditionally, Asian citizens have placed a strong emphasis on substantive dimensions of democracy such as social equality (especially the
provision of basic needs to all and narrowing the gap between the rich
and poor) and good governance (especially clean politics and efficient
public-service delivery).3 Burma’s respondents, even more than others in
the region, included equality as an essential characteristic of democracy.
But they also emphasized a combination of procedural elements (for 20
percent, elections were the key characteristic of democracy, and for 24
percent rights and freedoms were) and substantive elements (for 37 percent it was equality, and for 19 percent it was good governance).4 Taken
together, these findings indicate high public support for democracy in
Burma. Not only do citizens place considerable faith in democracy as a
Journal of Democracy
Figure 1—Preference for Democracy,
Cross-National Comparison
Democracy is always preferable to any other kind of government
Under some circumstances, an authoritarian government can be preferable to a democratic one
For people like me, it does not matter whether we have a democratic or nondemocratic regime
Source: ABS Wave III (Cambodia and Indonesia) and Wave IV (Burma, Vietnam, the
Philippines, and Thailand).
form of government, but they also have a healthy notion of what democracy means. The results of the November 2015 elections were in line with
the strong popular support for democracy indicated in the ABS responses,
as Burma’s citizens rejected continued rule by the military and its USDP
government. Our data also suggest that on the eve of this breakthrough
election, the people had exuberant aspirations for democracy, a phenomenon quite common to “third-wave” democracies at a comparable stage
of democratization.
If we dig more deeply into the popular commitment to democracy
in Burma, however, we find that a great majority of its citizens do not
embrace the substance of liberal democracy and that their support for
democracy is very superficial. Although this phenomenon is actually
quite common across the region, citizens in Burma are among the most
illiberal, exceeded by only the Vietnamese.5 The ABS asks a battery of
questions to assess to what extent people hold democratic values regarding such matters as political freedom, pluralism, the role of religion in
politics, and accountability.
The findings in Burma indicate that the vast majority of citizens still
subscribe to authoritarian values and beliefs, despite having voted for
democracy. The legacy of authoritarianism remains deeply embedded
in Burma’s political culture, and the problem is compounded by a lack
of understanding of how democracy should function. Figure 2 shows
the shares of respondents in Burma, Cambodia, Indonesia, the Philippines, Thailand, and Vietnam who believe that the legislature should
be a check on the government. In Burma, 72 percent of respondents
did not support the principle of horizontal accountability. In Indonesia,
Bridget Welsh, Kai-Ping Huang, and Yun-han Chu
Figure 2—Authoritarian Attitudes,
Cross-National Comparison
Disapprove Horizontal Accountability
Authoritarian Values
Source: ABS Wave III (Cambodia and Indonesia) and Wave IV (Burma, Vietnam, the
Philippines, and Thailand).
by contrast, only two-fifths of respondents disapproved. Respondents
in Burma also registered the second-highest overall share (62 percent)
of adherents to authoritarian values as measured by our full battery of
questions, indicating a big gap between their support for general democratic ideals and their view of how democracy actually should function.
A strong propensity for authoritarianism is embedded in Burma’s
predominantly conservative political culture. Scholars have distinguished between “modern” and “traditional” values, with the latter
favoring hierarchy over equality, order over political freedom, harmony over contestation, and collective welfare over individual rights.
Traditional values are thought to undercut democracy, as they indicate
support for the centralization of power, limits on pluralism, and unequal representation of citizens. Some traditional values, such as the
emphasis on the community over the individual, have been labeled as
“Asian values” and used to justify limiting democracy in Asia.
In order to determine the strength of traditional values, the ABS asks
a number of questions involving issues such as hierarchy, order, harmony, and collectivist orientations. Burma’s respondents expressed the
strongest overall devotion to traditional values in Southeast Asia.6 Their
responses to individual questions are equally revealing. More than a
third (68 percent) of Burma’s respondents agree that students should not
question the authority of their teachers; 81 percent object to pluralistic
views; and 60 percent say that if only one child can be chosen, preference should be given to a boy.
Burma’s citizens have been relatively isolated, absorbing their values
from conservative religious and governmental institutions. With mod-
Journal of Democracy
ernization, globalization, and greater regional integration, these values
are likely to change. But Burma’s current deeply conservative political
culture conflicts with the norms of equality, accountability, and pluralism, which are necessary for a functioning democracy. Most at odds
with democracy are views on the role of religion. Respondents in Burma
emphatically rejected a secular state, with 83 percent supporting a consultative role in lawmaking for religious leaders, and 81 percent supporting a direct link between religion and citizenship. Given the dominance
of Burma’s Buddhist majority and the escalation of religious conflict in
recent years, these findings bode ill for building a democracy based on
equal rights and inclusion.7
Gaps in Democratic Citizenship
In order for democracy to function effectively, people must be engaged in political life. In Burma, according to ABS findings, expanding democratic space and growing political and social engagement are
oddly coupled with low levels of cognitive capacity and social trust.
A majority of people are uninterested in politics. Only 46 percent of
respondents expressed some level of interest. This has to do in part with
the association of the Burmese word for politics (ninenganrayy) with
negative views of the government and of governance. After more than
sixty years of military rule with limited political inclusion and public
accountability, there is a deep-seated suspicion of “politics.” Yet given
the ongoing political change in Burma, it is surprising that fewer than
half of respondents express any interest in political issues. Burma is not
alone in this regard, however. The share of politically disengaged citizens is even higher in Indonesia (64 percent) than in Burma.
Even more worrying, though, is the lack of political knowledge
among Burma’s citizens, even those who profess some interest in politics. Roughly a fifth of respondents claim to follow the news regularly
(more than weekly), while a little more than twice that number (42 percent) “practically never” seek out news. Of those who express an interest in politics, only 33 percent follow political news regularly; among
those not interested in politics, only 8 percent do.
Burma’s media environment has opened up and diversified considerably in recent years, giving citizens access to a variety of possible news
sources. This has not led, however, to greater political engagement. This
lack of an informed citizenry is a major obstacle for democratization.
Even if many respondents in Burma (though not a majority) express an
interest in politics, they simply do not possess the requisite knowledge
for meaningful participation in the democratic process.
This incongruity in how Burma’s citizens engage in political life is
mirrored in the social realm. Social capital has long been recognized
as an important ingredient for sustaining democracy and reducing con-
Bridget Welsh, Kai-Ping Huang, and Yun-han Chu
flict.8 Social capital encompasses the relationships and trust that bind
members of a society together. In most modern societies, the level of
participation in civic organizations and of social trust, the two key elements of social capital, usually go hand-in-hand. In Burma, we find a
puzzling divergence.
Among the many misconceptions about Burma’s civil society9 is the
widespread belief that it is small, young, and underdeveloped—an outgrowth of relief efforts after Cyclone Nargis in 2008. The ABS findings challenge this perception and reveal a pattern that is common in
Southeast Asia: Civil society emerged in areas where political space
was permitted under authoritarian rule—for example, in Indonesia’s religious organizations (allowed during the Suharto era) and in Malaysia’s
grassroots political parties.
In Burma, 60 percent of respondents belong to organizations—a figure that is comparatively high, with only Indonesia (94 percent) and
Vietnam (73 percent) reporting higher levels of civic participation.
Burma’s citizens mostly join religious (especially Buddhist) organizations, which have deep historical roots in society, as well as community
and charitable organizations, which were permitted under military rule.
The military encouraged the formation of community organizations to
deliver social services that it failed to provide itself, and it promoted
the expansion of religious and charitable organizations to shore up its
legitimacy. The ABS findings show that citizens also have considerable
social networks, with 63 percent having people outside their households
to whom they can turn for help. In short, Burma is a country of robust
horizontal social ties.
These extensive ties should be promising for democracy. Regular interaction among citizens in society should naturally spill over into political life as well. And in fact, 40 percent of respondents report having
participated politically more than once to solve a local problem. Despite
working together to address local concerns, however, Burma’s citizens
report surprisingly low levels of social trust, with only 19 percent agreeing that most people can be trusted. In the region, only Cambodia and
the Philippines have lower levels of social trust.
The lack of social trust in Burma may be a legacy of authoritarian
rule, which relied on informers and often pitted neighbor against neighbor and family against family. As a result, Burma’s citizens are reserved
in their dealings with one another. Social trust is slightly higher among
the ethnic minorities (20 percent) than among the majority Burman (18
percent), but is still quite low. Democracies plagued by low social trust
are prone to conflict; they have difficulty in getting citizens to participate in politics and to forge relationship across different groups, making
them vulnerable to fragmentation. This is particularly relevant in the
case of Burma’s deeply divided society. Moreover, it is not just at the
grassroots level that the lack of social trust poses a problem. One of the
Journal of Democracy
main reasons for the breakdown of democracy in Burma in the 1950s
was a lack of trust among elites.
It’s the Economy
The NLD’s decisive win in November 2015 has been interpreted
mainly as a popular outcry for democracy. The ABS survey suggests
another underlying driver—the economy. In fact, Burma’s respondents
reported a greater desire for economic improvement than for democracy.
Surveys have consistently shown the economy to be the main concern of
citizens, with a full 50 percent identifying such bread-and-butter issues
as jobs, wages, or the cost of living as the most important issue facing
the country. Another 33 percent identified the economy as the second
most important issue. Issues related to the economy overshadowed all
others, including good governance (the main concern of only 16 percent,
and the second greatest concern of just 14 percent).
In the 1990s, Burma’s government began to implement a series of economic reforms. In 2011, the USDP government launched an ambitious liberalization program.10 Growth rates have risen, as have some incomes.11
Most ordinary citizens, however, have yet to see the benefits. Close to half
(46 percent) say that they have experienced no change in economic conditions, while 22 percent say economic conditions have worsened. In fact, a
majority (53 percent) of respondents in Burma perceive current economic
conditions as being worse than in the past, with just under a third (32 percent) seeing current conditions as better. These negative perceptions of
Burma’s economy were a key factor in the vote for a change of government.
More than half of citizens in Burma (53 percent) believe that “economic development is more important than democracy,” with less than
a third (30 percent) prioritizing democracy over the economy. The remainder (18 percent) saw both as equally important. Burma’s citizens
are closely split with regard to the importance of economic equality
versus political freedom: 42 percent consider economic equality to be
more important than political freedom, and 39 percent believe the opposite, with 19 percent giving equal weight to both. Just as the state of the
economy helped to drive demands for political change, it will also determine how people perceive the results of this change. In other words,
Burma’s new government will have to deliver on the economy in order
to be considered successful in the eyes of the people.
Poverty and slow economic development remain significant problems,
despite reports pointing to gains in recent years. A UNDP assessment
found that 32 percent of the population lives in poverty, with the poor
concentrated heavily in rural areas. The World Bank puts this figure at
37.5 percent.12 The ABS survey confirms that Burma’s citizens feel high
levels of economic vulnerability. A majority of citizens (63 percent) also
fear losing their main source of income. Moreover, the consequences of
Bridget Welsh, Kai-Ping Huang, and Yun-han Chu
a loss of income would be dire. Nearly three-quarters (73 percent) of respondents said that their families would struggle to get by were they to
lose their major income source. It is therefore no wonder that most ordinary citizens would prioritize the economy over democracy.
In fact, this is the case all over Asia. What distinguishes Burma is that
its citizens see economic improvements as being linked to democracy,
whereas people in most other Asian countries believe there is a tradeoff
between them. Since military rule in Burma brought years of economic
decline, the country’s citizens hope that democracy can bring economic
development. In fact, the ABS findings reveal that the strongest support
for democracy and change in Burma came from those who perceived
the economy negatively, 88 percent of whom preferred political change.
Within this group, 61 percent desired major change, and 6 percent wanted
to see the system replaced entirely. For citizens of Burma, democracy
represents hope—the promise of a better future after many years of authoritarian rule that failed either to bring about meaningful economic development or to provide the basic freedoms and opportunities that people
want. The ABS findings show a desire for more democracy in Burma, as
was emphatically confirmed by the November election results.
The ABS findings also reveal some big challenges ahead for democratization in Burma. While Burma’s citizens welcome greater democracy,
they do not necessarily possess the underlying values—belief in inclusion,
secular government, and pluralism—that support democracy in practice. At
the same time, they possess illiberal and conservative values that can undermine democracy. While there is political engagement, an informed citizenry
is lacking. While there are robust everyday ties and an active civil society,
social trust remains low. Finally, the vote for a new government was more
than a call for democracy; it was also a call for tangible economic improvement in a country where much of the population is poor and vulnerable.
Although most observers are focused on the in-fighting, negotiations,
and deal-making at the top between Aung San Suu Kyi, the USDP, and the
military, there are a number of weighty issues to contend with at the popular level. If democracy is to take hold and thrive in Burma, the new government will have to find a way to promote liberal values in the citizenry
and to encourage social trust and political participation. A crucial step in
this process would be the adoption of a robust civic-education program.
If Burma is someday to become a stable and well-functioning democracy,
changes in political culture and a more active citizenry will be essential.
1. Min Zin and Brian Joseph, “The Opening in Burma: The Democrats’ Opportunity,”
Journal of Democracy 23 (October 2012): 104–19; Mary Callahan, “The Opening in Burma:
The Generals Loosen Their Grip,” Journal of Democracy 23 (October 2012): 120–31; Larry
Diamond, “The Opening in Burma: The Need for a Political Pact,” Journal of Democracy 23
(October 2012): 138–49; Robert H. Taylor, “Myanmar: From Army Rule to Constitutional
Journal of Democracy
Rule?” Asian Affairs 43 (July 2012): 221–36; Aurel Croissant and Jil Kamerling, “Why Do
Military Regimes Institutionalize? Constitution-Making and Elections as Political Survival
Strategy in Myanmar,” Asian Journal of Political Science 21 (August 2013): 105–25; and
Morten Pedersen, “The Politics of Burma’s ‘Democratic’ Transition: Prospects for Change
and Options for Democrats,” Critical Asian Studies 43 (March 2011): 49–68. See also John
Higley and Richard Gunther, eds., Elites and Democratic Consolidation in Latin America
and Southern Europe (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1992).
2. The ABS Wave III was conducted in 2010–12 across thirteen countries in East and
Southeast Asia. Indonesia was surveyed in May 2011, and Cambodia in February–March
2012. ABS Wave IV began in 2014 and will be competed in all countries surveyed by
2016. The Myanmar (Burma) survey was conducted in January–March 2015, the Philippines in July 2014, Thailand in August–October 2014, and Vietnam in September–October
2015. Details on the survey in Burma can be found at www.asianbarometer.org/survey/
3. Yun-han Chu et. al., eds., How East Asians View Democracy (New York: Columbia
University Press, 2008); Min-Hua Huang, Yun-han Chu, and Yu-Tzung Chang, “Popular
Understandings of Democracy and Regime Legitimacy in East Asia,” Taiwan Journal of
Democracy 9 (July 2013): 147–71; Yun-han Chu and Bridget Welsh, “Millennials and
East Asia’s Democratic Future,” Journal of Democracy 26 (April 2015): 151–64.
4. The percentages are based on four questions in the survey that ask respondents to
choose one of the options in each question that refer to procedures, freedom, equality, and
good governance, the four characteristics of democracy. For details on how this battery
was constructed, please refer to Yun-han Chu and Bridget Welsh, “Millennials and East
Asia’s Democratic Future”.
5. Yun-han Chu and Min-Hua Huang, “The Meanings of Democracy: Solving an Asian
Puzzle,” Journal of Democracy 21 (October 2010): 114–22.
6. This is a composite indicator, taking the average over 14 questions in the ABS survey. The questions include social harmony, respect for authority, emphasis on collectivism versus individualism, social equality, and interpersonal relations.
7. See Igor Blaževiè, “Burma Votes for Change: The Challenges Ahead,” on pp. 101–
115 in this issue.
8. Robert D. Putnam, Robert Leonardi, and Raffaella Y. Nanetti, Making Democracy
Work: Civic Traditions in Modern Italy (Princeton: Princeton University Press, 1994);
Ashutosh Varshney, Ethnic Conflict and Civic Life: Hindus and Muslims in India (New
Haven: Yale University Press, 2002).
9. Michael Lidauer, “Democratic Dawn? Civil Society and Elections in Myanmar
2010–2012,” Journal of Current Southeast Asian Affairs 31, no. 2 (2012): 87–114.
10. EABER and MDRI-CESD, “Myanmar Trade and Investment Strategy,” consultation
paper, February 2015, https://mdricesd.files.wordpress.com/2015/04/trade-invest-en.pdf.
11. Asian Development Bank, “Myanmar: Economy,” www.adb.org/countries/myanmar/economy.
12. UN Country Team in Myanmar, “Thematic Analysis 2011: Achieving the Millennium Development Goals in Myanmar,” www.mm.undp.org/content/dam/undp/library/
MDG/english/MDG%20Country%20Reports/Myanmar/Thematic-Analysis-2011-forMyanmar.pdf?download, 13; World Bank Group, “Myanmar: Ending Poverty and Boosting Shared Prosperity in a Time of Transition—A Systematic Country Diagnostic,” Report
No. 93050-MM, November 2014, www-wds.worldbank.org/external/default/WDSContentServer/WDSP/IB/2014/12/15/000350881_20141215093840/Rendered/PDF/930500C