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Asia

Survey: People in Myanmar 'cautiously optimistic' about future

After decades of military rule, people in Myanmar are hopeful about the future and the recent transition to democracy, a new survey found. But their optimism is tempered by poverty and ethnic and religious conflicts.

Published by The Asia Foundation and titled Myanmar 2014: Civic Knowledge and Values in a Changing Society, the report reveals that a majority (62 percent) of respondents believes things in Myanmar are going in the right direction, while 28 percent say they don't know.

But the poll - based on over 3,000 face-to-face interviews conducted between May and June across all 14 states - also finds limited knowledge among the public about government institutions and their functions, a low level of social trust, a high degree of political polarization, and deep apprehension about economic opportunities.

The nationwide survey, released on December 11, is the first to document public knowledge and awareness of new government institutions and processes in the Southeast Asian country. The poll comes at a critical time amid longstanding religious and communal conflicts and ahead of a presidential election next year. President Thein Sein's quasi-civilian government has earned international praise for undertaking political and economic reforms that have resulted in the lifting of most Western sanctions.

However, 69-year-old opposition leader Aung San Suu Kyi, who is currently barred from running for president, recently decried that the reform process had stalled long ago. The government also faces growing criticism over its treatment of the Muslim Rohingya minority in the western state of Rakhine.

Kim Ninh

Ninh: 'It is very heartening that people express very strong support for democratic principles'

In a DW interview, Kim Ninh, The Asia Foundation's country representative in Mynamar says that while people are generally hopeful about the direction the country is headed, their optimism is also tempered by the challenging reality of the transition process.

DW: How do people in Myanmar view the current political situation in their country?

Kim Ninh: The survey results indicate that people are generally hopeful about the future, with 62 percent of the population believing that the country is moving in the right direction compared to 4 percent who did not. People also generally feel free to express their political opinions, with 66 percent answering in the positive but almost a quarter still feel that they could not.

As for participation in the upcoming 2015 elections when all political parties will be able to participate fully for the first time, an overwhelming 93 percent said they intend to vote and 80 percent believe that the 2015 elections will bring positive impact to their lives. On the whole, people hold strong ideals for political participation and democracy, but their optimism is tempered by the challenging reality of the transition process.

Survey findings also tell us that there is very low level of trust in society, with more than three quarters of the respondents stating that in general, they do not trust most people. When asked if they would end a friendship if their friend belongs to an unpopular political party, 41 percent say yes.

One can imagine the legacy of an authoritarian past, history of ethnic conflicts, and decades of repressed political expression contributing to low social trust and deep political polarization. So this is a reality that any government must overcome.

What makes them feel cautiously optimistic?

For those who feel that the country is moving in the right direction, they highlight tangible things like road and school construction, and the improvement of the economy. While half of the respondents believe that their own personal economic situation has not changed in the past year, 35 percent report improvement while only 15 percent indicate that they are worse off.

After more than five decades under military rule, democracy has brought them new freedoms and the ability to express their political opinions, but it is not surprising that there is an underlying cautiousness. The new government only came into power in 2011, and meaningful interactions between the state and citizens are very much a new experience in Myanmar.

What are the main concerns of the people and why?

The biggest concerns that people have at the national level are about ethnic and religious conflict, economic growth, poverty, and unemployment. The biggest concerns that people have identified at the local level relate to poor roads, access to electricity, unemployment and poverty.

So you can see that ethnic and religious conflicts and economic concerns are high on people's minds. In particular, we see that economic issues have become a key indicator of how people perceive things are going - whether positive or negative.

How do the people of Myanmar view their government?

Taken as a whole, survey findings show the wide gap between citizens and government. No doubt this is a legacy from decades of authoritarian rule, and people were more likely to keep to themselves and solve problems on their own rather than expecting anything from their government.

Although Myanmar has moved some ways toward a democratic polity since 2011, with a lively Parliament and many reform initiatives coming from President Thein Sein and his cabinet, the majority of the population does not know much about the new government structure and functions.

They are more familiar with the highest office of the President and with the village tract administrators who they interact with the most, but otherwise know little about government institutions at levels in between. They also express little knowledge of Parliament, whether at the national or sub-national level.

Myanmar Präsident Thein Sein 29.04.2013

Ninh: 'People are more familiar with the highest office of the President'

Overall then, we see that the public is still quite far removed from the government and this is a challenge that will need to be addressed to sustain and deepen democratic institutions and practices.

What did you find out about people's views of democracy?

As for democracy, it is very heartening that people express very strong support for democratic principles. They believe strongly in fairness for all, regardless of gender, race or religion. They believe in the transformative power of elections to improve their lives. They also overwhelmingly associate democracy with new freedoms, but it is important to note that the practice of democracy is still nascent in Myanmar.

Very few respondents see the connection between democracy and rule by the people, and almost half of the respondents still define the relationship between the state and citizens as that between a father and a child, with the other half of the respondents seeing it as an equal relationship.

So while many people express faith in the democratic ideals, they continue to hold traditional views about authority that may impact negatively on how they exercise their rights and responsibilities in a democracy.

What do respondents say about the economic issues affecting them?

Poverty and unemployment are key economic issues affecting the people. The economic situation has improved for many, but survey findings also convey a sense of uncertainty about continued growth. The specific concerns that the respondents highlight, from roads to electricity, are also about economic opportunities.

I should note that our survey also probes people's economic values, and respondents consistently emphasize hard work, individual efforts, value of competition to drive innovation, and that there is enough wealth to go around.

Myanmar Gewalt zwischen Rohingya Muslime und Buddhisten

Ethnic and religious conflicts, along with economic concerns, are 'high on people's minds,' says Ninh

There is a strong expectation that the government needs to play a role to ensure that everyone is provided for. We don't want to read too much into our survey findings, but the economic views expressed by the majority of respondents bode well for Myanmar's market-oriented development strategy.

What do the respondents regard as positive developments over the past years?

It is inspiring to see that in a society emerging out of decades of isolation, military rule and conflict, people are excited about new freedoms and eager to exercise their right to vote. At the end of the day though, people are also concerned about the things that affect their lives on a day-to-day basis.

I would go back to what the people provide as reasons why they think the country is moving in the right direction: roads, schools, economic development and employment. There are a lot of expectations people have for the upcoming elections in 2015, and I would think that peace and prosperity dominate public sentiment.

Kim Ninh is The Asia Foundation's country representative in Myanmar.