In Myanmar during fall break, 10 Woodrow Wilson School master’s-degree students met with government officials in Naypyidaw, the new capital city notable for its elaborate government buildings, luxury hotels, and wide boulevards. But the grandiosity of the setting belied the poor construction they saw inside — missing floor tiles and chipped plaster — and for much of a meeting with the country’s election commissioners, lights and air conditioning were off because of a power outage.
The experience was “a testament to Burma’s ongoing struggles with development,” said Sam duPont, one of the students who visited Myanmar (formerly Burma) for the “Election Management in Fragile States” policy workshop taught by Jeffrey Fischer, a visiting lecturer with election-management experience in Albania, Bosnia, Kyrgyzstan, and Ukraine, among other places. The juxtaposition of luxury in the capital of Naypyidaw and poverty in the countryside reflected the seesaw that is Myanmar as it transitions from military dictatorship to fledgling democracy.
The students spent a week investigating Myanmar’s preparations for its October 2015 elections, meeting with members of international organizations and representatives of the media, government, and the two major political parties. A highlight was meeting Nobel laureate and opposition-party leader Aung San Suu Kyi, who spent most of the two decades ending in 2010 under house arrest because of her outspoken views on Myanmar’s military dictatorship. Suu Kyi was not very positive about the nation’s democratic progress during the meeting, duPont said, but softened her tone when the government subsequently abandoned its plans to amend the electoral system in its own favor.
The students came home with a cautiously optimistic view of where the country is headed. Though the international community hopes Myanmar will follow the path of Indonesia to democracy, duPont said, the country’s political system is still opaque and it’s hard to gain insight on what will happen.
The last national elections were held in 2010, but Suu Kyi’s opposition party, the National League for Democracy, boycotted them, citing fraud.
In December the students provided briefings on Myanmar’s evolving political climate to the UN Electoral Assistance Division in New York and USAID in Washington.