Coming of Age: Reason for Optimism in Burma’s Turn Towards Democracy
Burma (also known as Myanmar), a country plagued by internal political turmoil and direct or tacit military rule since 1962, had its first general elections in 50 years in 2010 and long-time jailed opposition leader Aung San Suu Kyi won a seat in the National Assembly, but questions remain as to how much power the military is willing to cede. Demography provides reason for hope that this turn towards democracy is more than temporary.
Why is Burma’s demography conducive to democratization? For political demographers, the answer is maturity.
Until recently, Burma had been experiencing a “youth bulge” – an age structure with a disproportionate number of young people and rapid growth of its working-age and school-age populations. Where a sustained youth bulge occurs, adequate youth employment and high educational attainment are difficult to achieve. Furthermore, while youthful democracies are possible, they have been notoriously unstable.
In 2010, there were 44 countries or territories with youthful population structures with a median age (the age of the person for whom half the population is younger) of less than 20 years. Of those 44, only Benin, Mali, and Sao Tome and Principe (a small island state) have achieved liberal democracy status according to the Freedom House Index, an annual political freedom survey – and Mali has just dropped off the list.
Like Mali, Burma’s current authoritarian regime came after short-lived attempts with democracy. And like Mali, Burma’s early experience with electoral politics and civilian rule came when the youth bulge was in full effect. In 1960, the median age of Burma was 21 years old. The military took over in 1962, and by 1970, the age structure had grown even younger, with median age dropping to 19 years. Fertility did not begin to decline until nearly a decade later, from about five children per woman in 1980 to about two children today. By 2010, the downward trend in fertility pushed Burma’s median age upward to about 28 years, according to the UN Population Division – significantly more mature than ever before.
For political demographers, Burma’s increasing age-structural maturity gives reason to be more confident that a second democratic regime in Burma, if attained, could be more stable than the first.
Of the 47 independent states with a median age between 35 and 45 years old in 2010, only nine were ranked as “partly free” or “not free” by Freedom House in the same year (Russia, Cuba, Singapore, Belarus, Bosnia, Macedonia, Moldova, Georgia, and Ukraine). Among these, there is a large share of regimes controlled by former communists, including Vladimir Putin, and by charismatic “founder figures” (such as Lee Kwan Yew and Raul and Fidel Castro). However, military rulers, of the type that once dominated Latin America and North Africa, are notably absent.
According to research undertaken by demographer and ECSP consultant Richard Cincotta, since the early 1970s an independent state with a median age of 28.9 among its permanent residents has shown a 50-percent chance of being a liberal democracy.
Does this statistical association reflect the dissipation of a very youthful age structure and the effects it entails? Or does it happen because of the bonuses provided by the demographic dividend – the surge in educational attainment and higher savings rates and greater social stability that emerge as youthfulness fades? Or a combination of them all, as well as other factors? Although political scientists may debate the precise mechanism for this statistical trend, the phenomenon of rising median age is able to identify candidate countries and their relative chances of maintaining a liberal democracy.
This model puts Burma, with its median age of 28 years old, at about equal chances to achieve liberal democracy as not.
Diversity a Complicating Factor
A complicating factor in this case is Burma’s significant ethnic diversity, which has helped contribute to its long-running civil war. The age structure of minority populations are an area of uncertainty for political demographers. Data on minority populations is often unavailable, either because it is not being collected or its sensitive information in areas where ethnic tensions run high. As such there remains speculation as to the differing age structures of the minorities in many countries, including Burma. However, with minority groups in Burma experiencing significant isolation from the majority population and services for many decades, it is likely that total fertility rate (average number of children born per women) has not dropped as fast as the rest of the country and their age structures are therefore not as mature.
While youthful minority populations are not an insurmountable challenge, they do provide problems for an emerging democracy. If ethnic groups are forced to operate independently and not integrate into mainstream society, all of the problems associated with a youthful population can become concentrated in these ethnic groups. Most worryingly, high unemployment, low education levels, and a low opportunity cost for joining radical movements can destabilize the country and jeopardize any movements towards democracy, as seen in Turkey with the Kurds. The challenge here is to incorporate all sections of the Burmese population into the democratization process, avoiding a two-tier system based upon ethnic lines.
When age structure is taken into consideration, the prospects for resilient democratization look significantly better this time around for Burma than in the 1960s. And while the rise in median age, by itself, does not guarantee the achievement and maintenance of a liberal regime, it’s an encouraging trend. The current maturity of the Burmese population suggests that right now is an opportune moment for democratization to be underway.
Jonathan Potton is a student at the University of Aberdeen and currently interning at the Stimson Center for demographer Richard Cincotta.
Sources: Freedom House, The New York Times, UN Population Division.