Political Communication and Transformative Citizenship in Myanmar (Part II)

Political Communication and Transformative Citizenship in Myanmar (Part II) by Matthew J. Walton, 07/09/2017, Tea Circle (Oxford)

One of the holy grails of democratic studies is the idea of transformative citizenship. Many have theorized about how democracy could be transformative or how engaged citizenship could transform relationships between citizens and government, but it is difficult to really track this concept.

A national political dialogue process made up of biannual 21st Century Panglong Conferences, themselves consisting of 700 elite representatives mostly drawn from a few centrally important institutions, reflects multiple views on citizenship, none of them transformative in empowering or ennobling ways. It further privileges direct political participation and decision-making for a select few, while imposing a set of passive citizenship practices on the vast majority of the population. A meaningful voice in political decision-making (particularly about their own affairs) is the central complaint of almost every interest group in Myanmar, from ethnic armed groups to women’s organisations to opposition parties and student unions. Yet almost every step of the process leading to the current national political dialogue framework (from initial negotiations between a small government team and ethnic armed group leaders through to the drafting of the final framework by a nine member, all male group behind closed doors) has reinforced the notion that for most, citizenship is primarily a non-participatory notion, merely the act of being represented. And this type of citizenship cannot be transformative in the sense of turning people into more active, knowledgeable, inter-connected, and empathetic members of a political community.

What types of citizen engagement might be potentially transformative? A 2011 study looked at the presumed benefits of citizen participation in democratic governance and found that the positive effects of expanded participation are noticeable primarily to those actually taking part, which should not be surprising. The study specified these benefits as coming in the form of “knowledge, skills, and [democratic] virtues” (Michels 2011, 290). This insight helps to distinguish between the effects of different types of “democratic innovations,” for example referendums and deliberative forums. While referendums seem to result in more direct policy influence, deliberative forums would contribute more to individual citizen development, not to mention the embeddedness that seems to be so critical in the citizen-political community relationship.

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