The 2013 Myanmar (Burma) Update Conference was held over two days, on Friday, 15 March and Saturday, 16 March 2013, at the Australian National University, Canberra, hosted by the Department of Political and Social Change, College of Asia and the Pacific, on the theme of “debating democratisation”.
The Conference theme was partly a response to the insistence of government representatives in Myanmar (Burma) that they would not go back on commitments to democratise. Some observers of the political changes since the ANU convened its last regular Update Conference in May 2011 concurred that the reform program was irreversible. They pointed to the many new policy initiatives from the centre, the apparent sincerity of elite actors about the need for consensus on democratic transition, and growing popular sentiment for social and political change as among evidence that the country was firmly on a democratising path.
The goal of national reconciliation was being frustrated by military impunity. And although the National League for Democracy swept by-elections in 2012, the party continued to be dominated by a single personality and had not yet built a platform upon which to represent itself as a viable alternative to the military-established Union Solidarity and Development Party that held an overwhelming number of seats in the national legislature. International capital was returning, but not at a pace or in a manner as to satisfy demands for immediate improvements in living standards and employment opportunities. The gap between rich and poor was not narrowing.
Meanwhile, state institutions—including the bureaucracy, courts and police—continued to function much as they had done for over two decades. Steps to effect change from Naypyitaw had for most people not yet been realised in tangible results. Hopes were high, but so too was skepticism born of half a century of military dictatorship and the memories of earlier, lost moments of promise.
Participants at the conference asked, "Is Myanmar (Burma) democratising, or is it moving towards a new form of authoritarianism, perhaps one more consonant with other contemporary authoritarian regimes in Asia? What lessons for Myanmar (Burma) can we draw from democratisation theory, and from comparisons with other countries in the region, or further afield?" Coming at a critical time, and one of growing interest in the country among researchers and policymakers, the 2013 Myanmar (Burma) Update Conference assembled leading international scholars (1) of democratisation, political transition and comparative politics to debate these questions with leading and emerging specialists on politics and society in Myanmar (Burma). These scholars subsequently contributed to two publications (2): Debating Democratisation in Myanmar (ISEAS 2014) and a special edition of South East Asia Research.