Coming of Age: Reason for Optimism in Burma

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By Jonathan Potton – Burma (officially called Myanmar), a country plagued by internal political turmoil, is at a point where changes in its demography may improve its chance for democracy. The country has experienced direct or tacit military rule since 1962, only 14 years after independence in 1948, but events in the past year alone reflect an internal political environment that is softening. The Burmese military has loosened its grip on the press; and Aung San Suu Kyi, the most outspoken and internationally recognized of Burma’s opposition leaders, was released from house arrest and entered the national assembly. While Burma remains a long way from acquiring the label of “Free” in the annual survey published by Freedom House’s (FH), there are reasons for renewed optimism. One of those reasons is demographic, where changes in the country’s age structure (distribution of population by age) are statistically associated with stable, liberal democracies (measured through the FH index).

Why should Burma’s demography be conducive to democratization? For political demographers, the answer is “maturity”. Until recently, Burma has 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) had achieved liberal democracy status according to the Freedom House Index-and Mali has just dropped off the list. And just like Mali, Gambia, Malawi, Zambia, and Senegal, Burma previously achieved more democratic system before falling to more authoritarian regimes, although methods of quantifying this are unavailable (FH surveys were not completed before 1972).

During Burma’s early experience with electoral politics and civilian rule, the youth bulge was in full effect.  In 1960, the Burmese population’s median age was around a youthful 21 years. By 1970, Burma’s age structure had grown even younger, with median age dropping to 19 years. Fertility began to decline 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’s latest estimates-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, 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 Richard Cincotta at Stimson, 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 with a greater probability of stable democracy reflect the dissipation of a very youthful age structure? Or does it happen because of the demographic bonus effects-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.

The age structure of minority populations are an area of uncertainty for political demographers. Data on minority populations is often unpublished, due to its difficulty to collect and sensitive nature. As such there remains speculation as to the differing age structures of the minorities in many countries, including Burma. However, with minorities in Burma experiencing significant isolation from the majority population and services, it is likely that TFR did not drop as fast and the age structure has not matured in line with the rest of the country. 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 integrated into the mainstream society and therefore the overall structure, 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. 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.

Sources: UN Population Division, 2010 Revision and Freedom House Index, 2010 Freedom in the World Report.

Photo Credit: By Mohd Hafiz Noor Shams via Wikimedia Commons,

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