Opinion polling in Myanmar (Burma)
Last week I was in Myanmar for the first time, as one of three experts, with an American and a Malaysian, tasked to review the opinion polling scene in the context of its next national election in December 2015.
Myanmar is ranked 155 out of 167 countries by the Democracy Index (the Philippines’ rank is 69), which considers it one of the three Authoritarian countries in Asean, along with Vietnam and Lao PDR (see “The Democracy Index,” Opinion, 11/15/2014). After independence from the United Kingdom in 1948, it was a democratic republic until 1962, and then had a series of military regimes until 2011, when it started to have a nominally civilian parliamentary government.
The country has a huge land area of 650,000 square kilometers, more than double the Philippines’ 300,000. Its population density is one-fourth of ours, given its 2013 population of only 51 million, in its first census in 30 years. Its ethnic conflicts are so severe that the census’ ethnic distribution has not yet been disclosed.
Myanmar has commercial research companies capable of doing social surveys. For instance, the Charities Aid Foundation last month ranked Myanmar as tied with the United States for most generous country in the world, using the proportion of people who donated money, volunteered, or helped strangers—including giving food to the monks—in the month before they were surveyed, based on the Gallup World Poll. The GWP, which typically samples 1,000 respondents per country, is executed in that country by Myanmar Survey Research (MSR), and in the Philippines by Social Weather Stations.
The IRI survey. Polls of political opinions are, of course, very sensitive, and require government permission. Last April, the International Republican Institute (IRI, an NGO linked to the US Republican Party) released its USAID-funded “Survey of Burma Public Opinion,” which was executed by MSR on 3,000 respondents nationwide on 12/24/2013-2/1/2014.
The IRI poll generated much controversy because it had a 91-percent job-approval rating for President Thein Sein, and said that 88 percent saw “things going in the right direction,” to the consternation of the political opposition led by Nobel Laureate Aung San Suu Kyi, who is openly supported by the US government.
Personally, I don’t think the IRI poll was biased for the government since it also has items showing strong support for Aung San Suu Kyi, whose late husband was English.
Item: “Do you support the repeal of the current constitutional amendment that bans someone from becoming a president if they have married a foreigner?” Results in percent: Yes 54, No 32.
Item: “Knowing Aung San Suu Kyi is prevented from becoming president with the current constitution, would you now support amending the constitution so that she would be able to run?” Results: Yes 64, No 21.
The IRI survey found percentages saying certain statements were best reflected by the opposition National League for Democracy (NLD) or the ruling Union Solidarity and Development Party (USDP) as follows: (a) “They support women” —NLD 57, USDP 19. (b) “They have young leaders”—NLD 52, USDP 25. (c) “They support democratic reforms”—NLD 48, USDP 25. (d) “They care about people like me”—NLD 44, USDP 35. (e) “Their policies help the poor”—NLD 42, USDP 35. (f) “They are trustworthy”—NLD 40, USDP 35. (g) “They have strong leadership”—NLD 40, USDP 36. (h) “They have good policies”—NLD 37, USDP 31. (i) “They fight corruption”—NLD 31, USDP 37. Note that the opinions favor the NLD in eight of the nine cases.
The Asian Foundation (TAF) survey. The newest political survey in Myanmar is TAF’s Australian-Aid-funded “Civic Knowledge and Values in a Changing Society,” which was privately reported to key institutions on 12/11/2014, and then publicly presented last Tuesday. The survey was fielded for TAF by MSR on a sample size of 3,000 respondents in May-June 2014.
Focusing on the people’s attitudes in general rather than toward specific parties, the TAF survey found much unfamiliarity with the political system. More than a third did not know (and only 12 percent knew) that the president is indirectly elected by the national parliament, the Pyidaungsu Hluttaw. A significant 44 percent said, incorrectly, that the president is elected directly by ordinary citizens; 6 percent even thought that he is chosen by the commander of the defense services.
To the open-ended question “What does democracy mean?” (which accepted up to three responses), the most common answers were “Freedom”— 53 percent, “Rights and law”—15 percent, “Peace”—11 percent, “Equal rights for groups”—8 percent, and “Government by the people”—3 percent. But 35 percent had no answer at all.
Polling in an authoritarian setting. Both the IRI and the TAF surveys probed into freedom of political expression. The former asked if people are “afraid to openly express their political views,” and found 53 percent saying that most, or at least some, are afraid. The latter asked, affirmatively, “Do you feel free to express political opinions where you live?” and found 66 percent saying Yes. My view is that such probes have value for research, as long as the responses are voluntary.
It is safe to say that the political parties in Myanmar, looking toward the 2015 election, are already conducting their own polls, for their private use. What is lacking are local institutions to do polls for the benefit of the general public. Open opinion polling is important for democracy.
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