RANGOON — An opinion poll by a US government-backed pro-democracy institute has found that members of the Burmese public largely believe their country is “heading in the right direction” three years after President Thein Sein undertook an ambitious reform program.
Eighty-eight percent of respondents indicated that they thought the country was on the right track, while 6 percent thought Burma was headed in the wrong direction, according to a poll of 3,000 people conducted by the International Republican Institute (IRI), a Washington-based organization that receives funding from the US government.
The IRI results seem to indicate that public sentiment runs counter to views voiced by opposition leader Aung San Suu Kyi, who last year criticized the government for providing “no tangible changes” in Burma, which was ruled for five decades by a military dictatorship that ceded power in 2011.
That military, condemned for decades by the West for a long history of human rights abuses perpetrated against its own people, scored higher in a favorability assessment than any other institution in Burma, according to the poll released late last week. Eighty-four percent of respondents said they viewed the military favorably or very favorably, beating out the ruling coalition (74%), the opposition (70%) and the courts (62%), among others.
Respondents said the country had made progress on democratization and women’s rights, but lost ground in dealing with ethnic and sectarian tensions. Fifty-seven percent of survey takers said ethnic violence in Burma had increased from a year ago.
The poll also shed light on where the public stands ahead of elections slated for next year that will largely pit the ruling Union Solidarity and Development Party (USDP) against Suu Kyi’s National League for Democracy (NLD).
Many anticipate that the opposition NLD will win big—an expectation based in part on the party’s trouncing of the USDP in 2012 by-elections—but the IRI poll indicated that on most governance matters, the USDP is considered the slightly more competent party. The USDP was seen as more capable of ending ethnic conflict, improving the economy, strengthening the nation and improving security. The country’s main opposition party was only viewed as more adept at improving education, by 41 percent of respondents compared with 37 percent for the USDP.
The NLD fared better in questions related to which party was seen as representing the interests of women, poor people and democratic principles.
Regarding constitutional reform, which many democracy advocates both inside Burma and outside the country see as a critical litmus test for the reformist government, 64 percent of respondents said they supported a change to Article 59(f), a controversial provision that bars Suu Kyi from running for president because she married a foreigner and has two foreign passport-holding sons. Twenty-one percent said they opposed such a change.
As ethnic groups continue to call for a federal political system that devolves power to state and divisional governments, the survey finds that Burmese people on the whole are divided on the issue. Asked whether the country should decentralize its governance structure, 57 percent said they preferred a centralized system, while 35 percent supported more autonomy for states and divisions.
Burma’s current economic situation received favorable assessments, with 85 percent of respondents gauging the economy as good or very good.
Growing 6.5 percent last year, and predicted by the government to expand 9.1 percent in 2014, Burma’s economy is one of the region’s fastest growing, but the country is also one of Southeast Asia’s most impoverished.
Despite the overall economic optimism, 96 percent of respondents said low income was a very or somewhat serious issue, and nearly as many people cited unemployment as similarly problematic. Poverty reduction received the worst marks among a list of performance areas that the public was asked to evaluate the government on.
A section of the poll on media usage reflects the significant work yet to be done in providing the country with modern telecommunications access. Nearly 60 percent of respondents said their household did not own a mobile phone, and 73 percent said they “never” used the Internet, compared with only 2 percent who said they were online every day. Two foreign telecommunications companies, Ooredoo and Telenor, have said they intend to make significant inroads in connecting the populace by the end of this year, after receiving licenses in January to set up mobile networks in Burma.
The survey was taken from late December to early February of this year, across all 14 of Burma’s states and divisions. The IRI said the poll included the views of “a national representative sample of voting age adults,” roughly in proportion to the estimated ethnic, religious and socioeconomic makeup of the country.
But at least one political analyst in Burma cast doubts on the validity of the poll, saying the results were “rubbish” and represented a form of “indirect lobbying” by the IRI for the Burmese government.
“The IRI is funded by the United States government, and the United States government would like to show that their engagement with the Burmese government is very successful, that they are gaining positive momentum,” said Yan Myo Thein, a political commentator based in Rangoon.
“All these figures and the data are only rubbish.”
For its part, the IRI states that the opinion research was “compiled in accordance with international standards for market and social research methodologies.”
“At the midrange the survey has a confidence interval of plus and minus two percent with a confidence level of 95 percent,” according to the report, which is based on field work conducted by the Myanmar Survey Research group under the supervision of the IRI.