Democracy in Myanmar: In conversation with Franque Grimard & Erik Kuhonta

Professors Erik Kuhonta (Political Science) and Franque Grimard (Economics), both researchers with the Institute for the Study of International Development (ISID), are participating in Canada’s Knowledge for Democracy Myanmar initiative, which seeks to support democratic transition in Myanmar through policy research. Kuhonta and Grimard graciously shared insights on their research projects - read on to learn more about their fascinating work.

How did you get involved in this research initiative?

Professor Franque Grimard and Professor Erik Kuhonta (fourth and third from right, respectively), with Edgard Rodriguez from IDRC, along with participants from the University of Mandalay.

Erik Kuhonta: I study Southeast Asian politics and development, so when there was a call for proposals from IDRC to do research on gender and politics in Myanmar, I thought this was a unique opportunity to extend my work in the region. Most of my research in Southeast Asia has focused on Thailand, the Philippines, and Malaysia, so Myanmar has been a new site for my work, and a great chance to learn more about a region that always fascinates me.

Franque Grimard: I thought this would be a great opportunity to do interdisciplinary research with my political science colleague Erik Kuhonta and researchers from the Asian Institute of Technology whom I had met in previous conferences. Part of my research in Economics is to analyze the determinants of women empowerment in developing countries. But empowerment is not only economic. It is also how individuals express their ideas and their needs and this is of course very much related to understanding political participation.

As part of this program, you are participating in two projects: the first will support capacity building for researchers and policy analysts in Myanmar, whereas the second will seek to understand barriers and working pathways to women's political participation in Myanmar. Within these projects, what are your specific research focuses?

Franque Grimard: My contribution on the women’s political participation project has been to work with our local partner, Myanmar’s Gender Quality Network (GEN) to help them construct and administer the quantitative survey to more than 2000 households across 5 regions of Myanmar. We work together to analyze the impact of factors such as education, family background, cultural norms on women’s decisions within the household as well as their decision to participate in the various political processes (local, state and national) of Myanmar.

Erik Kuhonta: On the project on women’s political participation in Myanmar, I am especially focusing on comparing Myanmar with Cambodia. One element of the project seeks to compare Myanmar’s experience and trajectory in terms of women’s political participation with that of Cambodia. Since both countries are very poor (in fact, much poorer than other countries in Southeast Asia) and also have similar histories that are characterized by extensive violence and trauma, they are good cases to compare.

Regarding the Capacity Building for Professionals & Researchers project, what types of training do you anticipate providing to the project’s stakeholders to expand their research and analytical capabilities?

Franque Grimard: We have two groups of stakeholders with very different needs. The first group is made up of policy analysts working for a governmental think tank, the Myanmar Development Institute (MDI). These individuals already have received training from Korean universities and their needs are quite specific, related to particular issues. For instance, this year, MDI wants to have trainings on Public Private Partnerships (PPPs) and on some applied econometrics methods and their applications to policy analysis. The second group consists of researchers from various social sciences from the University of Mandalay and other neighboring universities. Unfortunately, the university system in Myanmar was left in a very sad state after years of shutting down and neglect by previous military governments. Things have improved but there is still much to do. This is why the Government of Canada and the International Development Research Centre, under the Knowledge for Development Initiative in Myanmar, decided to help finance several projects to train and support researchers in various universities in Myanmar. The needs of these researchers are varied, ranging from a better background in qualitative and quantitative analyses to specific help writing research papers and Ph.D. theses.

What key differences do you see in providing training to the University of Mandalay versus the Myanmar Development Institute?

Franque Grimard: As mentioned above, the needs at MDI are more specific and are related to particular issues that may change from one year to the next. The researchers at the University of Mandalay require more continuous and longer-term support in facilitating their research and their academic papers.

The other research project focuses on Barriers and Working Pathways to Women’s Political Participation in Myanmar. What will your primary focus be in this project? What do you hope to achieve through your research?

Professor Franque Grimard at the beginning of the program at the University of Mandalay.Professor Franque Grimard at the beginning of the program at the University of Mandalay.
Erik Kuhonta: Our goal in this project is to contribute to academic knowledge, as well as policy recommendations, regarding the factors that shape and constrain women’s political participation, as well as to understand how political participation is understood in Myanmar. The project involves qualitative interviews, survey research, and comparative analysis. With over 200 semi-structured interviews and a survey that had more than 3000 respondents, we have much new data to understand the challenges that women face in terms of political participation. We hope to share our findings with the policy community in Ottawa, Myanmar and in other Southeast Asian countries.

Franque Grimard: My own role in this mix-methods project is to help articulate better the quantitative components to shed more light on the findings that my colleagues discover in their interviews and in their focus group discussions with the political leaders of Myanmar and in Cambodia. This combination of quantitative and qualitative methods will contribute to a better understanding of the determinants of political participation of women at the local, state and national level.

What excites you most about working on these projects? What is the most challenging aspect?

Erik Kuhonta: Working on a country like Myanmar, that is in the throes of a transition from decades of military rule is very exciting. This is a very important country in Southeast Asia that has been deeply affected by decades of authoritarianism. Engaging in research and capacity-building in Myanmar allows one to push into new frontiers.

There are many challenges in these projects. One of them is collaborating with multiple partners in different parts of the world. The project on women’s political participation in Myanmar is being done in collaboration with Gender Equality Network (a network of NGOs and research advocacy groups) based in Yangon and the Asian Institute of Technology based in Bangkok. It is always challenging to coordinate and come to agreement on many different research questions and strategies, but overall, it is also very stimulating and a great learning experience. Another challenge has been how to deal with ethics approval in Myanmar when the standards and nature of an ethics board are very different. Nonetheless, with on-the-ground work by our Myanmar partner, GEN, we were able to get all the necessary ethics approvals.

Franque Grimard: For me, the most exciting part of the project is to work with individuals with such a tremendous thirst for knowledge. Whether for capacity building with MDI or the University of Mandalay, or collaborating with GEN, it is amazing to be able to share knowledge with so many individuals willing to work so hard so that they can contribute to the development of their communities and their country through either their policy recommendations or their research.

How are you adapting your participation in this project in the context of COVID-19?

Professor Erik Kuhonta with participants from the University of Mandalay.
The project has been slowed down because of COVID-19. In fact, the pandemic has now exploded in Myanmar. At the beginning of September, there were less than 900 cases. Now, there are 42,000 cases and more than 1,000 deaths. But overall, the team has been quite nimble and has been able to move forward despite the pandemic.

Franque Grimard: We have been able to do the household survey interviews this summer before COVID-19 cases exploded. But we are still doing some of the qualitative interviews using phones, Skype and Zoom methods, which has made data collection more difficult. For the capacity building projects, we have been able to create an e-learning platform with the help of McGill’s Institute for the Study of International Development (ISID) and we are delivering workshops through this platform as well as providing support through interactive live sessions with the participants. One session on Public Private Partnerships offered by our ISID colleague Prof. Jamal Saghir went extremely well, though one wishes we would have been able to go there.

In your view, what are the primary hurdles Myanmar continues to face in its path towards democracy?

Myanmar appeared to be on a liberalizing trajectory when Aung San Suu Kyi joined parliament in a byelection in 2012 and the country then had its first free and fair election in 2015. All of this was greeted with much euphoria. Since then, however, events in Myanmar have been extremely disappointing. The expulsion and magnitude of state violence against the Rohingya under the government of Aung San Suu Kyi has been horrific. Furthermore, Suu Kyi has had no qualms using repression against civilian opponents and media critics. After all the heightened expectations, Myanmar’s current state of governance is not particularly promising. Much needs to improve in terms of protection of human rights, rule of law, and institution-building. International organizations should understand that a country’s path toward democracy is often very unstable and that leaders who were good at resisting dictatorship may be very ineffective, and even outright autocratic, when taking on the reins of government. Myanmar’s path toward a consolidated democracy is still a long way off, but it is very much worth engaging this process. We very much hope to be able to support that process through our research, policy recommendations, and training programs.

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