The Southeast Asian country of Myanmar (previously known as Burma) made its way to the headlines a week ago. On January 31st, the military of Myanmar overthrew Aung San Suu Kyi’s government, and many leaders of the NLD, along with Aung San Suu Kyi, were taken under arrest. Myanmar, after a decade, is now in a year-long state of emergency. Unfortunately, this is not the first time that Myanmar’s democracy is being threatened.
History of Myanmar
Before 1948, Burma was a British colony. After the Second World War broke out in 1939, Burma fell under the mighty Japanese force’s influence. The local Army of Burma, with the help of the allies (US and UK), freed the country from Japan. For most of its independent years, Myanmar has been plagued with rampant ethnic strife and its myriad ethnic groups have been involved in one of the world’s longest-running ongoing civil wars.
In 1962, the military under General Ne Win took control of Myanmar through a coup d’état, and the government has been under direct or indirect control by the military since then. Myanmar turned into an isolated state as the military forces in power seized all private properties. There was a rapid decline in the economic condition due to absurd policies like demonetization taking place thrice within the span of 50 years of military dictatorship.
In the year 1988, the outraged students came out onto the street to protest against the authoritarian regime. This demonstration emerged as the biggest pro-democracy (the 8888- “8th Aug 1988”) protest, which later witnessed Aung San Suu Kyi’s involvement, who successfully led the student protest. This student protest of 1988 gave birth to National League for Democracy (NLD) Party. The year 1991 witnessed the first free and fair elections in the country with the military’s participation and the NLD party; the latter emerged as the winner. The result could not be digested by the Army and was rejected by the military officials, who continued to rule directly or indirectly until 2011.
In 2011, the military junta was officially dissolved following a general election, and a nominally civilian government was installed. In the 2015 election, the NLD party won a majority in both houses. The Nobel Peace Laureate Aung San Suu Kyi became the State Counsellor of Myanmar. Still, the military remained a powerful force in politics.
The Build-up of Political Tensions
In 2017, Rohingya Muslims’ plight caught the attention of international organisations like the United Nations and neighbouring countries like India and Bangladesh. It has brought Myanmar in poor light, especially after the mass genocide of the Rohingya Muslims by Myanmar’s military forces. The democratic leader, Aung San Suu Kyi, faced a lot of criticism worldwide for not condemning the mass genocide, and instead defending Myanmar’s military’s actions in the International Criminal Court. Non-Burman ethnic groups gradually began losing faith in the leader. Having failed at achieving ‘federalism,’ she was eventually turning into an authoritarian leader in the eyes of the common public. Aung San Suu Kyi became an unpopular figure—both in the International forums as well as the minorities/non-Burman groups.
Before the November elections of Myanmar in 2020, the military forces were somehow assured that they were in power without actually being in power. Though the military faced sanctions for conducting mass genocide of the Rohingya Muslims, it was Aung San Suu Kyi who faced real opposition. As per the mandatory reservation of 25% seats for the country’s defense forces, one-fourth of the parliament comprised military officials, which gave them the confidence to be in power in the 2020 elections.
Why did the military act now?
The downfall of Aung San Suu Kyi’s reputation in Myanmar restored the military’s faith in a potential triumph in the 2020 elections of Myanmar. Contrary to the Union Solidarity and Development Party’s (USDP) assumption, the National League for Democracy (NLD) emerged victorious by beating its vote count of 2015 elections. Aung San Suu Kyi had received a lot of backlash for not taking stringent action against the mass Rohingya genocide. Ironically, it probably played a vital role in boosting her popularity among the Burmans. On the other hand, the boost in NLD’s popularity was in no way good news for the military forces.
In March 2020, the NLD had proposed some reforms to amend the Constitution of Myanmar even though the reforms would have never passed due to the military’s influence in the country. The attempt to amend the Constitution, much against the military’s will, could have convinced the citizens of Myanmar that NLD had undermined the USDP’s power. Thus, becoming another probable reason for the insecure Army to mark the end of NLD once and for all. The majority of ethnic insurgencies taking place against the Myanmar military originate in the northern province of Myanmar, which the Chinese government supports as per the military officials. Therefore, the “red carpet welcome” of Aung San Suu Kyi after her landslide victory in 2020 by China has managed to convince the military of the “strengthening” of China’s relations with Myanmar, which is not acceptable by the USDP.
Lastly, the reason for the military coup is also suspected to be the personal interest of Myanmar’s commander-in-chief, who is retiring this year. It is a known fact that Myanmar’s military’s hands are stained with the Rohingya Muslims’ blood; consequently, Min Aung Hlaing (the commander-in-chief) fears prosecution because of his role in the Rohingya massacre. More so, the fear of Aung San Suu Kyi supporting the commander-in-chief’s trial is also a significant factor; therefore, being a potential reason for the staging of the military coup in Myanmar.
The Present Scenario in Myanmar
The military forces of Myanmar refused to believe the outcome of the 2020 elections in favour of the National League for Democracy (NLD). They accused Aung San Suu Kyi’s electoral win due to voter fraud. The Myanmar military found 8.6 million irregularities in voter lists that could have let voters cast multiple ballots; thereby, committing ‘voting malpractice’. Though the ‘voter fraud’ was the reason given by the military behind the current political turmoil; however, many people refuse to believe this to be the reason behind the coup.
The military officials of Myanmar accused Aung San Suu Kyi of illegally importing walkie-talkies, which further led to her arrest by the officials. Within the next 24 hours of the arrest, all the internet and telecom services were suspended. TV channels went off the air, and the military’s news channel declared that the military had declared a year-long emergency.
National and International Reaction
On 5th February 2021, hordes of people took to the streets to denounce the coup and demand the release of elected leader Aung San Suu Kyi. Staff at dozens of hospitals and medical centres walked out, and several others wore ribbons to show that they oppose the coup. As the protest increased and activists issued calls on social media for people to join the march, the country’s Internet was shut down. The military tried to silence dissent by temporarily blocking Facebook and extended it to Twitter and Instagram on 6th February.
The UN Security Council condemned the military takeover in Myanmar. The UK, EU, and Australia are some of the many to do the same. Joe Biden has threatened to reinstate sanctions. China, which has previously opposed international intervention in Myanmar, urged all sides to “resolve differences”.
How will the coup affect the Rohingyas and other ethnic minorities?
Since gaining independence in 1948, Myanmar has witnessed many clashes between the Tatmadaw (another name for Burmese military) forces and various ethnic groups. Minorities from the states of Kachin, Shan and Rakhine have been targeted by the military, numerous times. Even during the decade of democracy, many minority groups in the country remained marginalised, and the government ignored their needs. The 2015 elections saw the exclusion of the Rohingya and other minorities from the voting list. They weren’t included in the 2014 census, thus considering them illegal immigrants and denying them citizenship. During the November 2019 elections, about 1.5 million voters from various ethnic minorities were disqualified from voting or participating in the polls.
Many Rohingya fear that the coup will revisit the horror of the military crackdown of 2017 when more than 700,000 Rohingya Muslims took refuge in Bangladesh. The 2017 massacre was termed a counterinsurgency operation by the military, and it resulted in many villages being torched, and several Rohingya were murdered, beaten and raped. While many groups fear ostracization and mass murders by the military, many are hopeful that the military coup will bring international attention to their precarious condition. The coup provides international institutions with a window to pressure Myanmar regarding human rights abuses against the Rohingya and other minority groups.
What could happen now?
The military has announced that it will be in power for a year. This will isolate Myanmar from world politics, including various cultural and environmental agreements and trading policies. This would provoke resistance among the people who are still reeling from the economic decline due to the pandemic. Infrastructure projects like construction of roads and railways would have to be renewed and reviewed by new authorities, and hence a delay is expected. Banks’ closure amidst the pandemic and a suffering economy is becoming the reason for anxiety among citizens, bringing back flashbacks from the past coups when people wrestled a military government and food scarcity.
Citizens fear that more internet crackdowns are approaching followed by detaining human rights activists, journalists and minority groups. The shift in governing power might worsen the management of COVID-19 pandemic; many people may attempt to flee the country as seen in the past, thus creating a potential threat of spreading the virus.
The coup might result in Myanmar’s isolation from international trade. Additionally, other Asians countries like Japan, South Korea and India in the Burmese trade economy have been vital to counter China’s economic stranglehold. Trade developments and China’s relation with the military rule of Myanmar would be interesting developments to follow.
It is the sheer dominance and flawed political system, witnessing which one realises the importance of a ‘democratic state.’ Democracy, in simple terms, refers to the establishment, which is OF the people, BY the people, and FOR the people. For any country to prosper, the kind of political system that governs the citizens plays a vital role in developing the state and its people. The supreme political reign of any one party eventually kills the very essence of ‘democracy,’ thereby affecting citizens’ fundamental freedom and rights. The current Myanmar situation is not very pleasing to hear, especially when people know and understand the paramount importance of democracy. Thus, one can only be propitious for the Myanmar crisis to come to an end once and for all; consequently, saving thousands of lives from being sacrificed at the hands of Myanmar’s military.
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Written by Aarushi Verma, Lavya Joshi and Abha Deo for MTTN
Edited by Tulika Somani for MTTN
Featured Image by Navya Anil for MTTN