Just as the South-East Asian country was gearing up to celebrate the swearing of its elected leaders of the November 2020 elections, it awoke to a disturbing call of the Junta imposing a military coup by shattering the fragile quasi- democracy on February 1st, 2021. Years of toiling tirelessly against the Tatmadaw had turned out to be futile on what was supposed to be the death knell for democracy on a day when it has to be rejoicing their elected leaders taking charge. This article seeks to demystify the complexity of the political situation in Myanmar by tracing it back to its origins and also analysing the animosity of the international community toward the Junta.
Myanmar has faced military rule, civil war, exclusion from global affairs, and widespread poverty during its decades of independence. After its independence from British rule in the year 1948, in 1949, a civil war erupted between both the state and a variety of rebel groups, including radical and indigenous armies. As the civil war continued and politics became more polarised, the military began to see itself as being an institution capable of keeping the country united.
Myanmar has been governed by a military junta for many years. Like most of its newly independent neighbours on the Indian subcontinent, the Union of Burma started off as a parliamentary democracy when it achieved independence from Britain. However, this lasted only until 1962, when General U Ne Win led a military coup and remained in power for the next 26 years through a coup de etat to overthrow the AFPFL government.
In 1974, Ne Win established a new regime based on an isolationist stance and a socialist economic programme that nationalized Burma’s major corporations. The economy quickly collapsed, and a black-market economy developed. Huge student-led protests erupted in 1988 as a result of systemic corruption, rapid changes in economic policy linked to Myanmar’s currency, and food shortages. The armed forces attacked demonstrators in August 1988, killing nearly at least three thousand people and displacing several more.
Myanmar’s biggest pro-democracy protests, known as the 8888 uprisings, took place in 1988 and are best remembered for General U Ne’s “bloody repression.”
Hundreds of common citizens rose up against military rule, but the army responded with ferocity, killing many demonstrators.
In the same year, Suu Kyi rose to prominence by heading a student-led demonstration against the military Junta. Suu Kyi formed her political party, the National League for Democracy, in the same year. Given the country’s divided environment, the NLD defeated the military-controlled State Law and Order Restoration Council (SLORC) group in the election.
Despite winning the general election, the military refused to acknowledge the results and detained Suu Kyi and other representatives of her group in 1989. She was held in her lakeside home for many years, and during that period, she became a well-known figure for her peaceful demonstrations.
Ne Win quit as leader of his party after the 1988 takeover, but he stayed involved behind the curtains as yet another military junta staged a coup and seized power. The country was renamed from the Union of Burma to the Union of Myanmar in 1989, and its capital city, Rangoon, was renamed Yangon.
The administrative capital was transferred to Nay Pyi Taw, a city established by the military regime in central Myanmar, in 2005. The Junta claimed that the name “Burma” was a holdover from the colonial period, which favoured the Burman ethnic population, and that the name “Myanmar” was more progressive. Most countries refer to a country like Myanmar, although official US policies still refer to it as Burma. The so-called Saffron Revolution, which was caused by gas price spikes and named after the saffron-coloured robes worn by participating Buddhist monks, and foreign pressure triggered changes in Myanmar in 2007.
Furthermore, the military regime desired to encourage investment, reduce its dependence on China, and expand its international ties. In 2008, the Junta proposed a new Constitution, which is still in effect today, giving the military, broad authority even under a civilian government. The Constitution contained a clause that provides that a person who has any offsprings who are foreign citizens, then they would not be eligible for Presidency. These requirements were imposed in order to prevent Aung San Suu Kyi from competing for Presidency since her sons were British citizens. The strong military threshold is felt in the provision, which reserves 25% of the Parliamentary seats to key ministries for the military, which makes it almost impossible to change the draconian Constitutional provisions without the military’s help which was to achieve the goal of “disciplined democracy.” President Thein Sein’s Union Solidarity and Development Party was supported by the military and rose to power after Suu Kyi’s faction, the National League for Democracy, boycotted the 2010 general election due to the military Junta’s discriminatory conditions and practices. In 2011, General Min Aung Hlaing became the commander of the armed forces.
In 2011, the military regime was suddenly dismissed, and a democratic parliament was formed for a period of transition, whereby the former military bureaucrat and Prime Minister Thein Sein was declared President. When the country conducted a free and fair election in 2015, the NLD party won and formed the cabinet, with Aung San Syuki becoming the state counsellor due to the Constitutional restriction. The economy began to open up, and multinational companies were given the approval to establish bases in Myanmar. This was considered a much peaceful regime that continued until early 2021, before the military started off with their antics once again.
2021 Military Coup
In the early hours of February 1st, 2021, Myanmar woke up to one of the biggest shocks in quite a while, which started off with the military detaining the State Counsellor and the President, Win Myint. This was just one day before the new leaders were to be sworn into their office in the Parliament, who were elected through a general election which was held in 2020. The military was bitter about the loss since the National League for Democracy had achieved an astounding victory by winning more than 80% of the seats by forming a majority, whereas the military-backed USDP party had won only 33 seats. For NLD, they had fared much better than their poll results in 2015 since they had 77% of the seats then.
When the military knew the impending situation was serious, they had step into action to prevent the new government from gaining power. Thus, they started claiming that the election results were tampered with and there was a pressing need for re-election. Under that note, the military had detained all the prominent leaders of the NLD and declared that the interim President was Myint Swe. Under the Constitution of Myanmar, only the President was vested with the powers to declare a state of emergency which would enable the commander in chief of Defence Services to take charge for a period of one year. The President had drawn upon this provision to declare a state of emergency and transfer all the sovereign powers of legislative, executive, and judicial powers to Gen. Min Aung Hlaing.
What is the status quo?
It can be witnessed that Myanmar has had a troubled history with respect to the military handing over the powers to an elected democracy, which has been vacillating for decades. When the military took over the last time, it lasted for almost five decades until a fragile democracy came into the picture, with the military still behind the veil in 2011.
Even though the people were excited to be ruled by their elected leaders of the NLD, the military seized power and has invalidated the election results. Aung San Syuki was charged for violating the COVID 19 guidelines as under the National Disaster Management Law and for using illegal communication devices, which was prohibited in Myanmar. Along with this, she was recently charged with also violating the Official Secret Act, which, if convicted, will lead to a 14-year prison period. There are also rumors that she might be tried for treason. She has been denied permission to contact the outside world for “national security reasons” and has only been in touch with her lawyers on video calls. She is to make her appearance in court on May 24th. Her associates have constantly urged the people to stand against the oppressive Junta.
While examining the protests and the arbitrary, reckless moves of the Junta, it is important to highlight that the protests were peaceful until February 26th. While some of the protestors were begging the police forces to take their side, the police were also tolerant of the same. However, the protests turned bloody on February 26th when the police used tear gas, rubber bullets to make the protestors depart from the spot. Violence ensued since that day, and people have resorted to using handmade shields, Molotov cocktails, and other such basic weapons. On March 27th, the military had entered an area that was proposed to be a protest spot and started firing at the civilians with ammunition. Many people were killed and among those were children as well. More than 3300 people have been detained, and more than 800 people have been killed since the coup started on February 1st. The Junta has also resorted to dirty measures like shutting down various news reporting channels, coupled with a mass internet shutdown which has left the people in the dark.
A recent development has been the formation of the pro-democracy unity government, which consists of the opponents of the Junta, including many leaders who were ousted, minorities, and proponents of democracy. Their sole aim is to achieve a federal democracy and a government that is driven by the will of the people rather than the dictatorship of the Tatmadaw. A leader who identifies as Dr. Sasa has drawn the parallel of how the United States of America and Britain had recognized opposition leader Juan Gaido as the legitimate leader of Venezuela. They were also discussing to form a federal army to pose a stiff competition to the Junta. However, the unity government’s sole aim is to muster international support and tilt the momentum of the protests to their side.
There was sharp criticism from the pro-democracy supports against the invite given to General Min Aung for deliberations. The people of Myanmar demanded the General be arrested for heinous crimes. Regardless of all the resistance, the General did attend the ASEAN summit, which was a stab on the back for the people of Myanmar since the other countries, from an outsider’s perspective, had just mediated a fruitless endeavor of an empty promise from the General to end the coup without a specific deadline. There was a five-point consensus that comprised of putting an end to the violence, facilitation of dialogue between all the stakeholders, sending a special ASEAN envoy, pitching in aid, and visit of the special envoy. But the high-level meeting failed to address pressing concerns like the release of political prisoners, recognizing the shadow government, and fostering the goal of achieving a federal democracy. One of the residents termed the ASEAN-Junta truce as a “slap on the face.”
International opinions and restrictions
The United States of America has been angered by the state of affairs that has been prevalent in Myanmar. They have retaliated by imposing various restrictions and sanctions on the Junta-ruled country. The United States of America has added two Myanmar-based companies that are closely affiliated to the military to the blacklist – Myanmar Economic Holdings and Myanmar Economic Company. Coupled with this, the government has also imposed restrictions on the Ministry of Defence and Home Affairs. The United States has referred to the Export Administration Rules to impose stringent export trade restrictions, military end-use, which will make it nearly impossible for US traders to acquire the license in order to ship American products to Myanmar. The US government has also sagaciously sensed that the General made some moves to access the 1 million dollars in the New York Federal Reserve.
The growing belligerence has not only been expressed by the USA, but other countries like the United Kingdom have also vouched for the coup to end and for the re-establishment of democracy by ending the scuffles. Taking the same path as the USA, UK has also imposed sanctions on Myanmar Economic Corporation. Various apparel production companies have also taken notice of the impending situation in Myanmar and have abstained from accepting future orders from the country. The EU has been very vociferous in stating that it will adopt various measures to pressure the Junta to give up their baseless endeavours and restore the people’s government. The EU has expanded the list of the sanctioned people to 35 people, apart from the two companies which are associated with the military. It has also imposed travel bans, asset freezing, preventing citizens of the EU from funding any Myanmar-based businesses, and other such drastic measures to curtail the atrocities of the Junta. On top of this, the EU also has various arms and dual-use goods, communication devices that could be used by the military for internal repression.
But amidst the quagmire that could have been cleared by China by channeling its resources in the right direction, it has instead chosen to give its allegiance to the Junta. It has been reported that the AI and other drones that have been used by the military have been identified to be of Chinese origin. It has also set firewalls wherein many residents of Myanmar have had issues with content appearing in Mandarin without using VPN or any other acts of their own. China has also blocked the UN Security Council from releasing a statement that condemned the military coup since it has the power of veto by virtue of being a permanent member. The people are very skeptical and have staged widespread protests in front of the Chinese Embassy to dissent against Beijing’s support to the Junta by raising slogans like “shame on you, China.”
What does the future look like?
The future of democracy in Myanmar still looks bleak since the Junta is trying to project an air of normalcy, despite the conundrum erupting into something more vicious day by day. The military has tried to create a façade that has religiously been following the rules enshrined in the constitution. That was the reason why they selected an interim President to declare the emergency. The Tatmadaw had expected to win the 2020 elections since they were unappalled at the 2015 election results. They could not bear to witness another crushing defeat, and that was the pivotal reason as to why the coup was staged. Their goal is to retain power but also to depict themselves as visionary who is better than the NLD. They have two options while trying to retain power. Firstly, they could stay in power even after the state of emergency, which is not a very viable option since their aim is to follow the Constitutional guidelines. Secondly, they could try to tilt the scale to their in another election that they have vowed to conduct after a period of emergency, which seems like a rather herculean task since the country has realized its potential to support their leader, Aung San Syuki tirelessly. Lastly, they have the option of hurling dubious charges at Aung San Syuki, who, if convicted for heinous crimes like treason, would become ineligible to compete in the elections, which would automatically dissolve the National League for Democracy. The situation does not seem likely to grow any better in the near future since the military is not hesitant to use brute force on its own citizens in a race to acquire power where its task is to extinguish any criticism and emerge as the only victor.
With hardly any options left, the people of Myanmar are crumbling under the reckless revanchists who seek to establish their will through any means necessary to suppress the helpless civilians. Countries that surround Myanmar have a greater chance of influencing the scenario. Nevertheless, the Indian government has also opted to take a neutral stance instead of actively siding with the civilians. That is due to factors like the growing tensions between India and China, which poses the threat of the Junta falling prey to the support of the Chinese, who will have yet another opportunity to decide the geo-politics of the nation, which will affect India negatively. In arduous times, when the people are left helpless and stranded, all they need is their leader, who will rise against the darkness and lead them to the light. To overcomes this bloody coup, the people of Myanmar need their only hero, Aung San Syuki to guide them to victory.
Author: RA. Dhanshitha from Symbiosis Law School, Pune.