It’s another Monday morning on the streets of Myanmar’s capital, Naypyidaw and fitness instructor Khing Hnin Wai is buoyantly performing her aerobics routine to Indonesian techno-pop as she prepares for a competition. Except, this isn’t an ordinary Monday. Unbeknownst to her, in the background, a military coup is assembled as a convoy of SUVs
approach the Parliament complex. A coup that would see the removal of leader, Aung Sang Suu Kyi and her government and lead to Myanmar’s biggest protest in a decade. The coup led by military leader, Senior General Min Aung Hlaing, arrives amidst allegations of fraud over Suu Kyi’s National League of Democracy (NLD) party’s landslide victory in
last November’s national elections, allegations rejected by the Election Commission. In doing so, the military declared a year long state of emergency and placed Suu Kyi, President Win Myint and other leaders of the NLD under house arrest. Relations between the military and Suu Kyi’s government have been fraught with tension over many years but a coup of this
kind hasn’t been seen since 1962. So how did we get here? What does it mean for the people of Myanmar? And how has the
world reacted?A history of democracy in Myanmar: From Colonial Rule to Military Dictatorship to Quasi-Democracy Myanmar has had a tumultuous affair with democracy. It was under British rule from 1824 to 1948. Upon achieving independence in 1948, through the efforts of pro-independence revolutionary General Aung San (considered to be the ‘Father of the Nation’ and father of Aung San Suu Kyi), it saw a short-lived period of democratic reform following its transition from colonial rule. On the cusp of independence, General Aung San alongside most of his party members from the Anti-Fascist People’s Freedom League were assassinated. In the wake of political instability, a military coup emerged in 1962, throwing the country into a military dictatorship up until 2011. During these years, Myanmar became a one-party state under nationalist socialist rule led by the Burma Socialist Programme Party. Over time, it began to undo the work of Aung San’s democratic reforms such as the Pin-Lone Agreement which cemented the Burmese constitution, envisioning a united and peaceful nation with harmonious relations between the country’s diverse ethnic and religious groups. Instead, there was the emphasis placed on Burmese superiority which believed the majority ethnic group, the Bamar, to be the rightful rulers of an independent Myanmar. Steadily, ethnic and religious groups were politically and socially ostracised, leaving a legacy of conflict in the country.
Internationally, Myanmar was a social pariah and under the military government’s economic isolationism and totalitarian rule, it became one of the world’s most impoverished nations.
The 8888 Uprising
On 8 August 1988, students took to the streets demanding democratic reform and called on the resignation of then-leader, General Ne Win. Aung San Suu Kyi became a national icon and General Secretary of the NLD. The People’s Democracy Movement, as it was also known, went on to include more members of civil society from monks, children, housewives,
doctors and other groups. The protests ended with thousands being dead, injured, arrested and fleeing though official numbers have been contested.
Suu Kyi Receives International Acclaim
In 1990 the military government held a general election which became the country’s first multi-party election since 1960. Initially aimed to form a Parliament sized constitutional committee, it inadvertently led to the NLD’s landslide victory with 81% of seats in Parliament but was rejected and nullified by the military who refused to concede. Suu Kyi was placed under house arrest for almost 15 years and this was when she became an international icon as one of the world’s most prominent political prisoners. She received the Nobel Peace Prize in 1991 and in 1999 was labelled by Time Magazine as one of the
‘Children of Ghandi’ due to her history of nonviolent protests. 2007 The Saffron Revolution Another pivotal moment in Myanmar’s history took place in the autumn of 2007 when the country faced a wave of economic and political upheaval. Initially led by Buddhist monks in September, citizens took to the streets to protest against the military government’s decision to remove subsidies on the price of fuel. This led to inflation with petrol increasing by 66-100% and natural gas by 500%. In opposition to the protests, the military government closed off the internet, made arrests and resorted to violence. In total, there were 13-31 casualties reported. The events of September 2007 gained unprecedented international attention and the US,
European Union and other western nations imposed a number of economic sanctions. The Revolution also sparked a set of global campaigns across the world in support of the protestors and led to an international boycott of oil companies backing the military.
NLD Boycott 2010 General Election
In 2010 the NLD boycotted the general election leading to the military’s backed Union Solidarity and Development Party’s (USDP) victory. Between 2011-2015, the military backed government introduced a number of political and economic reforms: releasing Suu Kyi from house arrest alongside hundreds of political prisoners, establishing the National Human Rights Commission, relaxing press and internet censorship laws, moving away from a command economy to a mixed economy with the introduction of some market liberalisation and giving more power to labour unions. Continued progress was encouraged by nations like the US who delivered their first visit by a Secretary of State in more than 50 years and first state visit by any US President.
Suu Kyi In Power
In 2012, Suu Kyi was elected to Parliament and in 2015 her party won with 86% of the seats. Constitutionally barred from becoming President herself, she took on the formal role of State Counsellor of Myanmar, a role akin to Prime Minister. Suu Kyi’s ascension to power represented to the world a democratic success. Nationally, she was seen as liberator and moderniser following in her father’s footsteps, internationally a beacon of hope for democracy and human rights in the region and across the global South. Under Suu Kyi, Myanmar was embraced by the international community after decades of economic and political isolation. But the reality was bleak. Under Suu Kyi, Myanmar became a quasi-democratic state. Whilst she secured regular elections, constitutionally the military still held great political clout with a guarantee of 25% of the seats in Parliament, meaning that no piece of legislation could pass without their support as it required a 75% majority. This historical fact poses a particular conundrum in relation to recent events as you begin to wonder why the military would carry out a modern-day coup when it enjoyed such power. Suu Kyi’s time in government was also mired by corruption scandals and controversy surrounding her treatment of ethnic and religious minorities. Most prominently, coming under fire in 2017 for the Rohingya Refugee Crisis which brought to light the human rights violations being committed against Rohingya Muslims in Myanmar’s Rakhine State. These violations included killings, mass rapes, throwing babies to death and burning down villages, all confirmed by the UN and various human rights organisations. Consequently, there were international calls to remove Suu Kyi’s Nobel Peace Prize with various institutions like Oxford University having already taken steps to remove awards previously given to the former student. To the world, this seemed unthinkable, to witness Aung San Suu Kyi, once a pioneer of democracy and human rights be entirely complicit in crimes against the Rohingyas. To not only deny it but to go so far as to saying they were nothing more than “cycles of inter-communal violence going back to the 1940s”. To an outsider looking in, such a reaction would evoke outrage but taking a closer look at Myanmar’s history and it’s clear that such ethnic cleansing was enshrined with no legal recognition of the Rohingya as citizens nor having any basic rights. Despite her flailing reputation internationally, at home Suu Kyi enjoyed an overwhelming amount of support from the Bahar majority who endorsed her position on the Rohingya and other ethnic minorities. And so, at the November 2020 General Election, Suu Kyi and her party won a landslide victory for the second time in a row and decimated the military backed party, USDP.
A 21 st Century Coup
The immediate affects of the military coup on February 1 2021 were felt throughout the capital, Naypyidaw and Myanmar’s financial capital,Yangon. Upon taking Parliament and placing its current leaders under house arrest, the military proceeded to mute dissent by cutting off all forms of communication, closing down banks and imposing a curfew. For a period of 24 hours, there was no access to phones, internet or money. This was clearly a calculated attempt by the military to stamp down resistance from within but also stop the news from reaching international stations. Whilst this initially instilled fear amongst people especially given Myanmar’s brutal history with protests, there were signs of hope. Because this wasn’t just another military coup or protest, this wasn’t 1988 or 2007, it was 2021 where protestors had leverage, they had strength in numbers and with the push of a button, movements were born and governments were removed. By the time the military had blocked all communication, photos, videos and tweets were surfacing online and the world knew exactly what was going on. On the ground, people marched down the streets in their hundreds, seas of red flags waving, representing the colours of the NLD and raising three-finger salutes, a timely nod to The Hunger Games’ symbol of resistance. For the people of Myanmar, the picture was black and white. They could either allow the military to take over and risk returning to the days of totalitarian rule or continue to fight for their young, fragile democracy. Despite her tainted image abroad, at home, Suu Kyi was still adored and now under house arrest, she encouraged her supporters to nonviolently protest against the coup. This was as much a fight for democracy as it was for Aung San Suu Kyi.
The international response to the coup so far has been one of condemnation. The UN Security Council has issued a statement emphasising “the need to uphold democratic institutions and processes, refrain from violence, and fully respect human rights, fundamental freedoms and the and the need for the continued support of the democratic transition in Myanmar.” Meanwhile, the US has threatened to reimpose sanctions with President Biden stating that “the United States removed sanctions on Burma (Myanmar) over the past decade based on progress toward democracy. The reversal of that progress will necessitate an immediate review of our sanction laws and authorities, followed by appropriate action”. The European Union and other members of the G7 have also voiced their vehement opposition to the coup and Australia has begun a review of its international aid commitments to the country.
Myanmar’s neighbours have also aired concerns with leaders of Malaysia and Indonesia calling on ASEAN foreign ministers to hold an urgent meeting with the Malaysian PM stating “This is a step backwards in Myanmar’s democratic transition. We fear the political unrest in Myanmar could disturb the security and stability in this region.” Yet, the reality is only one nation holds influence over Myanmar and that is its closest ally, China. China has had a long history of backing the military in Myanmar both through the arms trade and financial aid. And despite her initial embrace of the West, following criticism in recent years, Suu Kyi has pushed Myanmar closer to China. However, international calls on China to use its political leverage to deescalate the situation and return the country back to normality have fallen on deaf ears. China has instead blocked a UN Security Council statement condemning the coup and has arrived at the view that ‘it is an internal matter to be resolved by the factions from within the country’. It’s unsurprising that China would hold such a view because the more Myanmar is isolated by the West, the more it will become dependent on China.
But, it could be likely that China will go on to play a mediating role. Given its more recently tarnished reputation following political unrest in Hong Kong, treatment of Uyghur Muslims in Xinjiang and international criticism over its role in the Coronavirus pandemic, this could provide China with an opportunity to heal some of its wounds and reassert itself as an influential player on the international field.
The reason why I have provided you with a thorough backdrop leading up to the military coup is that we cannot address today’s events without looking at Myanmar’s complicated history with democracy and understanding the context in which such actions have emerged. It’s because the military had an overwhelming amount of political power to begin with and left unchallenged by successive leaders, a coup of this kind was too easy to come by. And despite having been persecuted by the military, once in power, Aung San Suu Kyi became accustomed to it. There is of course the minor detail, upon winning in last November’s
election, Suu Kyi had proposed a number of reforms which would’ve reduced the military’s power but given that the existing constitution allowed the military to have 25% of the seats in Parliament, it would’ve been unlikely for the reforms to pass. But for the military, the idea of reform posed a serious threat in itself because this would’ve instigated a national
conversation, one which they wanted to avoid at all costs. Having been integral to Myanmar’s politics and society since gaining independence, it was unimaginable that they could lose any influence. So whilst the coup may appear to be a show of strength and authority, the reasons behind it are done out of fear.
There are three possible scenarios which I envision could emerge from the military coup. The first, through international and regional pressure, the coup is abandoned and Suu Kyi and her government return to power but under the condition to scrap any proposed reforms to the military. Second, after a year in power the military hold elections as promised, backing an
opposition party and filling them with loyalist generals. And third, the military abandon promises of holding elections after a year and continue to govern the country as a military state.
Whilst the military takes charge, there are no assurances that it will be able to continue governing for a year. With no legitimacy, international pressure mounting and its own leader, Min Aung Hlaing under international investigation for carrying out the 2017 crackdown on the Rohingyas, how will it seize to govern? And more worryingly, to what lengths will it go to, to hold onto power. Will we see a return to Myanmar’s totalitarian past? Similarly, uncertainty looms over the country’s protestors who wish to see their country return to Suu Kyi and her government but for how long will they be able to resist? And at what cost? With threats of economic sanctions on the country, the effects could be felt directly in their pockets. And internationally, under the military government, the country could return to its social pariah state. What lies ahead in the coming days and months, only time will tell but what I do know is the world will be watching.