“Waking up to learn your world has been completely turned upside down overnight was not a new feeling, but a feeling that I thought that we had moved on from, and one that I never thought we’d be forced to feel again.”
Myanmar’s people chose democracy, not military despotism. But the generals who had hogged power for decades never really gave it up. The country of Myanmar, located on the Western flank of the Indo-China Peninsula, is deemed as the geostrategic linchpin for the “free and open Indo-Pacific” concept that is championed by all major powers cutting across the globe. Myanmar has a tumultuous past. Since its independence in 1948, the nation of nearly 55 million has been under iron-clad military rule for almost half a century. For most of its independent years, the sovereign state has been engulfed in rampant ethnic strifes and its myriad ethnic groups in one of the world’s longest-running civil wars. By the middle of 2012, the sceptical past made way for hope and hankering optimism. Several countries that had jettisoned diplomatic engagements with Myanmar re-established their embassies. The youth was enamoured by the charm of democracy. Despite being a faulty democracy, there was hope that the authoritarian and democratic systems can brush aside their differences and stay on tolerably good terms. That was once the hope for Myanmar. Old regimes tend to concede power slowly, piece by piece, and this transition often takes place in the context of decades. But rather than co-existing, both sides spent much of the last few years escalating an acrimonious and increasingly zero-sum rivalry that, in the end, Suu Kyi lost to the side with guns.
On 1st February 2021, the Myanmar army seized power, turning an influenced democracy into a full-fledged military rule, yet again. The future of the fragile peace process that sought to end Myanmar’s decades-long conflict between the military, armed ethnic groups, and militias became even more uncertain after the military coup on February 1, which was supposed to be the first day of a new session of Parliament following November elections that Aung San Suu Kyi’s party won in a landslide.
During the early hours of 1st February, the army’s television station announced the transition of power to the commander-in-chief, Min Aung Hlaing. As the predawn putsch progressed, the military resorted to the unceremonious path of autocracy. Soldiers blocked roads within the capital, Nay Pyi Taw, and the main city, Yangon. International and domestic television channels went off-air. Internet and phone services were disrupted and banks were forced to shut down in a jiffy. In a bizarre postscript, the military placed the country’s most popular leader, Ms. Suu Kyi, back under confinement alongside her political acolytes, President Win Myint, and other leaders of the National League for Democracy (NLD). The move extinguished hopes of the Southeast Asian country to one day function as a beacon of democracy in a world awash with rising authoritarianism. The military announced that 24 ministers and deputies had been removed, and 11 replacements were named, including in finance, health, the interior, and foreign affairs. That’s when the Burmese countrymen realized that the army had administered a coup d’etat.
The militia annexation follows weeks of tensions between the armed forces and the government after parliamentary elections that took place in November 2020. Raising allegations of widespread fraud, the army-backed opposition had demanded a rerun of the election. What do they plan to do in the year they have given themselves to run the country? The military’s stratagem is difficult to fathom. Moreover, this seems to be the relative peace because it has thus far been a largely bloodless coup. This propelled some people in Myanmar to cautiously raise their voices against the re-imposition of army rule. While some people removed National League for Democracy flags from outside their homes, others took part in small civil disobedience campaigns, banging pots and pans or honking their car horns to protest against the coup.
Myanmar began a series of democratic reforms in 2011 toward what the military called “discipline-flourishing democracy.” Between 2011 and 2015, a tentative democratic transition began, and elections held in 2015 resulted in a resounding victory for Suu Kyi’s party, the National League for Democracy. It was deemed as Myanmar’s freest election in 25 years. Suu Kyi’s NLD reiterated the feat in 2020 in a landslide victory, capturing 396 out of 476 seats, allowing the party to form a government for five more years. The military-backed Union Solidarity and Development Party won just 33 seats. Humiliated by the result, the USDP alleged the election to be subjected to ambidexterity and refused to simply accept the results of the vote, which was widely seen as a referendum on the popularity of Ms. Aung San Suu Kyi.
Still, the country’s 2008 constitution guaranteed the military 25% of seats in parliament and veto power over constitutional changes which also allowed it to appoint the ministers of defense, border affairs, home affairs, also as a vice president. Aung San Suu Kyi’s cardinal sin in terms of the political situation was like that of former Pakistan Prime Minister Nawaz Sharif, who had remarked that the country’s reigns were neither completely within the hands of the military nor the elected government. Fears of a military coup were simmering within the Southeast Asian country since the military disputed the results of the November election. The dreaded speculation eventuated.
What a difference three decades make. In 1988, when Aung San Suu Kyi confronted the generals of Burma, she was a beacon of light capturing the global imagination. Daughter of the charismatic independence hero, General Aung San, she personified the human spirit taking on an army that blatantly discarded the reality of losing an election. Taking the helm of Myanmar’s nascent pro-democracy movement, San Suu Kyi’s non-violent struggle finally paid off when she won the 2015 elections. An optimism prevailed that Myanmar had finally turned a corner after decades of military rule. But now history reiterates itself, with troops on the streets once again and she under detention. Global support for her has been unsurprisingly muted. The indictment laid against Ms. Aung San Suu Kyi, who has served a total of 15 years in house arrest before the generals released her in 2010, reverberated previous accusations of arcane constitutional atrocities. But if such crimes seem ludicrous, they carry undeniable ramifications. The military has made a habit of sidelining political rivals and critics by burdening them with esoteric infractions.
For an open and multiracial society like Myanmar, the paramount test of democracy is whether the ministry treats the outnumbered ones equally. Aung San Suu Kyi might not have ordered attacks on fleeing refugees and may have had strategic reasons to work with the generals, but her silence, acquiescence, and indeed her support made her complicit. She might not have condemned the army for its grave crimes against humanity in Rakhine state, saying “I don’t know” and squandering global goodwill by defending her army’s conduct against Rohingya Muslims at The Hague. Despite the aforesaid, a flawed democrat is better than a benevolent dictator because a democrat can be removed by an election. A charismatic, demagogic leader is dangerous in a democracy, but a coup isn’t the answer. As Shakespeare said, a plague on both houses, those who criticize Aung San Suu Kyi do not support the military. And those who denounce the coup are not fans of the NLD.
Are democratically-elected governments immune from criticism? Is it right to seek the restoration of a civilian government whose commitment to openness and human rights is questionable? What if the elected party has a lion’s share and its leaders cripple democratic norms and minority rights? Brazil, Turkey, Israel, Bangladesh, Hungary, Russia, and the Philippines are some coeval examples where the elected leaders are prominent but democracy has declined. Fifty years of warmongering rule, seventy years of internal conflicts, and deep-seated chauvinism cannot be shaken off overnight. Myanmar is surely an ambitious case but definitely not an unmitigable one.
-Aryan Raj, Ayush Tripathi