Coup in Myanmar: the end of the country’s flirtation with democracy?

Military rule is not a new phenomenon in Myanmar. For almost fifty years, the country had been subjected to the continued military dictatorship, before a democratically elected civilian government under Aung San Suu Kyi assumed power in 2011.  


 On 1st February, however, military personnel seized power and arrested Suu Kyi, declaring a one-year state of emergency under commanderinchief Min Aung Hlaing. In what is becoming a worryingly common trend across the world this year, the takeover was prefaced by claims of electoral fraud following the landslide victory of Suu Kyi’s National League for Democracy (NLD) in November 2020. 


This was an outcome that the military had not expected. Even within the new democratic system, the military has the constitutional right to appoint a quarter of all parliamentary members, though it was hoping that its proxy party, The Union Solidarity and Development Party, would perform well in legitimate elections. In the end, the USDP  won only 33 seats compared to the 396 claimed by the NLD. Despite the constitutional powers granted to the army within the new democratic system, Suu Kyi’s overwhelming mandate following this election was undeniable. Rumours circulated in the days leading up to February 1st that a takeover was in the works. Indeed, this appears to be an instance of military insecurity in a rapidly democratising country. 


The outpouring of civilian support for Suu Kyi,  which followed the coup, is the first test for the new military rule. Every day for the past week, tens of thousands have taken to the streets across the country to call for a return to democracy. External commentators have called for restraint on the part of authorities to prevent mass bloodshed. Recent developments, however, have seen the army begin to take a far more repressive stance. On Tuesday, a young woman named Mya Thwe Thwe Khine was shot in the head by police officers, leaving her brain dead at the time of publicationMoreover, even though the new leadership has restored internet services following their abrupt shutdown the day after the coup, they are currently drafting legislation that would allow them to ban certain content and demand  access to all user data. 


Despite intensifying repression,  protestors have not been cowed, and they continue to demand that Suu Kyi be returned to office. Affectionately called “Mother Suu” by many Burmese citizens, she remains an icon of the country’s plight for democracy over the years, though internal support alone may not be enough to restore her leadership. Globally, Suu Kyi has experienced a sharp decline in popularity. Despite receiving the Nobel Peace Prize in 1991 and remaining a hugely popular icon of democracy for decades following her early political activism, recent persecution of the Rohingya Muslims in Rakhine State has led to accusations that she is complicit in acts of ethnic cleansing. 


Some defend Suu Kyi, arguing that her silence on the issue is not indicative of her support for the acts, but a sign that she remains hamstrung by the power of the military within Burmese politics. But for an advocate of non-violent resistance – Time magazine famously described her as one of the “children of Gandhi” – horrifying violence against the Rohingya minority undermines Suu Kyi’s otherwise spotless international reputation. 


Will the global community come forward and support Suu Kyi against military rule?  Proponents of liberal democracy will always favour an elected civilian government over a dictatorship, and President Biden has already implemented sanctions, barring the new administration from accessing $1 billion in Burmese government funds held in the United States. With further plans to restrict exports and intensify sanctions should his demands be ignored, Biden has taken a clear stance against any subversion of Suu Kyi’s legitimacy. The wider United Nations agrees, though many fear Russia and China will make any UNsponsored resolution less powerful, as they are closely connected to the military leaders in Myanmar.  


At this stage, despite the commendable efforts on the part of protestors ceaselessly advocating a return to democracy, the trajectory for Myanmar towards a re-entrenchment of military rule seems the likely outcome of this turn of events. The army may have promised that elections will be held once this year-long state of emergency comes to an end, but nothing is binding the new leaders to this promise. If Myanmar’s history with authoritarian rule is anything to go by, there is little to be optimistic about. 

Image: Alexander Schimmeck on Unsplash

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