Myanmar, formerly known as Burma, is a South-East Asian country bordered by India, China, Bangladesh, Thailand, and Laos. Its capital city is Naypyidaw and its largest city is Yangon, formerly known as Rangoon. The name of the country is disputed since 1989 when the military renamed it from Burma to Myanmar to reflect a new post-colonial era (inclusive of other ethnicities). However, both the words are derived from the Myamma, a name given to their ethnic majority Bamar. Internationally, countries like the US and ethnic opposition do not recognize the military as the legit authority and hence, they continue to call it Burma, whereas most of the other countries have accepted the name Myanmar.
Recently Myanmar has been in news following a coup d’état, a military take over removing the democratically elected government. Detaining the president Win Myint as well as the Nobel Peace prize winner and counselor of state Aung San Suu Kyi.
To understand, how and why this military coup took place we need to look at the history of Myanmar postcolonialism, then look at why the military still holds this kind of power, and finally understand what does it means for the future of democracy in Myanmar.
What has been the military’s role in the government?
After the British left Myanmar in 1948, the Union of Burma started as a democracy like its neighboring countries (India). But this parliamentary democracy only lasted till 1962 when the first military coup carried by General U Ne Win, they held on to power for the next 26 years.
Ne Win in 1974 drafted a new constitution that followed the rigid principles of a socialist economy (which he called “Burmese Way to Socialism” with a mixture of Buddhism and socialism. He installed the Socialist Programme Party as the only legal part of the state). After this majority of the institutions were nationalized, free media was banned, political activists were jailed, cut in free healthcare to all, and foreigners were expelled. Which led to a deteriorating economy as well as human rights conditions, the black market started surging up.
By 1988, there was rampant corruption, policies relating to Myanmar currencies were shifted and there were massive food shortages. These led to the uprising of huge student-led protests. In August 1988, the military took violent actions against the protesters, which killed around 3000 people and displaced about 1000 more. But the dissent was still growing, this led to the resignation of Ne Win as the chairman. He continued to be active behind the scene as another military junta was given power.
After the 1988 protests, the new military junta changed the name of the country from the Union of Burma to the Union of Myanmar (1989). The administrative capital was moved from Rangoon (renamed as Yangon) to Nay Pyi Taw. At this time, Myanmar was declared as one of the least developed countries by the UN. The new military junta was under General Saw Maung, who established the ‘State Law and Order Restoration Council’ (SLORC) to win back people’s trust.
Aung San Suu Kyi, at this time, co-founded NLD to bring a democratic process in the country. Her party started gaining popularity. In 1990, Myanmar witnessed its first-ever free democratic election, by the demands of the people. The army had promised to honor the results but, NLD won a majority of the seats in the election with the support of ethnic minorities. However, after the results, the military junta denied its credibility, and Aung San Suu Kyi was put under house arrest for 15 years. This was met by large international criticism. She received the Nobel Peace Prize in 1991 while she was still under house arrest.
A small step towards Democracy
By 2007, the country’s economy was in bad condition the fuel prices had skyrocketed (by the removal of fuel subsidies), the human rights violation was one of the highest in the world. This sparked one of the largest protests in the history of Myanmar which are also considered the stepping stone of democracy for the country. It was called the “Saffron Revolution”, named after the saffron-colored robes worn by the Buddhist monks who were at the forefront of this demonstration. There was also international pressure on Myanmar to open its economy. At the same time, there was also growing anticipation that the country will become completely reliant on China, so there was a need to build relations with other countries.
In 2008, the military drafted a new constitution, which is still in place today and it allows the military to control important ministries in the government. It also gives them 25% representation in the parliament and bans Aung San Suu Kyi from becoming the head of the country. With the growing resistance, the elections were finally conducted in 2009, when the majority of the opposition leaders were under house arrest. This gave back power to the party USDP-Union Solidarity and Development Party, which was headed by a military general. So, though this was the first civilian government, the powers essentially rested with the military. The results are largely considered fraudulent.
But USDP is considered a turning point for the economy. The civilian government due to the immense pressure (internationally and the growing influence of China) did ease media censorship, encouraged foreign investments, granting amnesty to political prisoners.
In 2010, Suu Kyi is released from her detention, they (NLD) boycott the results of the elections. The party re-registers for the next elections. In 2015, after 50 years Myanmar gets its first democratically elected government (which is considered to be their fairest election so far). NLD continued to bring in more liberalization. However, in recent years Suu Kyi has received criticism internationally for her stance in denying the “ethnic cleansing” of Rohingya Muslims in the western part of the country. She has denied any such charges in the International Court of Justice and defended the military action.
What led to a military coup in 2021?
In 2020, Myanmar held its second democratic election under civilian rule and NLD won by an overwhelming majority. The USDP declared the elections to be fraudulent and in February 2021, the military staged a coup. They detained Suu Kyi and other leaders. They announced Senior General Min Aung Hlaing will be in charge of Myanmar, which will remain under a year-long state of emergency. Experts think that this state of emergency could be prolonged, meaning the military can hold power indefinitely.
The main motivation behind this coup is that it is likely that with this majority NLD would have tried to alter the constitution. This threatened the power of the military. Myanmar is witnessing its largest protest after the Saffron revolution.
The constitution allows the military to take control of the situation that could lead to “the disintegration of the Union, disintegration of national solidarity, and loss of sovereign power.” They have used this to argue voter fraud fits this description.
Internationally the US, UK, and other countries have largely criticized it and threatened sanctions. China has only stated that they should resolve their issues with other countries. While some of the southeast Asian countries believe that it is an internal matter.
The reason why Myanmar has endured so many ethnic conflicts is that it is a diverse country. With one-third population as an ethnic minority. In recent times discrimination is getting more and more ingrained. Anti-Muslim feelings are being propagated with hate speeches. Understanding this ethnic discrimination is important to see why the military was able to hold the power for such a long period. The military government represents the majority ethnic group Bamar, and it is the minority that has been repressed badly under it. These military coups and conflicts point to the fragile democracy of Myanmar; a Democracy that cannot persist until there are secularism and inclusion of the minority as well.
The protests are likely to continue. What is left to see is how long will it take for the citizens of Myanmar to get their freedom back, which got snatched after their hard-earned struggle.