Until recently, the last time Myanmar’s military supervised a general election whose outcome it didn’t like was back in 1990. On that occasion, a military junta refused to recognize the results, arrested the democratically elected leaders of Aung San Suu Kyi’s overwhelmingly victorious National League for Democracy (NLD), and continued to rule the country via the State Law and Order Restoration Council (SLORC).
The same thing happened again on February 1, when Suu Kyi, now the country’s de facto leader, and other politicians, including NLD ministers, were arrested in a pre-dawn swoop. The military took charge, declared a one-year state of emergency, and promptly transferred power to the army’s commander-in-chief, General Min Aung Hlaing. Vice President Myint Swe, a former general, was named president, but yielded power to Hlaing.
Once again, Myanmar’s men in uniform, who ruled the country from 1962 to 2011 and had co-existed with civilian leaders in a slowly unfolding political transition over the last decade, have made clear their distaste for democracy. Last November’s general election resulted in another landslide victory for Suu Kyi’s NLD, which won 396 of 476 contested parliamentary seats and limited the army’s proxy political front, the Union Solidarity and Development Party, to just 33.
Although the humiliated military promptly alleged voter fraud, the election result did not fundamentally threaten its power. Myanmar’s pre-2011 constitution guarantees the army one-quarter of the seats in parliament, grants it control over key ministries, and disqualifies people with foreign spouses or children from becoming president, which prevented Suu Kyi from assuming the office.
Under these conditions, a modus vivendi of sorts had emerged: the previous elections in 2015 brought Suu Kyi and her party – full of former political prisoners – to power in a de facto coalition with their former jailers. Myanmar’s democracy was thus clearly a work in progress. But that progress has now come to a jarring halt. In fact, the military staged its coup on the very day that the newly elected parliament was scheduled to convene.
Recent events in Myanmar are hardly unprecedented. Since the country gained independence in 1948, the military, now known as the Tatmadaw, has held power for far longer than civilian leaders have. Suu Kyi herself spent a total of 15 years under house arrest between 1989 and her release in November 2010, and was awarded the 1991 Nobel Peace Prize as a celebrated resistance icon. After her release, she exercised authority under constitutional power-sharing arrangements that entrenched the military’s clout and even allowed the army to intercede in government decisions when it judged this to be in the national interest.
It was an uneasy co-existence, further complicated by the contrast between Suu Kyi’s goddess-like image among the people and the army’s stone-faced unpopularity. But it seemed to be working. Suu Kyi made compromises with her uniformed political partners, even at the price of tarnishing her halo by supporting them in the bitter global debates over the persecution of Myanmar’s Muslim Rohingya minority.
Suu Kyi seemed to be growing in power at home even as she fell from grace abroad – notably in the eyes of her Western admirers, and especially those in the human-rights community, who regarded Myanmar’s brutal military campaign against the Rohingya as ethnic cleansing and even attempted genocide. In defiant testimony to the International Court of Justice in The Hague, she refused to utter the word “Rohingya,” thereby implicitly endorsing the majority view in Myanmar that the victims were “interlopers” from Bangladesh rather than an ethnic minority.
Critics accused Suu Kyi of everything from appeasement to chauvinism and racism, while admirers argued that her pragmatism was the only way to advance democracy in a country still under the military’s sway. Her acquiescence in arrangements that left hundreds of political prisoners in jail and continued to punish ethnic minorities disillusioned many, leading Amnesty International to strip her of its highest award in 2018, and to calls for her to be stripped of her Nobel Peace Prize as well.
Following Suu Kyi’s recent arrest, the recriminations have ceased. Many governments have expressed concern and called for her release and the restoration of democracy. The military, on the other hand, stresses that its actions are constitutional.
Myanmar’s neighbors are treading warily in the coup’s aftermath, and there may be some curious reversals of earlier stances. For a long time, India unambiguously sided with democracy, freedom, and human rights in Myanmar – and not just rhetorically, like the regime’s Western critics. When the SLORC violently suppressed a popular nationwide uprising in 1988, the Indian government initially offered asylum to fleeing students, allowed them to operate their resistance movement from within India (with some financial help), and supported a pro-democracy newspaper and radio station.
But then China made inroads into Myanmar, and Pakistan warmed to the generals. Chinese port construction and the discovery of large natural-gas deposits in Myanmar, as well as the SLORC’s support of ethnic insurgencies in India’s troubled north-east, all posed tangible dangers to India. As a result, Indian leaders reached their own accommodation with the regime in Yangon.
Today, China has moved closer to Suu Kyi, while India takes comfort in the wariness of Myanmar’s military toward China, long a patron to some of Myanmar’s own ethnic insurgencies. While many in India believe the country must stand up for democracy and human rights in its next-door neighbor, others counsel pragmatism and caution as the most effective way of avoiding a repeat of the setbacks of the 1988-2001 period.
“I have a sinking feeling that no one will really be able to control what comes next,” the distinguished Burmese historian Thant Myint-U tweeted following the coup. “And remember Myanmar’s a country awash in weapons, with deep divisions across ethnic & religious lines, where millions can barely feed themselves.” It’s a sobering reminder for all in the region.
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