Feb 12, 2021 | OPINION | By Reed Schaefer | Illustration by Xixi Qin

The road to solidifying a democratic government is rocky — even an established democracy like ours is surprisingly susceptible to a coup. The latest developing democracy to hit a roadblock is Myanmar.

A week ago, a coup occurred in Myanmar (formerly Burma), resulting in the removal of the democratically elected government led by Aung San Suu Kyi and her political party, National League for Democracy (NLD).  Rather unpredictably, the Myanmar military swooped in on Feb. 1, 2021 and took control of the government, with General Min Aung Hlaing assuming all executive powers. 

The results of the November 2020 general election were invalidated and Aung Hlaing announced a state of emergency for the next year, with a promise of future democratic elections. While government upheaval is not new to Myanmar, the Feb. 1 coup demonstrates the difficulties of moving to a different form of government and of getting beyond entrenched tendencies of the past. 

Democracy is new to Myanmar. Before 2015, Myanmar operated under a highly centralized, military-run authoritarian regime. Myanmar’s military junta (known as the Tatmadaw) controlled the country through a military-led political operation while under the guise of an elected political party. Myanmar’s first free, democratic elections were held in 2015. They ushered in a new era of democracy led by the NLD founder, Aung San Suu Kyi.

No doubt, the most central figure in Myanmar’s democratic history is Aung San Suu Kyi, who, like Myanmar’s last decade of democracy, has had her ups and downs. Suu Kyi, daughter of revolutionary military leader and founder of modern Burma Bogyote Aung San, was jailed 15 years for her efforts as a pro-democracy advocate. Suu Kyi attracted international attention and  was even awarded a Nobel Peace Prize for her efforts. The military may have underestimated her popularity when they decided to release her from jail in 2010.  

Suu Kyi became “state counselor” (essentially the Prime Minister) in 2015, after winning convincingly in the nation’s first democratic elections. She promised change and improvement for Myanmar and a new era of democracy. However, despite her history of championing for democracy and human rights, Suu Kyi’s reputation came into question in 2017 during the Rohingya crisis. 

In 2017, the military stepped up violence against the Muslim-minority Rohingya population, claiming self-defense. The genocidal violence met international outcry, but it faced no condemnation from the much of the Buddhist-majority population, nor from Aung Sang Suu Kyi, who excused military responsibility for the matter.

Things are complicated, however, by the fact that the military — and General Min Aung Hlaing — may have never effectively ceded power in the political sphere when they stepped down in 2008. Despite the democratic election, the military retained significant government and economic control. 

Myanmar’s constitution, adopted in 2008, provides for a democratic government, but one that shares power with the military. A quarter of the seats of Pyidaungsu Hluttaw (the legislature) are reserved for the military. In addition, the constitution may only be amended with the approval of 75% of the representatives of the Pyidaungsu Hluttaw.  

Thus, the NLD has been unable to live up to its promises to reform the constitution, and to challenge the reserved military seats in representation.  The military also currently claims around 30% of the overall budget, which will likely increase under military rule.  

In the November 2020 general election, NLD secured a “landslide victory,” capturing nearly 400 seats in the 664-seat Pyidaungsu Hluttaw. Almost immediately, the military party mounted a challenge to the authenticity of the election results. General Min Aung Hlaing said the electoral commission had failed to investigate irregularities over voter lists in the November election and had not allowed fair campaigning. 

According to the BBC, the Myanmar army claims to have uncovered more than 10 million irregularities on the voter lists that would nullify the votes. As with the similar claims in the U.S., the election commission announced that there is no evidence to support claims of widespread fraud. This stalemate led to the coup earlier this month.

The coup resulted in the imprisonment of State Counselor Aung San Suu Kyi, President Win Myint, at least 133 additional government officials and legislators, and 14 activists, according to AAPP. But Khin Zaw Win, the director of the Yangon think tank, said this coup differs from those of 1962 and 1988, which were brutally enforced and imposed a new order over the country.  

Over the past week, protests and a nationwide strike have occurred and are expected to continue, as they are somewhat exclusive outlets for the citizens to voice their justified frustrations. The crowds protest the coup and call for the military to release Aung San Suu Kyi and other democratically-elected lawmakers. 

Only a few injuries have been reported and there are no reports of significant violence. A water cannon, however, was activated in Nay Pyi Taw to disperse crowds. The military has also imposed restrictions on gatherings and activities in the country’s largest cities of Yangon and Mandalay, including an 8 p.m. to 4 a.m. curfew, as well as a ban on motorized processions and gatherings of more than five people. The unpredictability of the situation and the legacy of the Tatmadaw’s exercise of military power hint that violence could erupt at any moment.  

The coup, however, is still fresh in its development, so we should lend a cautious but attentive ear to the situation in Myanmar. In the previous outbreak of anti-military protests in 2007, the official warning was given only two days before the soldiers moved in, opening fire with live rounds and killing dozens. That was 14 years ago and in many respects a different circumstance than the present. 

In 2007 there was no social media, no mobile phones and little internet available. Now, the protests are being live-streamed on Facebook and covered on social media, despite an official order to local telecom companies to block popular apps. This time around, citizens have shown an unwavering support for democracy in their country, and the military appears to be willing to entertain a longer leash. The question remains, what motion will bring resolution to the mass protests and outrage that span Myanmar’s city-streets?

The Biden administration should issue a strong condemnation of the coup and collaborate with the United Nations and other human rights organizations who can oversee the situation inside of Myanmar. Military action and direct involvement should be avoided for the time being, but U.S. involvement as a mediator could be a last resort. It is most important that the Myanmarese people tell their own story and that the world listens to their intentions. 

A military coup is a rather regrettable outcome for Myanmar’s developing democracy. The military inserted itself into the fabric of the government and economy before stepping down the first time and will likely attempt to create longer-lasting changes this time around. 

Oversight must come from the outside if we are to hold General Min Aung Hlaing and the Tatmadaw accountable and to mitigate the damages. The landslide election results and the mass protests lend to the narrative that the Myanmarese want an end to military rule.

As long as protests remain nonviolent, this is a hopeful situation. Please share the story and inform those you know! The Myanmarese deserve to be heard, even if it is not their own government that is listening.   

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