Back to Square One in Myanmar?

On the 1st of February, Myanmar, seemingly returned to military rule following a coup.

The largest protests seen in the country for many years broke out in response to the apparent resumption of complete military rule, and the arrest of State Counsellor Aung San Suu Kyi.

Myanmar is no stranger to unrest. Since its independence in 1948, it endured crisis after crisis throughout the decades, with the most recent being the genocide against the Rohingya Muslims.

This coup represented a shocking turn back to a military dictatorship. So much has been achieved in the country’s fight for democracy over the last few years.

An inconvenient icon

No discussion of democracy within Myanmar can take place without considerable mention of Aung San Suu Kyi. The daughter of the founder of modern Myanmar, Aung San, she has fought for democracy in Myanmar for over three decades.

In that time, she became a Nobel laureate; has been described as the spiritual heir to Gandhi's non-violence, and became an icon of democratisation throughout the world.

During these three decades, and for many years preceding them, Myanmar was under military rule. Even after Suu Kyi’s ascension to power in 2015, the military kept certain privileges in parliament, notably reserving seats for the military in both chambers, in order to maintain grip on the country.

Despite this, her electoral victory, and the peaceful transfer of most power was met with worldwide acclaim.

However, Suu Kyi has faced huge controversy, most notably concerning the genocide and ethnic cleansing of the Rohingya Muslims of Rakhine State. While the genocide appeared to largely be a military operation, Suu Kyi never condemned it publicly, and came to the defence of some of the perpetrators.

While we do not know her exact role in the genocide, to me two main reasons stand out.

The first is that she did not approve of the genocide, but her stating this would have led to an earlier downfall. The second is that she had not condemned it because she, too, agrees with what is happening.

We may never know for certain.

Myanmar’s future – and the future of Democratisation

The 1st of February coup launched by the military after what they considered to be a fraudulent election – an ironic claim, which came from those who spent the better part of five to six decades maintaining an iron grip on power.

Suu Kyi’s party won a huge majority, leaving the military-sponsored party in the dirt. While the military promised only to maintain power for a year, the quick trial and almost certain imprisonment of Suu Kyi indicates that the election will only be a rubber stamp for continued dictatorship.

People in Myanmar protested and struck against the coup, and there was substantial evidence that the military are striking back with force, using live ammunition and weapons such as submachine guns.

It seemed that despite their use of propaganda weapons – vans of coup-supporters driving around Yangon and Nay Pyi Taw blaring out patriotic music, for one – the blatancy of this coup drew a line in the sand for the Burmese people.

This backlash to democratisation seen in Myanmar is, sadly, not new.

In Egypt, a coup re-installed the military regime in 2013 after they lost patience with elected President Mohammed Morsi of the Muslim Brotherhood. In Sudan, after a revolution which overthrew President Omar al-Bashir there were disputes over how far this revolution would go.

A Bashir-supporting Imam, Mohamed al-Amin Ismail, recently stirred up national debate over the inclusion of Michelangelo’s The Creation of Adam in a history textbook, an image he declared heretical, as Islam forbids the depiction of important religious figures.

In the waning days of the American Unipolar Moment – if such a moment even exists anymore – democratisation no longer held the same importance and reverence it once did.

What’s happening in Myanmar isn’t a one-off event – it’s part of a trend.

A trend in which a deposed authoritarian regime strikes back once they’ve realised, they no longer command the respect of the people.

These regimes resort to violence to reclaim power, and unless people stand up to it, more attempts will follow – and we’ll all be worse off for it.

Alex is a Masters student from Portsmouth, finishing an MRes in Russian, East European and Eurasian Studies at the University of Glasgow. His main areas of interest are the Former Soviet Union, the politics behind COVID-19 Restrictions, and Authoritarianism, among other things. He has also previously worked with the HET.

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