How the Democratic Experiment in Myanmar Failed
On February 1, Myanmar's military launched a coup against the current sitting government and justified their actions by claiming that the recent election held last November was fraudulent. Within hours, road blocks, curfews, and hundreds of arrest warrants were issued in order to fully seize control of the country. State Counsellor Aung San Suu Kyi was detained along with President Win Myint on several charges that range from violation of Covid-19 social distancing protocol to campaign violations. Within weeks massive protests began to engulf the country and violence has been widespread as anger towards the military and their rejection of democratic reforms has become more fervent.
Myanmar is no stranger to political violence. Ever since the country achieved independence in 1948, it has seen a continuous change of hands between autocratic and democratic governments. However, to clearly understand the current state of politics in Myanmar, we need to first understand the origins of the country’s tumultuous political system.
In 1947, Myanmar was on the fast track to independence. Centuries of British rule had created a fierce anti-British sentiment and with the weakened state of the British empire after two global wars, independence was all but guaranteed. At the forefront of the independence movement was the leader of the Communist, Aung San.
After the conclusion of the Second World War, the British military administration was called upon to prosecute San for a murder that took place during the Japanese occupation. Nevertheless, San’s immense popularity in the country forced the British to reject the idea. Exonerated from prosecution and free to continue his aspirations for independence, San went to work meeting with ethnic nationalities and making peace in pursuit of a unified state.
In the country’s first democratic election, San’s interim government won in a landslide by gaining 248 out of 255 seats in the national assembly. With a commanding electoral mandate San and the rest of his cabinet got to work writing a new constitution.
Although San had a commanding electoral mandate he still had many enemies in parliament and he felt that the military could not be trusted. Many of San's political opponents also boycotted the electoral process as a form of protest against the new government. On July 19, 1947 San and some of his cabinet ministers were holding a meeting in the Secretariat building and a contingent of four men arrived via armored Jeep and shot San in the chest killing him.
After the gunning down of San and his cabinet, one of his proteges, U Nu, would carry on the torch of San’s change. Despite these lofty ideals of leading Burma into the future, from the start Nu’s government was in trouble. The stability of the new state was coming under constant threat from Chinese Kuomintang forces, ethnic groups became restless, and splinter communist groups began to form. Although the 1950’s saw a relative period of economic progress and greater autonomy granted to ethnic minorities these factors were not enough to satiate rising instability.
With an increasing political tension and divide in U Nu’s Anti-Fascist Peoples Freedom League (AFPFL), the largest party in Burma at the time, the military took over in 1958 and installed a “caretaker government.” With this new military junta in place, communist sympathizers were persecuted and under General Ne Win, ethnic minority states were forced to adopt unconditional loyalty to the central government.
Democracy briefly returned in 1960 and U Nu once again regained his former post as Prime Minister. However, in 1962 Ne Win staged another coup that would see the permanent establishment of a military dictatorship in Burma. For the next several decades Ne Win and his subordinates would drive the Burmese economy into the ground. From having key sectors of the economy being run by the military government to cutting off trade relations with foreign countries, Burma’s economy was left in ruins. Burma also suffered under Ne Win’s blatant human rights violations and suppression of the media to the nationalization of state industry and permanent ban of all opposition parties.
In 1987, Ne Win’s government announced that it was going to make numerous currency denominations worthless as a way of bringing down inflation. However, this move destroyed the life savings of many Burmese citizens. Prompted by economic hardships and suffering, mass protests began to break out in the spring of 1988, but were met with a brutal crackdown from state security forces. Then in a shocking turn of events Ne Win abruptly announced that he would step down from leading the country. With his resignation, Ne Win had also promised that democracy would again return to Myanmar. Ne Win’s resignation served as a testament to how the entirety of Myanmar's political system was dependent on the personal decisions of a select few. From Ne Win’s abrupt withdrawal from power to the military’s decision to take over in 1958, it seems that Myanmar’s hopes of stable democracy rested on the unreliable hinges of a zealous military and its personalities.
Ne Win’s successor, Sein Lwin, was responsible for leading the crackdowns against protestors when he was a general in Win’s cabinet.. There was immediate backlash against this decision and once again mass protests rang out across the country. After a massive general strike, Lwin was forced to resign after being president for only 14 days. To appease the protestors, a civilian intellectual, Dr. Maung was appointed to the presidency. Maung also was announced as the new leader of the State Law and Order Restoration Committee (SLORC) and within weeks the country reverted back to a state of martial law similar to that of Ne Win’s government.
Although a new civilian leader was at the head of government he was merely a figurehead who acted as the military's puppet. Maung was a placeholder meant to appease protestors and to not have someone from the military be at the head of the executive branch. Once again democracy had failed to regain control of the country.
Although SLORC reverted to many of the old tactics of ruling through fear and repression, it also broke with some of those conventions. SLORC issued a law which allowed opposing political parties to register and within days the National League for Democracy (NLD) registered with San Suu Kyi as its leader. She began campaigning throughout the country but was placed under house arrest by the government to prevent her from making sizable electoral gains and to prevent her from campaigning. In 1990, SLORC set an election for May, the election was considered relatively free and fair. San Suu Kyi’s party won 60 percent of the popular vote and 80 percent of the seats in parliament. However, in a move that came as no shock to many, the SLORC ignored the election results and continued to rule the country for the next 20 years. It seemed that SLORC was merely an illusion of democratic reform. The party allowed opposition parties and set up the election to give the perception that democracy was returning to Myanmar and appease anti-government protests. In reality, when the elections threatened to throw the ruling party of power, the results were ignored.
By 2009, the ruling State Peace and Development Council (SPDC), which evolved out of the SLORC, still had an iron grip over Burma and continued to violate the rights of its citizens. The ruling party suppressed freedom of speech, expression, and assembly without giving cause. Thousands of political prisoners were also being held against their will without being given due process. When the SPDC announced that elections would be held the following year, 2010, San Suu Kyi was arrested by authorities to prevent her from garnering popular support for the NLD.
In a lengthy trial that faced many delays, she was charged for allegedly violating the 1975 State Protection Act. The State Protection Act allowed for the military Junta to declare a state of emergency when necessary and arrest anyone who violated “national security.” The act was used as justification to extend her house arrest orders. The results of the trial handed San Suu Kyi a sentence of three years hard labor but it was eventually commuted down to 18 months of continued house arrest.
After the 2010 elections took place, widely seen as fraudulent by both domestic and international observers, San Suu Kyi was released from her House Arrest. However, the election of Thein Sein as the new president of Myanmar’s civilian government brought about an almost immediate climate of reform. Throughout the remainder of the year Sein would make several concessions to opposition parties and free dozens of political prisoners, including San Suu Kyi herself.
The full political freedom of San Suu Kyi allowed her to announce in the latter half of 2011 that she would stand for parliament in the next round of elections. In the 2012 elections, after the NLD re-registered as a political party and participated, they garnered a monumental electoral victory winning 43 out of 45 of the parliamentary seats. For the next several years numerous reforms made their way into the political mainstream, civil liberties were granted in small quantities, the economy was reopened to outside investment, and private ownership was reintroduced for industries such as telecommunications. President Sein, along with the help of San Suu Kyi who took office as State Counsellor in 2016, which was established in order for her to have a more prominent role in government, were able to rapidly improve the country. In possession of this new position San Suu Kyi was able to embark on establishing democratic reforms.
The reformist climate under the Sein presidency, however, fell into the all too familiar trap and became sequestered by the military’s power. The military still maintained a large presence over the government and the constitution cemented the military's continued power and its ability to step in when it deemed necessary. The second general election in 2015 was another tell tell sign of the military looming political power. Although the NLD won big in parliament, what’s crucial to note is that the military retained 25% of the seats in parliament to ensure their political role in the country’s future.
In 2020, another general election was held and once more the NLD won big. The looming presence of military power, however, was no match for legal gains made at the ballot box A day before the new parliament could be sworn in, the Tatmadaw (Myanmar’s Military) launched a coup on February 1st. The coup was successful in deposing many of the elected officials currently in government and in showing the will of the people would once again be disregarded by military zealots. Current President Win Myint and State Counsellor San Suu Kyi were arrested and detained by Tatmadaw forces. The interim government has declared a yearlong state of emergency and has stated that elections will take place after the state of emergency has been lifted.
It is believed that the move was politically and financially motivated by many business interests of the current commander in chief of the armed forces, Min Aung Hlaing. Aung Hlang has complete control over two of Myanmar’s military conglomerates, Myanmar Economic Corporation (MEC) and Myanmar Economic Holdings Limited (MEHL). He is one of the biggest shareholders in both of these companies and is able to profit off of the company's business holdings. Aung Hlang also has several family members who directly profit from his position in government. Seeing the rising tide of democratic reform and the military's power continuing to slip away he saw it necessary to step in and take control of government once more.
Although massive democratic strides have been made in recent years in order to reform the entirety of Burmese society, the country has yet again fallen into political instability. Ever since the country’s independence in the late 1940s Myanmar has been plagued by a continual cyclical pattern of coups and attempts at civilian democratic government. The country’s democratic institutions have been unable to defend itself against a military that is rampant with corruption and determined to maintain its grip on power. As long as the military still remains a looming presence in Myanmar politics, as it has for decades, democratic reform and the Burmese people will continue to suffer.