How the past continues to haunt the present: The troubled trajectory of Myanmar

The chain of events following a general election in November 2020 has dealt a bitter blow to Myanmar: The country in Southeast Asia has been jolted by unrest ever since the army’s seizure of power on the 1st of February 2021. After the National League for Democracy (NLD) had won the election by a landslide, the military claimed that the election was marred by fraud, detained the leader of the NLD, Aung San Suu Kyi, arrested her ally President Win Myint and deposed her government. Myanmar is now under the purview of commander-in-chief Min Aung Hlaing, meaning that he is the country’s de facto leader. 

As the gelid wind of authoritarianism continues to shake the foundations of Myanmar’s society, anti-coup protests are gaining steam: A nationwide civil disobedience movement has erupted, frustration over recent encounters with the military has swelled into a national debate over the role of the military that carries echoes of the protest movement in 2007 (dubbed the Saffron-Revolution), when public ire also turned against the military government. In an attempt to quell the current protests, military rulers have repeatedly clamped down on civilians: According to a tally by the Assistance Association for Political Prisoners (AAPP), the coup has claimed the lives of more than 710 people so far (around 100 people were gunned down by Myanmar security forces on the 27th of March alone) and now sees more than 3,050 people in custody: The military coup has roiled the nation and thrust Myanmar into the limelight. But the country’s current developments can only be understood in tandem with its long history of military state building: As civilians continue to fight tooth and nail against military rule today, the legacy of Myanmar’s military rumbles on.

A glance at the past: Myanmar’s military history

Over the course of its years of independence (Myanmar gained independence from British colonial rule in 1948), the country has repeatedly struggled with military rule and violent crackdowns. Myanmar’s rocky path towards the implementation of a democratic system has been shaped by almost 50 years of military rule: Established in 1948, the Union of Burma started off as a parliamentary democracy – but in 1962, General Ne Win led a military coup and formed a military-controlled one-party state (with the Burma Socialist Programme Party/BSPP as the only political party).

Around 20 years later, Ne Win transferred his presidency to San Yu (a former army officer) but remained chairman of the BSPP. The years of Ne Win’s rule were shaped by economic isolation and the strengthening of the military, which caused Myanmar to plunge into an economic abyss. A currency devaluation in 1987 led to many people losing their savings and spawned sprawling anti-government riots, which spiralled out of control in August 1988: The State Peace and Development Council (SLORC) was formed and declared martial law. Staggering levels of violence rattled the nation to its very core: Protestors were imprisoned and killed – and Aung San Suu Kyi, who became a national icon and beacon for human rights at the time, was put under house arrest. 

The Rohingya Crisis and Aung San Suu Kyi’s return to the political arena

Following elections in 2010, the newly elected President Thein Sein (a former military officer) became the spearhead of a series of reforms, which included reprieving political prisoners, lifting media censorship and steering the country out of international isolation. And in the 2015 election, Aung San Sun Kyi (who had been released from house arrest in 2010) and the NLD claimed a resounding victory and set forth big plans to democratise Myanmar.

Running counter to the spirit of optimism was the Rohingya Crisis: The Rohingya are one of Myanmar’s minorities and, according to UN Secretary-General António Guterres “one of, if not the, most discriminated people in the world”. They constitute the largest percentage of Muslims in Myanmar and the majority of them lives in Myanmar’s Rakhine state. In 2017, Myanmar’s army launched a violent crackdown on Rohingya villages, triggering the largest refugee influx into Bangladesh.

The UN spoke of a “genocide threat for Myanmar’s Rohingya greater than ever”, but Aung San Sun Kyi denied the allegations of genocide and other amply documented atrocities, claiming that there had been no systematic campaign of persecution. Once the driving force behind a nationwide, pro-democracy movement, thought to be full of fervour for freedom and justice (her efforts to steer a democratic course even won her the Nobel Peace Prize in 1991), Aung San Sun Kyi ended up at a genocide trial in 2019, rebutting any claims of what the international community called ethnic cleansing. But while her international reputation has been tarnished by her adamant refusal to sharply criticise the military’s actions, her unwavering popularity among the Buddhist majority in Myanmar has not subsided.

Repercussions and reactions

In the wake of the coup in February this year, the military expanded an internet shutdown in an attempt to stamp out dissent by cutting off mobile data service and thus stifling public discourse surrounding the coup: Free speech, which constitutes a fundamental prerequisite of democracy, is now severely curtailed. 

The coup and the military’s iron-fisted rule have unleashed a torrent of criticism alongside a clarion call for consequences. As Myanmar’s military tightens its grip on power, Western countries are trying to ramp up economic pressure by imposing sanctions on the military. Thus far, however, international outrage has been to no avail. The international community should prioritise the support of anti-coup resistance instead of only honing in on sanctions, because sanctions alone won’t propel Myanmar’s military rulers towards democracy – civilians will be the ones who pay the price and fall prey to their economic impact. 

If you want to find out more about the Rohingya Crisis, its root causes and current developments, here are a few links you might find interesting:

“Myanmar Rohingya: What you need to know about the crisis”, BBC, 23rd January 2020.

“The Rohingya Crisis”, Council on Foreign Relations (cfr), 23rd January 2020.

“UN agencies ramp up response for Rohingya refugees in wake of ‘unprecedented’ fire”, UN News, 31st March 2021.

 “Approaching The Rohingya Crisis: CALLING FOR A SECURITY GOVERNANCE FRAMEWORK”, in: World Affairs: The Journal of International Issues, 22 (1), 98-121, 2018.

“Rohingya emergency”, UNHCR, 31st July 2019.