Beyond the Coup: Myanmar
Written by Olivia Oseroff
Introduction to Myanmar
Since its inception, Myanmar has battled democratic progress. In recent years, the Rohingya Crisis has been the front runner for Myanmar's shortcomings. The Rohingya of the Rakhine state is an ethnic and religious minority in Myanmar and has been classified as the most discriminated group globally. In predominantly Buddhist countries, the Rohingya have been subjected to violence and ethnic cleansing in Bangladesh and Myanmar. Throughout Myanmar's short lifetime, it has endured civil war, international exclusion, authoritarian military rule, generational poverty, and a plethora of other human rights violations. Myanmar has closely mirrored the values and struggles of its Southeast Asian neighbors: China, Thailand, and Bangladesh, to name a few.
Before their 2015 election, Myanmar had suffered under military rule since its independence from Great Britain in 1948. The Union of Burma, a parliamentary democracy, was led by General U Ne Win until 1962 when Ne Win orchestrated a coup leading to twenty-six more years of rule. After instituting socialist government programs throughout Burma and displacing and killing thousands of Burmese citizens, a new regime took power renaming the country: the Union of Myanmar.
In 2011, the governing military junta collapsed and entered a period of transition, a time for what many viewed as the beginning of Myanmar's democratic future. After spending nearly two decades in prison and on house arrest, Aung San Suu Kyi, the leader of Myanmar's opposition party (National League for Democracy (NLD)), won in its first presidential democratic election. Suu Kyi's victory was not only the beginning of democratic rule in Myanmar but a new door for relations with the international community. That was until February 1, 2021, when the Tatmadaw (Burmese Armed Forces) led a military coup following the November 2020 election that reelected Suu Kyi for another five years.
Myanmar After the 2015 Election
Suu Kyi won the first democratic election in Myanmar in 2015, but that did not subvert the military's hold on the country. The Tatmadaw still held power in the parliament due to clauses in their 2008 constitution. It is impossible to make changes to the constitution without the military's support: 75 percent of the parliament seats are open for representatives of the Burmese people, but the other 25 percent represents the military. To vote on changes to their country's ruling document, they need more than 75 percent approval in the parliament. While the new leader, Aung San Suu Kyi, was elected with the democratic process, this did not stop injustices like the Rohingya crisis or state-controlled media to stop occurring. In the early 1990s, Suu Kyi was imprisoned for standing up against her government for the slaughtering of the country's ethnic and religious minorities. Then, after being released and receiving a Nobel prize for her activism, she became one to defend her government's actions and attest to it in the international court.
The 2021 Coup d’etat
On February 1, 2021, a coup unfolded at the hands of military officials, disputing the legitimacy of the 2020 election. Coup leaders referenced the alleged "fraudulent" American election as motivation for what they claimed the NLD and Suu Kyi committed against the Burmese citizens. The national election commission rejected the military's claims, so it staged a coup to regain power. The military detained democratically elected leader Aung San Suu Kyi and many from her governing cabinet and supporters. The military announced that Senior General Min Aung Hlaing would rule for the next year after calling a state of emergency, and they would hold elections following that one year. Despite the General's assurance the election would occur, citizens remain skeptical and predict Myanmar will struggle for years to regain the democratic progress it has made.
Effects of the Coup
Following the coup, NLD supporters rushed to the streets to protest their military's forceful take-over. Since February 1, security forces have arrested and beaten citizens in attempts to manage the patriotic outpour in the streets. As of March 8th, businesses began to close in the city of Yangon after trade unions motivated workers to strike against the military junta. In Myitkyina, two NLD supporters protesting the coup died of gunshot wounds inflicted by security forces. The military banned five news outlets from broadcasting, and on March 3rd Myanmar saw its deadliest day of protests yet, with 38 dead.
On March 7th, in light of the coup and rumored mistreatment of Myanmar's democratically elected leaders, Australia suspended ties with Myanmar's military. In addition to Australia, other western countries have denounced the coup and not recognized Senior General Min Aung Hlaing as Myanmar's rightful leader. President Joe Biden issued a statement shortly following the coup to "support democracy and rule of law." As of March 11th, the second NLD party official has died in the past two days. An unreported official has been appointed to carry out the duties of deposed President and de facto leader Win Myint and Aung San Suu Kyi. Further, the UN Security Council has yet to agree to a statement condemning the coup. The military junta has now accused many ousted governing officials, including elected leader Aung San Suu Kyi, of accepting illegal funds while in government, and eight more protesters were killed.
The 2021 coup d'etat set Myanmar's path to a democratic political system back at least ten years. With no foreseeable end to the protests, additional deaths, political instability, and arrests are expected to occur.