The empire strikes back in Myanmar

Unfortunately, the international community failed to take deterrent measures against the military regime


Moonis Ahmar February 26, 2021
The writer is former Dean Faculty of Social Sciences, University of Karachi and can be reached at [email protected]

Ever since the military of Myanmar launched a coup on February 1 this year, and deposed the government of state counsellor Aung San Suu Kyi and president Win Myint, the country has been in deep political turmoil. A chain of events like the imposition of emergency, detention of both president and state counsellor, usurpation of power by Commander-in-Chief of Defense Services General Min Aung Hlaing and widespread crackdown against anti-coup protesters reflects a dangerous situation in Myanmar.

Unfortunately, the international community failed to take deterrent measures against the military regime and the generals whose hands are full of blood of Rohingya Muslims and now of their own protesting people. US President Joseph Biden, while severely criticising the military coup, only warned of imposing sanctions, and the Association for South East Asian Nations (ASEAN) merely issued a statement condemning the overthrow of civilian government. The landslide victory of the National League for Democracy (NLD) in November 2020 elections raised alarm bells for the generals, who despite 25% seats in the parliament felt threatened that Aung San Suu Kyi’s NLD will make changes in the Constitution and marginalise the military’s role in power and politics. The 1988 and 2007 popular uprisings were crushed by the military but the country’s economic predicament forced the generals to transfer power to the popular leader, Suu Kyi, who had won the 1990 elections. But the military refused to step down and put her under house arrest then. Drastic changes made in the country’s Constitution in 2008 granted the military one-third seats in the parliament to ensure its dominant position in statecraft. The NLD won the 2015 elections and Suu Kyi as state counsellor pursued a policy of ‘appeasement’ vis-à-vis the military in order to secure her government from possible ouster.

When appeasement failed to oblige generals and the results of November 2020 elections were rejected upon allegations of rigging, the die was cast and Suu Kyi’s government was toppled a day before it was supposed to take charge. Paradoxically, the same Suu Kyi who had joined hands with the military in 2011 and remained indifferent to the ethnic cleansing of Rohingya Muslims in the state of Arakin, appealed to the people to defy the coup and launch a popular movement for the restoration of democracy. According to a report published in the February 13, 2021 issue of The Economist (London), “The coup naturally hardened misgivings about the prominent role the army already took in public life. General Min Aung Hlaing’s assurances notwithstanding, agents from the feared intelligence service are knocking on doors, prompting many activists and journalists to go into hiding. The authorities have also begun trying to disperse the protests.” Images from 1988 and 2007, when the generals launched a severe crackdown on the popular uprising, are still afresh in the minds of the people of Myanmar but perhaps this time, it may be difficult to repeat the history of earlier killings, injuries, arrests and torture of political dissidents.

So far, people are expressing their defiance against the military coup by banging pots and pans at 8PM which is termed as a traditional ritual of political protest. There are also reports of expanding the scope of popular movement against the generals by inviting the police, bureaucracy, business community and teachers to join the movement. But it seems the patience of the generals is running out and there is a possibility of crackdown against those who are found in protest marches and agitation. Will the generals use guns to silence dissent as tanks along with armoured personnel carriers have been deployed in various cities to quell popular demonstrations? Unlike 1987 and 1998 when the electronic and social media were not that significant, this time the situation is different. Even by closing internet service in places of discontent, the generals are unable to control things.

Myanmar’s rocky road to democracy needs to be examined by analysing three main realities. First, Myanmar (also Burma) never experienced a democratic culture with political pluralism and an independent press. From 1962 till 2012, Myanmar was ruled by generals and even after a civilian government was formed, the country remained under the shadow of the generals who through a constitutional amendment in 2008 reserved around 25% seats for military personnel in the parliament. Hannah Beech, in an article “Myanmar Fights with Paint, Poems and Pans”, states: “Myanmar’s military rulers have long seen menace in the arts, imprisoning poets, actors, painters and rappers. Among the dozens of people taken alongside Ms Aung San Suu Kyi in the coup’s initial pre-dawn raids were a film-maker, two writers and a Reggae singer. Armed with paintbrushes, poems and protest anthems, the creative classes are providing Myanmar’s mass uprising with an imaginative verve and defiant spirit that has caught the military generals off guard.” That is how the 2021 resistance against the generals is different from 1988 and 2007 as the military is finding it increasingly difficult to cope with creative and imaginative symbols of resistance. It is possible that this time, democracy in Myanmar will take root because of a different type of popular movement which tends to boost the morale of the people and their confidence against generals who have a history of usurping power.

Second, it is a stark reality that Suu Kyi’s policy of appeasing generals seriously damaged her credibility as far as the restoration of democracy in Myanmar is concerned. She not only failed to strengthen democracy like Turkey’s AKP leader and President, Tayyip Erdogan, but thought that by acquiescing to the will of the generals, she would be able to protect her government from any future military takeover. Her appeasement policy, however, failed to oblige the generals as they thought that her landslide victory in November 2020 may challenge the military’s authority. The ambitious generals were the least amenable to political pluralism and democracy and calculated that if Suu Kyi managed to assume government for another five years with almost two-third majority, the military’s power would come under question. That prompted the coup and imposed a ban on fundamental freedom.

Suu Kyi has been detained by the generals and she has appealed to the people of her country to come to the streets and challenge the writ of the generals. But, her own track record while in power since 2011 negates her commitment to democracy.

Third, since 1962, when General Ne Win usurped power and imposed a military rule till 2011 when a quasi-civilian rule was established in Myanmar, generals entrenched their hold over power and denied any scope for democracy. It seems that the culture of authoritarian military control in many post-colonial countries is so entrenched that even after spells of democratic rule, the generals are able to strike back and reclaim power.

Myanmar’s uphill road to democracy is now claiming the lives of people who are being killed by state forces without any fear of bloodshed and international reprisals. The world needs to isolate Myanmar and declare it a pariah state.

Published in The Express Tribune, February 26th, 2021.

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