On February 1, 2021, Myanmar’s democratic government fell to a coup d’état organized by the Myanmar military. The leader of the National League of Democracy (NLD), Aung San Suu Kyi, was detained, along with many other democratic officials including President Win Myint. In response to the crisis, Myanmar’s citizens have taken to the streets amid the Covid-19 pandemic, calling for the release of the detained officials and the reinstatement of a democratic government. With the detainment of Myanmar’s democratic beacon, the future of democracy in this Southeast Asian country is uncertain.
Yet, a deeper dive into Myanmar’s politics reveals that the coup and political crisis we are seeing today was inevitable. Dr. Jacques Bertrand from the Munk School of Global Affairs and Public Policy at the University of Toronto shares his views on Myanmar’s democratic fall. He says, “In many ways, [the coup] was surprising in terms of timing. We did not think the military would step in so dramatically and definitively earlier this month. On the other hand, we all thought that it would happen. The military had always operated relatively independently from Suu Kyi’s government.” In essence, the military government and civilian government led by Suu Kyi were separate. As tensions rose between the two parties, the civil instability in Myanmar became predicted.
The Burmese constitutional referendum of 2008 declared Myanmar as a democratic state. In the early stages of democratization, the military had already concocted a plan to realize their vision of Myanmar. “[Through the 2008 Constitution], the armed forces had in mind a strategy to transition Myanmar toward liberalization, and economic opening—which was their primary objective,” says Dr. Bertrand. The transition from an authoritarian regime to a democracy are thought to have been a planned move by the military.
After all, the military’s grasp over Myanmar’s government had never faltered. Notably, the 2008 constitution maintained that the military was to hold 25% of all seats in the Parliament. “The whole time that the NLD was in power, they had a lot of difficulty chipping at any of the preserved powers or prerogatives that the military was keeping for itself,” explains Dr. Bertrand. In many ways, the NLD’s successful transition to democracy occurred because the military allowed it and controlled its advances. The utter defeat of the military-backed political party in the 2020 Myanmar General Elections put Suu Kyi and the NLD on the crosshairs of the military, hence sparking the military takeover.
Tension is rising across Myanmar. Protests in Yangon, the largest city and economic center of Myanmar, have shed the first drop of blood, as demonstrations and protests have become imbued with violence and un-lawful military persecution. “[Based on the past and the military’s current positioning], it is quite likely that [the military] would keep incrementally increasing the level of repression and try to draw down the crowds in the next few weeks,” says Dr. Bertrand. He adds that it is incredibly unlikely that the military would peacefully step down, and to force them to do so would require immense pressure.
Despite lurking dangers and numerous obstacles ahead, the Burmese people are determined to fight for a democratic future. “The real surprise is the determination and outpouring of Burmese [people] across the country, which takes a lot of courage. They are facing the military, which in the past, has not hesitated to be extremely repressive and violent,” says Dr. Bertrand. Against a government known to “shoot first and ask questions later,” the Burmese citizens’ courageous movement against the military is posing an unprecedented threat against the military’s rule.
The commitment to democracy in Myanmar extends past the ethnic Burmese group. Minority groups such as members of the LGBTQ2S+ community have also joined the fray. Moreover, Rohingyas are also standing by the Burmese people, despite the fact that Rohingyas were persecuted and massacred during the Rohingya Crisis, perpetuated by the Myanmar army, and supported by Suu Kyi and the NLD. Jaivet Ealom, a Rohingya political science and economics student at the University of Toronto, stated that while there are groups of Rohingyas who oppose all Burmese parties and are indifferent to Myanmar’s political condition due to political, cultural, and religious difference, there are Rohingyas hoping to prove their citizenship in Myanmar by fighting for democracy alongside the Burmese ethnic majority.
Dr. Bertrand believes that the intentions of Mynamar’s military are clear: “[The Myanmar military] is trying to do essentially what the Thai government has done. They are trying to delegitimize the NLD, keep Aung San Suu Kyi out of elections, and hold an election to see what happens.” Dr. Bertrand refers to the 2014 Thai Coup D’état, a successful military takeover of the government that resulted in the dissolution of democratic institutions and installation of Thailand’s current authoritarian ruler. Many believe Myanmar’s military is looking to preserve the country’s current degree of economic openness, but eliminate political oppositions, chiefly, Suu Kyi and the NLD. However, the military’s objectives are still unclear and up for debate. However, there are several predictions.
Zaceu Lian, a Ph.D. student at the University of Toronto states that the current momentum of protests could be enough to stop the military from achieving its goals. As such, possibility for Myanmar to continue to be a democracy arises. This would be considered the ideal resolution.
Yet, there is also a grim outlook on how the protests could end. Lian states that the military could use severe repression to completely overpower the citizens, silencing the voice of the opposition and sealing the fate of democracy in Myanmar. Additionally, as the majority of protestors are young adults proficient with digital technology, information dissemination may occur, increasing the scale of protests and civil awareness. Although this can be seen as an advantage, in reality, it can increase the measures that the military may choose to take. “If the military is going to crackdown on this generation, it is probably going to be bigger than 1988s and 2007s crackdowns,” says Ealom as he explains the implications of the military using violence as a means to an end. Nearly 40 protestors have lost their lives since February 1.
Speculations aside, Dr. Walton points out an alarming revelation, “If the privileges given to the military in the 2008 constitution were not enough, it is hard to see what negotiations with civilians might produce over the coming months. If [the military] was not content with control over the administration, unbreakable veto over constitutional reforms, and a civilian government that largely dampened its critiques, even defending it against allegations of [the Rohingya] genocide, it is really hard for me to imagine what an acceptable revised [governmental] structure would look like.” The question is: what degree of control does the military needs to satisfy its lust for power?
Democracy has entered a period of decline as institutions in democratic regimes are losing credibility. Now, democracy in Myanmar is making its stand against the military, a fight that if won, preserves and strengthens democracy, and if lost, plunges Myanmar into another period of military rule. Only time can tell what the future holds for Myanmar.