Democracy in Peril: The Military Coup in Myanmar

by Brenner Beard

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Dressed in Day-Glo workout apparel and appropriately masked up, Kning Hnin Wai enthusiastically performs aerobics and rhythmic dances to an up-beat pop tune in a video recently featured on her facebook page. Wai, a Burmese physical education teacher, uploaded her workout video roughly two weeks ago and it instantly went viral. It wasn’t solely for her dance moves, though. For the duration of the video, while Wai moves and grooves in the foreground, a steady stream of olive green trucks and armored vehicles passes by in the background. The teacher’s unwitting audience is the Burmese military and their presence in the background of the workout video is anything but routine. Her video, filmed on February 1st, 2021, captured the beginnings of a military coup that has dominated global news since. The particular convoy featured was destined for the Burmese Parliament and intended to arrest democratically elected leader Aung San Suu Kyi [1]

On the morning of February 1st, the world awoke to utter chaos in Myanmar, alternatively known as Burma. As soldiers marched onward in the streets of the capital city of Naypyidaw, armed convoys continued their roll upon the main tourist drag, and checkpoints were found on nearly every street. Additionally, the parliament was in complete disarray as many members of the democratic government were quickly arrested, including roughly 400 representatives [14]. By the day’s end, power rested solely in the hands of the country’s military with their propaganda agency announcing a year-long state of emergency in which the military would seize control of the government. After ousting the civilian leadership, Senior General Min Aung Hlaing’s provisional government enacted a wide range of emergency mandates seeking to silence opposition groups and curtail freedom of speech. Despite the aggression of the new government, the streets of most major cities have been clogged with anti-military demonstrators who are swiftly met with force. Many in the international community have been quick to decry the power grab releasing carefully worded statements of condemnation, but these words alone have largely had no impact.

Understanding the current chaotic situation in Myanmar requires looking beyond the events of this month. The recently deposed democratic government was both relatively new and fragile which ultimately led to its  downfall . Since 1962, the Burmese people have dealt with over 48 years of uninterrupted military rule [4]. This isn’t even Aung San Suu Kyi’s first time detained. Previously jailed for her involvement in the 1988 attempted democratic uprising, the deposed leader was released in 2011 as the military transitioned the country to a quasi-democracy [4]. In the 2015 general elections, Kyi’s National League for Democracy won a narrow majority over the military-backed party, cementing civilian control of the government for the next five years [4]. As Kyi’s government tediously found its footing, the world hailed the new “democracy” in Myanmar with the U.S. and her allies rolling back years of economic sanctions allowing the small nation to flourish [3]. However, all throughout this time, the spectre of military power threateningly lurked in the background as the new constitution reserved the right for military leadership to appoint a quarter of parliamentary seats to military officers should they be so inclined [4].

The tension between military and civilian powers came to a head this past November after the National League for Democracy made major gains in the general elections. Winning 396 of 476 seats in parliament, Kyi’s party far surpassed their 2015 margin of victory and dwarfed the military proxy party’s 33 seats [4]. Seeing the results spelled a death knell for military influence, Myanmar’s generals swiftly sprung into action. Initially contesting the election as fraudulent, General Hlaing then invoked a constitutional provision to declare a state of emergency and take over on February 1st effectively ending any attempts at democratic governance in the country. Without a single shot fired, military power was restored and the NLD’s leadership was detained on trumped up corruption charges. While the coup may have been “bloodless”, as the generals like to point out, it has opened the floodgates of civil unrest and the situation in Myanmar is far from resolved.

As the November election results showcased, the Burmese people far and away favored civilian ruled democracy. Thus, the responses to the mandates of the new government have been highlighted primarily by outrage. The military started by shutting down the internet and rounding up oppositional activists and politicians on day one [2]. Even as the internet was restored though and the Generals sought to instil a fragmented sense of normalcy, doctors in public hospitals across the country went on strike saying they “refused to work for a military junta” [5]. This is a major blow to a country with over 3,000 COVID-19 deaths and 140,000 infections [5]. On top of this, the artificially pushed normalcy and mandates have yet to prevail, with thousands gathering to protest in Yangon and other major urban commercial hubs [6]. In response, Hliang’s government has cracked down even harder on protesters and dissenters alike. The military has increased their response, banning facebook, introducing frequent rolling internet blackouts, establishing a curfew, and systematically arresting more and more politicians and journalists; all while maintaining the legitimacy of their fraud claims [2][7].

President Biden’s administration recently released a statement condemning the actions of Hlaing’s forces while UK PM Boris Johnson called upon the ruling Generals to “respect the rule of law” [3]. Besides verbal and written condemnations, though, the international community has yet to take definitive action, with President Biden merely stating “[an] immediate review” of sanctions would be necessary [3], even as the list of political prisoners grows and Burmese citizens are having their rights trampled by the illegitimate government. The most serious rebuke came this week from the UN, who warned of  “serious consequences” should the military quell the protests with force [7]. Yet, neither the UN nor any individual nation has taken action even as crowds in Yangon were violently dispersed with rubber bullets and the military has granted itself illegal emergency search and seizure powers [8].

The United Nations Security Council, an international body tasked with maintaining global peace and security, has long set a precedent of involvement in similar situations, yet they do nothing to help Myanmar. The United States, possibly the most powerful sitting member on the UNSC, has used many mechanisms in the past to stop or respond to attempted power seizures with far less justification than in these instances. In the 60s, the CIA (controversially) suppressed coups in Laos [9]. The U.S and its allies have also historically restricted humanitarian aid and raised interest rates on loans in response to illegal power grabs, as was the case in the 1987 Fijian coup [10]. That’s not to say any of these responses would work perfectly in this particular example, as the policy is much more involved than any layman can pretend to understand. It does, however, point out the blatant hypocrisy of the many of the UNSC’s member states. The collective international community outwardly projects an image of stern condemnation in regard to the military coup in Burma, yet they choose not to take concrete action against, what’s for many of them, a close military ally (ex. China) [11].

The question remains, though, how can precedent and statements be turned into concrete action? A potential road-map may lie in policy relating to previous relationships in the region.  Foreign powers, who have long used their money as parlay for influence in Southeast Asia as can be seen in cases like Indonesia [13], can now conversely use that same bargaining power to protect the interests of the disenfranchised Burmese people.  For example, the United States, who since 2011 has had a development partnership with Myanmar, should immediately be enacting the provision in section 7008 of the Foreign Assistance Appropriations Bill to revoke all funding directed exclusively towards the government instead of merely “examining” its relationship with the country [12].  At the bare minimum, tangible action such as the slashing of aid, censorship, severing of military ties, or economic sanctions could be leveraged to force the military’s hand and have General Hliang make good on his promise to host democratic elections in a year’s time. Based on precedent and policy, it is the responsibility of the international community to step up, stand behind their words, and defend the right to self governance of the people of Myanmar.

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