The lengthy struggle over democracy in Myanmar has seen many celebrated achievements overturned by the military junta in order to keep their hold on power. Most recently, it took over the elected government of Myanmar in a coup d’état on the 1st of February 2021. Although this follows a long-continued pattern, a return to a full military dictatorship is a dramatic turn of events considering that, in the past 10 years, there has finally been a gradual transition to a more democratic regime.
Text: Janika Lindroos
Myanmar’s recently reversed road to democracy has all along been marked by the repressive military junta’s arbitrariness and disregard for democratic and lawful procedure. The National League for Democracy (NLD) headed by the Nobel Peace Prize laureate Aung San Suu Kyi, whose multiple house arrests symbolize the difficulty of the battle over democracy in Myanmar, has tended to score landslide victories in the few elections that have taken place since 1990. Undermining the legitimacy of the military government, these wins have often gone unrecognized by it and led to a decision to detain Suu Kyi. Thus, the fact that the most recent elections resulted in such outcome is not particularly surprising, but rather follows a long-continued pattern. However, given that a relatively long time has passed since her latest release in 2010, following a total of 15 years of time spent in detention over a 21-year period, the current situation is a worrisome deterioration of the apparent stability that had started to emerge in this regard. Moreover, as the democracy icon sits in house arrest once again, another repressive military regime is taking over violently following a coup on the 1st of February 2021.
The military has declared a year-long state of emergency and taken brutal measures to silence anti-coup protesters. The latest news concerning civilian deaths including young children and citizens starting to take up arms reflect the severity of the situation. According to The Assistance Association for Political Prisoners (AAPP), the estimated death toll has quickly risen to over 500 victims while the number of detainees is nearing 3000. Multiple countries and the UN have pressured the military to release the detainees and restore democracy.
The situation started to escalate when, in an attempt to question the legitimacy of the elected government, the military junta claimed voter fraud without being able to provide solid evidence. This was later followed by charging Suu Kyi with the possession of illegal walkie-talkies, breaking Covid-19 restrictions and publishing information that might potentially “cause fear or alarm”. These charges sound rather lightweight, to say the least, considering the measures taken in response. However, for reasons unrelated to electoral fraud, starting a conversation about the legitimacy of any government elected under certain pre-coup circumstances in Myanmar is due. Before the coup full democracy was yet to be achieved due to parts of the population being excluded from it and a constitution that remained partial to the military. The latter is the reason why there has been so much room for the military to defend their interests by overturning democratic achievements.
It also needs to be noted that, regardless of continuous international pressure and even accusations of genocide, the previous government headed by Suu Kyi has not been able to provide an adequate response to the situation of the Rohingyas. Having long been targets of horrific violence in their state, masses of Rohingyas have decided to seek refuge in other countries. In addition, members of already underrepresented and discriminated minorities, including the aforementioned, have been denied the right to vote. However, the popularity of Suu Kyi and the NLD among the citizens of Myanmar is apparent, as is their wish to return to democracy, demonstrated by the election results and the willingness of many to keep the protests going in an atmosphere increasingly hostile towards them. The current situation is an outrageous violation of the rights of Myanmar’s citizens and makes it impossible to focus on addressing long standing but urgent issues regarding minorities and the overall state of democracy in the country. For now, stopping the military dictatorship from proceeding with their plans and preventing the state of crisis from escalating further are priorities.
AAPP: Daily Briefing in Relation to the Military Coup. https://aappb.org/?p=14022
BBC: Myanmar coup: What is happening and why? https://www.bbc.com/news/world-asia-55902070
Human Rights Watch: Burma: Chronology of Aung San Suu Kyi’s Detention.
Myanmar Now: As slaughter of civilians continues, some decide it’s time to take up arms. https://www.myanmar-now.org/en/news/as-slaughter-of-civilians-continues-some-decide-its-time-to-take-up-arms
The Guardian: Aung San Suu Kyi faces four charges as Myanmar junta cracks down on dissent. https://www.theguardian.com/world/2021/mar/01/aung-san-suu-kyi-faces-third-charge-as-myanmar-junta-cracks-down-on-dissent
The Guardian: Myanmar minorities, including Rohingya, excluded from voting in election.