Fallen Angel: The Tragic Case of Myanmar
“Our country is just a bird, learning to fly, now the army broke our wings” are the bleak words of one Myanmese local following the grim revelation that State Chancellor Aung San Suu Kyi was detained by military officials on February 1st.
General Min Aung Hlain, Commander-in-Chief of Myanmar’s Tatmadaw military, has seized power and ousted the democratically elected National League for Democracy (NLD) amid fears of alleged electoral fraud and manipulation after the NLD secured an overwhelming majority during the November 20th national elections.
In what is clearly a bitter refusal to accept its humiliating defeat, the military is desperately clutching onto the power it reluctantly handed over to the civilian government back in 2015. This is a dramatic reversal in the political evolution of what the Obama administration labelled a “democratic beacon” in an authoritarian world.
However, while Myanmar has witnessed brief glimpses of liberty and salvation, despotism and fear plague the country’s past and are likely to torment its future. Indeed, Myanmar has always remained a rather divided society. Before realising independence in 1948, then Burma was subject to British Imperialisms notorious “divide and rule” strategy which aimed to alienate and separate Burma’s vast array of ethnic groups by promoting fear and mistrust.
Such hostility threads throughout Myanmar’s recent history. After enjoying little over a decade of independence, in 1962 General Ne Win launched a coup establishing a brutal military junta lasting 49 years. The military attempted to justify the necessity of the putsch by keeping the peace and establishing harmony between Burma’s warring ethnic insurgencies. As a result, such groups suffered decades of brutal persecution as children were forced to be minesweepers while women were systematically raped. Meanwhile, the junta stirred panic among the country’s dominant Barmar ethnic group, instituting a culture of paranoia and terror by imprisoning thousands of “political prisoners” while crafting a pervasive intelligence network convincing many that the walls were listening and watching their every move.
In 1988, pro-democracy uprisings in Yangon were mercilessly crushed leaving over 5000 dead. However, it was here that Aung San Suu Kyi founded the NLD, launching her subsequent crusade to end the repression. Facing international pressure, the military was obliged to hold an election in 1990 it painfully lost to the NLD. However, in its refusal to surrender power Suu Kyi was imprisoned on and off for over a decade. After years of arrests and rearrests, coupled with a number of uprisings, infightings, and suppressions, the NLD finally took office on the 8th November 2015.
However, while it seemed the military willingly relinquished power to the civilian government, this is merely a farce. Under the 2008 constitution, the Tatmadaw arbitrarily appointed itself 25% of the parliamentary seats, granting military officials veto power over constitutional amendments. In other words, the Tatmadaw still enjoyed significant power and sway over Myanmar’s political system.
This perhaps explains why Suu Kyi was ardently defensive of Myanmar’s armed forces at the Hague in 2017. The UN accused the military of persecuting Rohingya Muslims in Rakhine province. Indeed, through mass killings, rape, and arson, the military forced over 730,000 Rohingya to nearby Bangladesh, Malaysia, and Indonesia with “genocidal intent” while facing little to no repercussions from the civilian government.
Despite facing mountains of evidence, the Nobel Peace Prize winner repeatedly denied accusations of genocide, justifying the army’s actions by inferring armed conflict was caused by Rohingya insurgents. Evidently, the military still held considerable power, acting as they pleased with no regard for civilian wellbeing. Such barefaced disregard for international law highlighted the army’s contempt for the NLD and its recognition that it ultimately held power in Myanmar. Speaking to the New York Times, Khin Zaw Win, head of Tampadipa Institute in Yangon, similarly claimed the army’s persecution of Rohingya Muslims were the “ominous warning signs” indicating a putsch was on the horizon.
Indeed, the November 2020 elections proved a troubling issue for General Mia Aung Hlaing and his power-hungry partisans. Abiding by the election results would have “weakened” their position claims Bridget Welsh of the University of Nottingham’s Asia Research Institute. The military’s Union Solidarity and Development Association (USDA) party won only 33 out 498 seats. Despite its constitutionally enshrined power, the military would have suffered a tremendous loss if it had not detained key NLD members.
To this end, Hlaing established a firm grip in which he is unlikely to willingly re-relinquish authority to the civilian government. This is the same individual who is now accused by the UN Human Rights Council of genocide in Rakhine, Kachin and Shan states against Rohingya Muslim and other helpless minority groups. Supremacy over his compatriots is his sole ambition.
Indeed, Hlaing holds tremendous national power and has long harboured presidential ambitions says Melissa Crouch of the University of New South Wales. The general, who is legally required to retire from his position when he turns 65 in July, has enforced a one-year state of emergency in order to consolidate his power. Additional access to state resources also allows him to subsidise the military’s two conglomerates – the Myanmar Economic Cooperation (MEC) and Myanmar Economic Holdings Limited (MEHL) - strengthening the army’s autonomy by providing independent financial support for its operations.
Meanwhile, the chances of much-needed major power cooperation on Myanmar appears slim. While the US and China have publicly indicated a desire to see the civilian government and armed forces settle their differences peacefully, it is unlikely they will cooperate on this matter together. Only recently did Chinese diplomat Wang Yi and Hlaing meet to discuss regional affairs. While the details of this meeting remain ambiguous, it would not be surprising to learn the Chinese granted economic assurances to the Tatmadaw’s coup. This would have provided Myanmar’s military the confidence to act against US, UK, and UN sanctions against Hlaing and his associates. Furthermore, establishing a relationship with the army would also provide the rapport needed for the Chinese to continue their development of the $3.6 billion-dollar Myitsone Dam. A key project in China’s ‘belt and road’ initiative.
Meanwhile, across the pond, President Biden faces one of his first foreign policy challenges as Commander in Chief. However, his recent commitments to the US’ Taiwanese alliance indicate Biden is not looking to establish a cooperative relationship with Beijing but to assert “America is back” on the world stage . What is needed in Myanmar is commitment from regional and international players to mediate Myanmar’s dramatically destabilisng political landscape. However, in light of such developments, this seems highly unlikely.
The future is looking hopeless for Myanmar as Suu Kyi and other senior NLD officials face extensive jail sentences. Local historian Thant Myint-U claims “the doors just opened to a different, almost certainly darker future” for Myanmar. The military has cut access to television, social media and the internet in an attempt to control inevitable unrest. In anticipation for the return of tyranny, flags emblazoned with the NLDs fighting peacock have already disappeared from the neighbourhoods and communities that once celebrated democratic freedom and autonomy. As with all military autocracies it is the people who suffer most. Fear of ethnic persecution and systematic rape walk hand-in-hand with the resurgence of military rule in Myanmar and it seems both domestic and international communities cannot find a peaceful solution amid a rapidly deteriorating situation.