History Repeats Itself in Myanmar

What happened on February 1st, 2021 in Myanmar has taken the world by storm. Early in the morning, Myanmar leader Aung Sang Suu Kyi and other senior figures from the ruling party, the National League for Democracy (NLD), were detained in a raid carried out by the military after seizing control over the country in a military coup and declaring a year-long state of emergency

The November election was only the second democratic vote since the country emerged from 50 years of isolationist military rule in 2011. The military alleged that voter fraud took place during the poll, which delivered a far bigger majority for Suu Kyi’s party than anticipated. The week before the coup, a military spokesperson said it would not rule out a coup if the unfounded allegations of voter fraud were not properly investigated. On Monday it moved to act on that claim, reasserting its authority with the arrest of numerous political leaders for failing to take action. Myanmar’s election commission had rejected the allegations made by the military, saying any errors were not enough to impact the result of the vote. Ten years after her release, Aung San Suu Kyi is back in detention in Myanmar. The events of yesterday do not stand alone; they are part of Myanmar’s long struggle for democracy, which has been embroiled in a political stalemate since the 1960s.

The country’s origins

Myanmar, previously named Burma, achieved independence on the 4th of January 1948, with U Nu as its Prime Minister. The former British colony became a democratic nation based on the parliamentary system, yet Burma would not remain a democracy for long. Less than two decades later, Burma saw the toppling of its democratic regime, and fell under military rule. On March 2nd, 1962, General Ne Win, former Prime Minister in a caretaker government that was established in 1958, carried out a coup d’état.  He arrested U Nu and several other cabinet ministers, justifying the coup as a means to prevent the country from disintegrating, an event that could sound familiar. The repressive military dictatorship followed an ideology called “The Burmese Way to Socialism”, which was marked by a period of nationalisation, isolation, and totalitarianism.

Widespread anti-government riots broke out in late 1987 in the major cities, followed by even larger student-led riots in 1988, particularly the 8888 Uprising on 8 August 1988.  While the 1960s–1970s saw sporadic riots as well, the sheer intensity of the 1988 riots made it seem as though the country was “on the verge of revolution”. In July 1989, Aung San Suu Kyi, leader of the NLD and daughter of Aung San, modern-day Myanmar’s Father of the Nation, was placed under house arrest as she was involved in the 8888 Uprising and in May 1990, a general election was held. 

(Burma / Myanmar: Women demonstrators from La Wa Ka (Immigration Office), Rangoon, 1988, Pictures From History Lintner Collection)

Nearing the end of the 20th century, Myanmar sought to increase its strategic and economic influence in Asia after decades of isolationism. It was admitted into the Association of Southeast Asian Nations (ASEAN) in 1997, which implicitly sought to both improve the political and economic climates in Myanmar, as well as contain Chinese influence.

Myanmar into the new millennium 

Despite this potential for democratic advancement and increased participation in the global community at the beginning of the 21st century, Myanmar faced backlash once more when it detained Aung Sang Suu Kyi again in 2003. This led to harsher US and EU sanctions. The military’s violent response to a demonstration by the monastic community in 2007 also resulted in widespread criticism. The government-backed Union Solidarity and Development Party (USDP) claimed an expected victory in the November 2010 election, the first election in over 20 years. However, many other political parties alleged electoral fraud, with most international observers agreeing that the election was a sham and a mere tool for the military junta to assert its power.

The parliamentary election in 2015 gave the NLD a major victory. The election was the first one to be freely contested and was deemed to be relatively fair. The NLD hence could form a new government in 2016, although the military still held control in the police force, army, etc. Aung San Suu Kyi was made Foreign Minister, a minister in the President’s Office, and State Counsellor, while Htin Kyaw became President. Yet, while Myanmar looked poised to begin a new chapter in its political history, the emergence of the Rohingya Crisis led to further criticism.

Reactions from the world

After the seizure of power by the military, Tom Andrews, United Nations Special Rapporteur on Human Rights for Myanmar, said sanctions and international pressure should “be ratcheted up soon and quite vigorously.” As a matter of fact, Joe Biden has threatened to resume sanctions on Myanmar following the military coup and the suspension of democracy, and called for international solidarity in confronting the country’s generals. The US lifted sanctions on Myanmar in October 2016 after it held elections, established a civilian government, and took other steps towards restoring democracy. The White House press secretary, Jen Psaki, would not say whether measures other than sanctions were being considered, but said the US was in “intensive consultations at multiple levels” with its allies and partners around the world.

On the contrary, the Chinese foreign affairs spokesperson merely noted the coup and refused to discuss whether China, which has substantial oil and gas interests in Myanmar, had warned against such a move when the Chinese foreign minister met its military leadership last month after the heavy defeat of its proxy party at the polls. China has warm relations with Aung San Suu Kyi and they have deepened as western countries criticised her civilian government’s response to the Rohingya crisis. The military, on the other hand, is perceived as having a more independent streak that sought to balance against Chinese influence.

The UN secretary general, António Guterres, condemned the coup as a serious blow to democratic reforms in the country. The UN has been at the heart of the so far largely fruitless efforts to arrange for tens of thousands of Rohingya refugees stuck in camps in Bangladesh to return to Myanmar. Bangladesh called for peace and stability in Myanmar and said it still hoped its neighbour would make genuine efforts to move forward the stalled process of voluntary repatriation of Rohingya refugees. Thailand, Cambodia and the Philippines mainly recognised the issue as internal to Myanmar.

How will ASEAN react?

As an international organization, ASEAN has been famous for its strict adherence to the principle of non-intervention in the internal affairs of member states, such that statements made by political leaders about domestic political crises are frowned upon. There has, however, been a marginal dilution of this principle over the years, most prominently in relation to Myanmar. How can we expect ASEAN to respond to the recent coup?

In 2008, ASEAN member states adopted the ASEAN Charter which contains multiple references to democracy, a new addition to ASEAN’s vocabulary. Acquiring such a formal commitment to democracy by a group of largely autocratic governments was not an easy task. A common mode of non-coercive, low-degree intervention for democracy enforcement by regional organizations that emerged in the last two decades is election observation. Developing election observation capabilities would serve as a means for ASEAN to prevent political crises in member states. The presence of ASEAN election observers during the 2020 Myanmar general election might have accorded an additional degree of legitimacy to the electoral process, especially as an endorsement by an organization of which Myanmar is a member, as opposed to by other external observers. 

(Mahathir Mohamad, Aung San Suu Kyi and Rodrigo Duterte pose for a photo at the 33rd Asean summit in Singapore. AFP)

In response to the coup, Brunei, currently holding ASEAN’s rotating chairmanship, released a statement calling for “dialogue, reconciliation, and the return to normalcy” in Myanmar, citing the ASEAN Charter’s democracy principles. Still, members are not aligned on the decision whether to intervene or not. It remains to be seen whether and how ASEAN’s official bodies, the AMM or the ASEAN Summit (scheduled for April 2021), will address the Myanmar coup. A need to go beyond symbolic statements, however, is clear.

Expectations of coercive measures by ASEAN, such as sanctions, are almost non-existent, but statements of concern regarding Myanmar’s internal affairs increased in recent years. While these may be largely symbolic, they represent a form of low-degree, noncoercive intervention – a step above doing nothing. Whatever be ASEAN’s response to the Myanmar coup, the organization stands to learn important lessons from its actions. These lessons will be crucial for developing regional crisis management and prevention mechanisms to fulfil ASEAN’s aspirations of strengthening democracy.

A cloudy future

The world was shocked by the events that occurred on the 1st of February 2021 and it seems that the fight for democracy in Myanmar will never end, or will never happen without more years of struggling against the ruling military junta. It is hard to predict the future of the region, but one thing is clear, history continues to repeat itself. 

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