By Katya Mavrelli,
In the eyes of the world, Myanmar had come a long way with regards to building some solid democratic foundation for the development of a liberal state. Aung San Suu Kyi had successfully struck a balance between the once celebrated democratic opening of the nation and the need for a controlled military. But the workable equilibrium has now collapsed, and with it the long forgotten autocratic tendencies have once again risen.
Democratic transitions are a tricky business. Old regimes are inclined to surrender their power slowly, sometimes without even acknowledging the need of the country for fundamental regime change. In the so-called transitional phase, the fledgling democratic regime and the well-established authoritarian regime have often co-existed by need, side by side, mixing and clashing. By sharing the same outlook for the future and by realizing the national need for progress and improvement, there is a chance for both of them to make it.
This was the story of Myanmar: after decades of iron-fist military junta, the country began a process of gradual redirection of power from the military to a civilian government in 2011. Following the victory of the National League of Democracy party in 2015, Aung San Suu Kyi, a Nobel Peace Prize recipient for her resistance to the junta, has served as its leader.
This story comes with a twist. Even though both sides of the political spectrum acknowledged the need for reforms, instead of engaging in some co-existential form of cooperation, they opted for bitter and increasingly zero-sum rivalry, following decades of internal conflict that pitted the military against ethnic and separatist groups. The internal divisions and lack of national coherence exacerbated the tensions that prevented the homogenization of the nation and hindered the movement towards the common direction of political refinement. It was a race against each other that countered the gains of democratic transition.
International hopes for the revivification of democracy in Myanmar encouraged the world community to visualize San as an Asian Nelson Mandela, who would change the nation fundamentally and bring to the forefront all the democratic values that had been evaporated in the years of the military junta. Yet despite the idealistic dream of glorifying democratic principles, she inched towards turning the nationally elected party into a one-woman party. Choosing to embrace the country’s muscular power to marginalize the existing political factions instead of keeping them; heightening restrictions on the press, and marginalizing the many minorities in favor of the ethnic Burmese support base are some of the elements that encouraged her critics to term the beginning of her rule as yet another authoritarian-in-disguise regime.
During the peak of the military’s systematic killing of Rohingya Muslims in 2017, activists, civil society leaders and the heads of pro-democracy groups considered Ms. Aung San as a grave threat of democracy similar to what the military had been. Without a glimmer of democratic values in the horizon, anyone not supporting her party’s agenda was immediately seen as an outsider that ought to be eliminated or disregarded at best. This past November, her government also barred many ethnic minorities from participating in national elections, out of fear that they would traditionally support their own parties. Her party’s landslide victory followed as a corollary. Wishing to further solidify her hold on power, she sought time and again to eliminate remnants of the military’s power, which included a guaranteed hold of one quarter of Parliament seats.
When all eyes turned to Myanmar in 2017 with the military assertively proceeding with the systematic ethnic cleansing which made human rights agencies worry, the world community assumed San too had backed this out of political expediency. Yet, it was her sincere conviction that led to the alignment of the policies of the military and the civilian government, as San claimed that the Rohingya were a danger to the Buddhist party’s majority. And instead of conciliating the military, this agreement along with the means it was adopting made it seem like she was outcompeting them instead on some ethnic-purity contest.
The lack of domestic coherence and the issuing of constant political challenges continued for the following years, with San being much hard-liner compared to the military and declining to follow the lead of the military when it declared a ceasefire on the ethnic cleansing campaign. These episodes of authoritarian tendencies compile a larger series of undemocratic rule, which sowed the seeds for large-scale discontent that skyrocketed when San hosted China’s Xi Jinping in an effort to win back some of the international support she lost during the Rohingya incident. And if this was not enough to exacerbate the national dissatisfaction, her attempt to gradually shrink the military’s share of Parliament seats from 25 percent to 5 percent was the culmination of tensions that led to the military preparing an equally violent response.
In the early years of Myanmar’s reengagement, the country was a petri dish for development and NGO projects, who led the rapid increase in FDI and brought skyrocketing incentives to new projects. The foundation, however, was far from solid: the investors who encouraged the funding of the peace process saw their investments devoted to the training of police officials many of whom assisted in the organization of the recent coup, and to the creation of a nationwide census that masked ethnic prejudices.
When her party won in a landslide victory in November, the military realized that their window of opportunities was narrowing significantly, their way out was being barred and their hopes of regaining their pre-2011 glory were being crushed.
And so, when the military seized power and overthrew the country’s so-called fragile democratic government, arresting civilian leaders shutting off the internet and cutting off lights, the national sense of de ja vu became asphyxiating, reminding many of the years prior to San’s quasi-democratic rule and the loosening of the permeation of military sentiments.
The wrenching collapse of Ms. Aung San’s regime highlights the grinding difficulty of managing a democratic transition, which becomes a rare phenomenon, with transitions to (or back to) autocratic regimes beginning to represent the norm. At a time and age when democracy has become a revered word and a sacred representation of all that leaders have sacrificed in the face of regime solidification, people have become less concerned about the increasing number of authoritarian regimes and the rising tendencies for state power centralization. But maybe Myanmar will ring some silenced bell, reminding us all that preserving the foundations of democracy might be the only form of salvation from international uncertainty.
- Goldman, R., Myanmar’s Coup: Explained, The New York Times, Available here
- Maizland, L., Myanmar’s Troubled History: Coups, Military Rule and Ethnic Conflict, Council on Foreign Relations, Available here
- Pedersen, M. B., What makes this Myanmar coup different, Australian Strategic Policy Institute, Available here