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*Some information in this article is supported by interviews with four Burmese nationals studying overseas and a survey filled out by two other Burmese, a student and a teacher, currently in Myanmar. Five, except one, requested anonymity for safety concerns.
On February 1, the military detained Aung San Suu Kyi, whose party has just won the general elections last November, along with other politicians and declared a year-long state of emergency. The army, also known as the Tatmadaw, and its commander-in-chief, General Min Aung Hlaing, accused Suu Kyi’s National League for Democracy (NLD) party of voter fraud.
Nation-wide protests have been heavily suppressed by army troops who are not hesitant to open fire. March 27, in particular, turned out to be the deadliest day. While the generals held a parade and lavish dinner to celebrate Armed Forces Day, more than 100 protesters were shot dead, thus bringing the number of casualties since the February coup to over 500, including children as young as five to thirteen years old.
The people of Myanmar have been promised democracy many times, but as long as the military remains in the political arena and dictates the trajectory of the transition, they will continue to make a mockery of people’s right to self-determination.
Relentless military intervention in Myanmar’s efforts towards democracy
The military has been dominant since 1962 when it took over state power from the country’s first post-independence Prime Minister U Nu. The military government, led by General Ne Win, stayed on for more than two decades and pursued policies that brought ruin to the economy, not to mention the demonetisation policy that wiped out many citizens’ life savings.
Growing discontent among the people eventually culminated in 1988, which is more familiarly known as the ‘8888 Uprising’, as hundreds of thousands of anti-government protesters poured out into the streets demanding democratic reforms. Ne Win stepped down in July given mounting pressure against his administration and promised multiparty elections.
Sympathetic to the protesters’ cause, Suu Kyi stepped onto the scene that same summer. She formed the NLD, which went on to win the 1990 general election by a landslide but was not allowed to take power. Instead, the military placed her under house arrest.
In order to secure control of the government, the military drafted a constitution in 2008 that guaranteed the Tatmadaw 25 percent of seats in national and local parliaments. Any constitutional amendments proposed by civilian legislators, therefore, depend on the approval of the armed forces. Moreover, the military has influence over the Union Solidary and Development Party (USDP) as it comprises mostly former military personnel. This does call into question the representativeness of the government.
When a significant portion of the parliamentary seats is reserved to ensure that the military’s interests are served, and when the largest opposition party in the legislature is essentially an extension of military rule, how much room is left in the government that (the military) allows for effective channelling of civilians’ interests?
Admittedly, Myanmar exhibited progression, albeit slow, towards democratisation from 2010 onwards under the USDP’s leadership. But the world remained sceptical as it was hard to reconcile a pseudo-democratic parliament with a genuine commitment to hand political powers over to the people.
Despite her party’s victory in the 2015 general elections (this time she was able to rule), her government could not curtail both de jure and de facto powers of the military. She has also been the target of worldwide criticisms over the Rohingya crisis although it has long been the Tatmadaw behind the persecutions of the ethnic minority.
“In addition to sabotaging certain processes that the government wants to run, [the military] do things without the official instructions given to them, like the Rohingya crisis,” said Phu Pwint, a university student.
“By now, the international community has started to see how powerless Aung San Suu Kyi and her party are,” she added. Nevertheless, she acknowledged that Suu Kyi’s denial of genocide allegations at the International Court of Justice was an indefensible blunder.
The Tatmadaw’s continued involvement in the country’s politics places severe constraints on the scope of democratisation that Myanmar can work towards as well as on the actors that endeavour to expand it. No matter politicians or civilians, those who defy the armed forces risk their lives standing at the end of the military’s guns, as witnessed in the past two months.
People’s undimmed spirit
Aristotle once said, “For those who carry arms can always determine the fate of the constitution.” The people in Myanmar, however, have made it very clear that they will not acquiesce.
Using weapons as a defensive measure is natural to the military. But their lack of qualms about firing on protesters – who demand not the abolition of the army but for civilians’ sustained rights to participate in politics – as though they are enemies is horrifying.
During the 1988 uprising, the military brutally clamped down on the protests as they gained momentum. It led to thousands killed, thousands imprisoned, and tens of thousands escaping Myanmar. Prior to the major bloodshed, Ne Win had ominously warned the people in his resignation speech in July: “When the army shoots, it shoots to hit.”
This time, the violent military crackdown is no different with the troops aiming their weapons indiscriminately, but the younger generation currently in the fight is more fearless, more tenacious than ever, and digital technology has been very helpful in weakening the military’s attempt to hide the domestic crisis from the global eye. A different outcome is anticipated.
“Change won’t happen overnight so we will continue fighting until we reach our goal,” wrote one respondent.
“…even though we didn’t have a proper democratic system in the country – it was very flawed. But people have had a taste of it now. So, they just don’t want to be or stay in the dark,” said one student.
“It’s not about NLD; it’s not about Aung San Suu Kyi; it’s not about the president anymore. It’s about the lives and freedom of 54 million people in the country.”
It seems unlikely that the people will back down because this is not a fight based on loyalty to a single party nor admiration for a particular figure. Everyone recognises that they have a stake in the political health of the country, in ridding it of the dictatorship of the military.
“We don’t really just have one leader. We are leaders ourselves. This fight is not just about one party against another,” expressed another student in an emphatic tone, “this is the people against dictators.”
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