As featured in Edition 39, available here.
BY CHARLOTTE EARL (3rd year - Politics and International Studies - Croydon, UK)
You would be forgiven for completely forgetting about the military coup in Myanmar that took place in February 2021 and restored full military rule in the country. The Western mainstream media were quick to report on the coup in the immediate aftermath, yet coverage is largely non-existent now. Many major Western democracies, including the United Kingdom, were quick in their condemnation of this clear deposition of a democratically- elected government. The intergovernmental response was also swift, with a British-drafted resolution condemning the military’s action introduced at an emergency meeting of the UN Security Council. Yet, the reluctance of Russia and China to act meant that the draft press statement was not released, nor any sanctions imposed. Since then, both governmental and intergovernmental responses have been largely insubstantial. Has this cataclysmic coup in Myanmar been largely forgotten about? What’s happening domestically? One thing is certain, the outlook is bleak for those wishing for a return to democratic government.
Before analysing what’s happening now, it’s important to discuss Myanmar’s turbulent history of military rule and the recent democratic reform that precedes these events. Myanmar gained its independence from the UK in 1948. A period of immense political turmoil, driven by a weak government and ethnic tensions, followed. A military coup in March 1962, inspired by political infighting and the countless country-wide insurgencies, brought an end to democratic civilian government. The political landscape in Myanmar remained chaotic throughout the succeeding decades, with several intense military power struggles altering the nature of military rule. Ethnic-based conflict and civil war also continued throughout the period (and do to this day). It’s the world’s longest ongoing civil war.
The 21st century saw the gradual introduction of democratic reforms in Myanmar, and eventually in 2015, democratic elections were held, resulting in a landslide victory for the National League for Democracy (NLD) and the ascension of Aung San Suu Kyi to the position of State Counsellor. The years of democratic government did little to reduce the immense instability and division the country faces. Ethnic conflict and civil war continued. Suu Kyi has overseen oppression and ‘crimes against humanity’ against Rohingya Muslims in Rakhine state, and the government is known for its prosecution of journalists. Whilst it is tempting to celebrate Aung San Suu Kyi, a Nobel Peace Prize laureate, as an inspiring political leader and reformist that led Myanmar out of decades of military rule and spearheaded democratic change, the legacy of her short rule is much darker.
Since the February military coup, civil resistance has been rife. Methods of disobedience against the military regime are diverse. Workers in state-run hospitals have gone on strike. Many have started wearing red (the colour of the NLD) ribbons as a symbol of resistance. The government went as far as to ban Facebook to hinder organising power. It is difficult to measure the true extent of how many people have died or been arrested in military crackdowns, however estimations at the time of writing place the figure at roughly 1,300 deaths and 10,000 arrests.
The outlook is bleak for peaceful protestors. Though civil disobedience has had a significant impact on paralysing the economy and limiting the financial resources available for the new government, the military have succeeded in completely seizing control of the country’s infrastructure. They are a well-organised force unafraid to use the harshest tactics to solidify their control of the country. Peaceful protest and civil resistance can only go so far; protest leaders in the country have themselves recognised its limits. The military government will inevitably find ways to adapt and respond to the problems created by continued action.
A UN special envoy to Myanmar has reported that the country is on the brink of full-scale civil war. The international community has largely forgotten about the country, and Russia and China would likely block further intergovernmental action regardless. Some reports suggest that people are training for guerrilla warfare against the military government.
Myanmar is unlikely to see another peaceful return to democracy anytime soon. It’s increasingly likely that the tensions that have plagued the divided nation for so long will simply continue to expand, with civil disobedience potentially evolving into violence. Myanmar’s military government is here to stay. Civil war in Myanmar is here to stay, and if anything seems increasingly likely, it’s that everything is about to get a whole lot worse.
Image: Flickr (Utenriksdepartementet UD)