Myanmar Deals a Wider Blow to Southeast Asian Democracy
A police officer kicks away a smoke bomb during a protest outside the Embassy of Myanmar in Bangkok. (Photographer: Andre Malerba/Bloomberg)

Myanmar Deals a Wider Blow to Southeast Asian Democracy

A coup in Myanmar disheartened many, but shocked few. Seizing power and detaining de facto leader Aung San Suu Kyi is a reversion to type for the generals in one of Southeast Asia’s poorest nations. They had ceded little ground a decade ago when absolute military rule ended, and have now clawed it back after their proxies lost another election in November. It’s a bitter blow to nascent liberties in this country of 55 million — whose shift away from military dictatorship was once touted as a success story — and a poor signal for the wider region, where democratic progress has been faltering.

Developments in the capital of Naypyidaw, where Suu Kyi is now held, are at the extreme end of Southeast Asia’s setbacks, a throwback toward Myanmar’s dark years of international isolation and economic stagnation. During that time, the daughter of independence hero Aung San was under house arrest for 15 years over two decades.

But the move is on-trend in a neighborhood where freedoms and popular accountability haven’t been a priority of late. Thailand, faced with unprecedented demands for change, has largely brushed aside protest and silenced dissenters, most recently with a royal defamation complaint against a prominent critic. Malaysian reformers have been sidelined in the jostling of coalition politics, sorely disappointing hopes of democratic progress stoked by a shock 2018 election that led to the first alternation of power since independence. Indonesia, a success story in removing the military from power a generation ago, has become increasingly illiberal under President Joko Widodo, known as Jokowi. Even Vietnam, hardly a paragon of openness, has gone from a system of limited power sharing at the top to increased concentration under newly reappointed Communist Party chief Nguyen Phu Trong.

In part, it’s simply a region where many states are grappling with existential questions. Almost all have ethnic or religious tensions and insurgencies, so democracy waxes and wanes as bargains are made. The disappointments also say plenty about what the West wanted to see. Suu Kyi, who won the Nobel Peace Prize in 1991 and became a torchbearer for democracy, always had an imperious touch. In power, she failed to forge a more united nation, to end myriad civil conflicts or to tame the armed forces. She remained silent on free speech when journalists were unjustly arrested and actively defended the military against accusations of genocide in Rakhine state.

The reality is that in Myanmar, democracy never really happened. A transition to civilian government did, marked by a shift toward increased political rights and civil liberties that culminated in victory for Suu Kyi’s National League for Democracy in elections in 2015.  The economy began to open. The shift was touted as a major foreign policy achievement for Obama, who became the first U.S. president to visit in 2012. Sanctions were lifted. But the military retained plenty of control, with assigned ministries and a quarter of the seats in parliament, enough to block changes to the constitution. They also maintained hefty economic clout. As Griffith University’s Lee Morgenbesser put it to me, the generals held a right of first refusal. The hybrid, power-sharing system existed on their sufferance.

When the military began to worry after last year’s vote that it would never beat the popular NLD and that pressure to reform would loosen their control, its leaders sought to preempt any such move and disputed the poll.

History provides some guide of what might come next, hinging largely on the military’s ability to shape electoral and other outcomes and to contain popular resistance in the era of the smartphone. Already, citizens are banging pots and medical staff are stopping work in protest. Aaron Connelly of the International Institute for Strategic Studies suggests that the announcement of a cabinet with familiar faces — plus an effort to base the entire gambit on the military-written constitution — is evidence that a version of the status quo ante may be allowed after the yearlong state of emergency, albeit without the NLD. Other scenarios he lays out include an indefinite grip on power, or an aborted handover. The junta that put down a student-led uprising in 1988 allowed elections two years later. When it became clear that Suu Kyi’s party had won, they never recognized the results. Getting to the next ballot took a generation.

None of this is comforting for those who see a democratic recession in the wider region.

Ben Bland of the Lowy Institute points out that transitions aren’t always linear and not all setbacks are the same. Indonesia has certainly made uncomfortable compromises under Jokowi, from choosing an Islamic cleric as vice president to appointing a former general accused of human rights abuses as defense minister. But the military remains out of political and economic power. Rodrigo Duterte in the Philippines has presided over a system where his opponents have been attacked and arrested, and has allowed security forces sweeping powers. Yet as things stand, he’ll need to step down after his six-year term ends in 2022.

That doesn’t mean a quick return to previous improvements. Can the West help? For Myanmar, even targeted sanctions will take time to cause real pain where needed. Such measures would likely be blunted by China, which under President Xi Jinping has extended its influence throughout Southeast Asia. While Beijing has backed Suu Kyi to some extent in the past, it won’t shirk providing financial support and investment where it sees potential gain. Thailand, another export partner, won’t get in the military’s way.

The economy may still be the pressure point, though. The generals in Naypyidaw have been at pains to promise business as usual. To keep growing, every country in the region needs to allow more freedoms. Freer education to create better entrepreneurs, free speech to attract large-scale capital. That’s the hope.

This column does not necessarily reflect the opinion of the editorial board or Bloomberg LP and its owners.

Clara Ferreira Marques is a Bloomberg Opinion columnist covering commodities and environmental, social and governance issues. Previously, she was an associate editor for Reuters Breakingviews, and editor and correspondent for Reuters in Singapore, India, the U.K., Italy and Russia.

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