How Myanmar’s Coup Puts Democracy on the Back Burner Again

Ten years after Myanmar began its transition to democracy -- following decades of brutal military rule and isolation -- the armed forces are back in power. After former dissident Aung San Suu Kyi, the charismatic daughter of the country’s modern founder, scored another in a series of sweeping election victories, the generals disputed the vote and took her into custody. That set off major street protests that were met with deadly force against civilians, including children. The coup was another blow for Southeast Asia’s poorest country after accusations of genocide perpetrated against the Muslim Rohingya minority that tarnished Suu Kyi’s image abroad and clobbered vital foreign investment. Prolonged political turmoil could provoke yet another humanitarian crisis in a region already struggling with the Covid-19 pandemic.

1. What happened with the election?

Suu Kyi’s party, the National League for Democracy, won 83% of the parliamentary seats at stake in the Nov. 8, 2020 election, an even better performance than its 2015 landslide. The election commission and international observers called the vote fair. But the military, alleging voter fraud, on Feb. 1 detained Suu Kyi and President Win Myint, declared a state of emergency and said it was seizing power for at least one year.

2. What’s been the reaction?

Violence flared after the coup as Suu Kyi’s supporters demanded her release and the restoration of the elected government; soldiers have shot hundreds dead, according to a human rights group. The economy ground to a halt as banks closed and workers stayed home. The strikes gradually subsided and banks reopened, albeit with restrictions on cash withdrawals, but pro-democracy street protests pop up almost daily in some parts of the country. The generals initially sought to curb them by cutting most internet access, and then by blocking some sites. The military also lashed out at ethnic insurgent groups that criticized the coup, risking turning long-simmering conflicts into full-scale civil war. Some supporters of the previous government have formed armed units known as the People’s Defense Force and clashed with army troops. The military reported killing eight people in a shootout in Mandalay in June.

3. What about Suu Kyi?

Suu Kyi, 76, was charged in June with corruption, which can carry a prison sentence of as many as 15 years. Other charges include incitement, violating the Official Secrets Act, violating Covid-19 restrictions during last year’s campaign, and possessing unlicensed walkie-talkies. The head of her legal defense team, Khin Maung Zaw, said he expected the first verdicts by mid-August. He has described all the allegations against her as groundless. Election workers appointed by the junta have said they would dissolve her pro-democracy party; she vowed it would continue its work “for the people.”

4. What’s the history?

After World War II, Burma, as it was then known, emerged from British colonial rule and plunged directly into civil conflict. Ethnic minorities make up a third of the population of 55 million and occupy half the land, including areas where valuable resources such as jade, gold and teak are found. A deal providing them with greater autonomy fell apart after Suu Kyi’s father, Aung San, who was slated to become the country’s first leader, was gunned down in 1947. A coup led by army chief Ne Win in 1962 started a half-century of military rule, during which the country descended into desperate poverty. Troops viciously suppressed pro-democracy protests in 1988. Two years later the army annulled an election that Suu Kyi’s party had won by a landslide. Under house arrest for much of the next 20 years, she was awarded the Nobel Peace Prize in 1991.

5. How did she get into government?

The junta began a transition to civilian rule with a new constitution in 2008 that reserved 25% of parliamentary seats for the military -- enough to block any amendments to it. Still, Suu Kyi’s party took part in by-elections in 2012 after the government agreed to the release of political prisoners, the freedom to assemble and an opening to foreign investors. Her party then swept to victory in the first full elections in 2015, defeating the ruling party by a margin of nearly 10-to-1. The constitution bars Suu Kyi from serving as president because her children are U.K. citizens. Thus, in 2016 she became state counselor, a newly created role akin to prime minister, as well as foreign minister.

6. How did the first term go?

Her administration liberalized banking, insurance and education and curbed inflation. But about a third of the population lives in poverty and businesses remain mired in red tape. The military continued to control the defense, home affairs and border affairs ministries. Its forces have been accused by United Nations investigators of practicing “ethnic cleansing” and “crimes against humanity” with “genocidal intent” in driving more than 700,000 Rohingya people over the border to Bangladesh since 2017. (Among Myanmar’s Buddhist majority, prejudice against the Rohingya — Muslims castigated as illegal immigrants and stripped of citizenship — remains fierce and widespread.) Amid the opprobrium, foreign direct investment fell to $2.3 billion in 2019 from $4.7 billion in 2017.

7. Why the coup?

The military operates almost as a state within a state, and its allies still control vast swaths of the economy. The scale of Suu Kyi’s victory may have prompted fears among the generals of new efforts to chip away at their privileges, after their exceptionally poor electoral performance. They turned on her even though she defended them in 2019 at the International Court of Justice against the genocide allegations -- increasing her popularity at home at the expense of her international reputation. In its Feb. 1 statement, the military said it was necessary to act in response to alleged voter fraud before the new parliament sessions began later that week. It said voter rolls would be checked and a “free and fair general election” would be held when the emergency was over.

8. Where does this leave Myanmar?

Western countries responded to the coup with new economic sanctions, just five years after many had been lifted, although it’s unclear how much impact they will have. China, Myanmar’s most important trading partner, has rejected calls at the UN for an arms embargo and has affirmed support for the regime. Japan and India worry that tough measures against the junta only risk increasing China’s influence there. Prime Minister Lee Hsien Loong of Singapore, Myanmar’s biggest foreign investor, has said sanctions would only hurt Myanmar’s people. They look set to suffer anyway: In April the World Bank forecast a 10% economic contraction in 2021 and a “sharp increase,” after years of decline, in the poverty rate -- largely as a result of the coup.

The Reference Shelf

  • The Assistance Association for Political Prisoners, a human rights group, tallies victims of the coup.
  • Four Myanmar army officers talk about life in the Tatmadaw.
  • Bloomberg Opinion’s Clara Ferreira Marques on what the coup means for Southeast Asia, and Nisid Hajari asks if Myanmar’s democracy can be rescued.
  • The BBC examines the voter fraud issue and tracks Suu Kyi’s career.
  • U.S. Institute of Peace report on the 2020 elections.
  • The United Nations details human rights abuses in Myanmar.
  • A QuickTake on the Rohingya.
  • Thant Myint-U’s book “The River of Lost Footsteps: Histories of Burma.”

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