In Myanmar, in the early hours of Monday, February the 1st, the army’s TV station announced grave news across a country whose history had been marred in oppression and authoritarianism. Power had been transferred over to commander-in-chief Min Aung Hlaing. Soldiers poured into the capital, Nay Pyi Taw, blocking roads, and launching a media-blackout of national as well as international TV channels. The official state broadcaster went dark. Internet and Phone services were, thereafter, disabled. Aung San Suu Kyi, President Win Myint, alongside other leaders of the National League for Democracy (NLD) were detained by the Myanmar military. The Myanmar military has, in effect, re-taken control of the country after a brief flirtation with democracy led by Suu Kyi and the NLD. The army’s takeover, which took place amidst claims of fraudulence in recent landslide parliamentary election victory by Suu Kyi’s party, is the latest episode in a history marked by the struggle of democratic forces against military control.
In November 2020, Myanmar held parliamentary elections, which the army-backed government opposition lost. Thereafter, the opposition demanded a re-do of the election, claiming widespread election fraud; these claims were denied by the country’s electoral commission. Months later, the army chose to move against the newly democratically elected parliament, placing Suu Kyi, President Myint, and other NLD leaders under arrest. Furthermore, the military announced the removal of 24 ministers and deputies, naming 11 replacements, namely for the ministries of finance, health, the interior, and foreign affairs. A curfew has been reportedly instated, being in effect from 20:00 until 06:00. No major violence has been reported despite the military’s actions to stifle public dissent and communication. These included the blocking of roads in the capital, Nay Pyi Taw, and the main center of Tourism, Yangon, the blackout of international and national television broadcasts, including the state news channel, the disruption of internet and phone services, and the forcible closure of banks. But why has the army acted only now, months after the initial election results spelled defeat for the military-backed party, the USDP? The first week of February would have been marked by the first session of parliament since the beginning of the election. The newly elected government would have been approved, formalizing their role, and solidifying their victory. But how have we arrived here? What is the history which has constructed this fragile state whose struggle for democracy has faced such a massive set-back?
The Establishment of the kingdom of Burma and British Rule
Myanmar’s history of struggle against oppression is nothing new. Since its original unification into a Buddhist kingdom under King Anawrahta in 1057, Myanmar, then known as Burma, faced numerous conflicts throughout the 19th century against the British Empire. These are known as the Anglo-Burmese Wars. The third of these wars, ending in 1885, resulted in the total annexation of Myanmar into the British Empire. Myanmar served as a market for British goods and a linkage to lucrative trade with the Qing dynasty of China. In 1886, Myanmar was established as an Indian province, with the British motivating large-scale migration of native Indians to Myanmar to construct a new British administration in the land. The British modified the Burmese economy, gearing it overwhelmingly towards the mass-exportation of rice and transforming Burma into the world’s largest rice exporter. Resistance to British incursion lasted into the 1980s where, when increasingly exhausted by guerrilla activity, the British began to destroy entire villages routinely. This mass-repression campaign of freedom-loving sentiment left deep and daunting scars in Myanmar’s society. To this day, this is a tactic favored by the military junta, which has taken over the country. Moreover, as was characteristic of British Imperial governance, the favoring of certain ethnic groups over others created deep social chasms in Myanmar, like the massacre of the Rohingya Muslim showcases.
The Thakin and Resistance against British Rule
Student protests in 1920 marked a renewed resistance against British rule. The student protests were followed by strikes and anti-tax protests, where Buddhist monks—who were leading vast armed rebellions— played a prominent role. Myanmar’s Rangoon University was a hotbed of radical politics and colonial resistance; it was there that young law student and father of Aung San Suu Kyi, Aung San, gained status as leader of the movement for autonomy from British rule. Alongside future Prime Minister of Burma, Nu, joined the Thakin movement—Thakin translates as “master,” and was a term appropriated by the locals, which they were forced to use in deference to the British. The adoption of the term represented the Burmese desire to be “masters” of their destiny. The Burmese sought to be freed from the yoke of foreign oppression; with much of this revolutionary ambition was inflamed within university halls, the coming weight of rule would most likely fall on the shoulders of a burgeoning intellectual elite. Yet, the road towards freedom is marked by trial and tribulation, and the question remains, once the struggle is done if it ever is, how much of the enemies we have defeated do we then carry on within ourselves?
World War II
The start of World War II presented the Burmese nationalists with an opportunity to gain concessions from the British in exchange for their support against Imperial Japan. Yet, the Thakins refused to participate in the war. Other nationalists found inspiration for the struggle against British Rule in Marxist ideology and the Irish Sinn Féin movement. Amidst this increase in the enthusiasm of left-wing sentiment, Aung San co-founded the Communist Party of Burma, seeking contact with Chinese Communists for resources in their liberating struggle. The Japanese contacted him first, promising military training and support for a national uprising. The Thirty Comrades, a communist group composed of Aung San and 29 other young revolutionaries, traveled to Japanese-controlled Hainan island, China. There, they hoped to receive training and support from the Japanese to gain independence from the British. In 1942, the Japanese showed their hand by invading Burma. One set of masters replaced the other. Aung San then sought negotiations with the British to drive out the Japanese. Having tasted Japanese oppression’s brutality, he became a founding member of the Anti-Fascist People’s Freedom League (AFPFL). Amidst great devastation, in May 1945, the Japanese were finally expelled.
After World War II, the British instituted a military admiration over the country and sought to prosecute Aung San, the country’s leading freedom fighter, for a murder he committed during the war. Due to his overwhelming popular support, the British decided against prosecution, and Aung San eventually managed to negotiate independence for Burma in 1947. Meanwhile, Aung San agreed to ensure the unification of ethnic nationalities within Burma. The stability of the fragile new state was threatened by the splintering of the AFPFL, with some of its factions forming underground groups, while others, formal political opposition. An Interim election was run, with Aung San’s AFPFL winning 248 of 255 seats; the government immediately began drafting the country’s first constitution. On the 19th of July, 1947, and political attack instigated by a rival politician resulted in gunning down of Aung San and his ministers. U Nu, Aung San’s university colleague and co-founder of the AFPFL, took over in San’s name and led Burma’s independence, which was finalized on January 4th, 1948. The vehement anti-colonial sentiment kept the new state—like many of their fellow former colonies—from joining the British Commonwealth.
Democracy’s Brief Hurray
Burma’s first native government navigated a tricky political environment. The deeply Buddhist vision of the country which Nu and his government advanced caused communist factions and disparate ethnic groups to feel a great deal of exclusion from the national project. These groups led insurgencies in the country’s north, as did Kuomintang Chinese nationalist forces. Meanwhile, Nu kickstarted Burma’s initiation into the international stage as a co-operative actor and part of the non-alignment movement whose members sought freedom from both American and Soviet influence. In the 1950s, amidst a raging civil war, Burma’s economy began to recover from the war-time devastation. It developed bounds beyond its previous status as a provider of raw goods for the British Empire.
Nevertheless, political and social inequality, a leftover from the British institution of class and ethnic rivalries to weaken the national unit, was rampant. Widespread unrest result from the failure of the government to hold to the Burmese constitution’s promise of autonomy for ethnic minority states after ten years. Schismatic branches of the AFPFL, led by General Ne Win, one of the original Thakins, overthrew the government in 1958. The new military government instantly initiated a purge of “communist sympathizers” and ordered minority states to bow to the central government. The military agreed to hold elections in 1960, but when U Nu was re-elected as Prime Minister, Ne Win staged another coup in 1962, instituting a formal military dictatorship in Burma.
Ne Win’s dictatorship suspended the constitution, banned political parties, and shut down all of Burma’s Student Unions. The regime brought the press under government control and closed the country off to the rest of the world. Ne Win and the military government formed the “Burma Socialist Programme Party,” declaring the nation to now be following “the Burmese Way to Socialism.” Ne Win launched a draconian campaign of human rights abuse, including a purge of the citizens of Indian extraction, who had hereto formed the commercial and administrative backbone of the country. The government accomplished extensive nationalization efforts across major industries and routinely answered insurgency with state force. Ne Win deemed all of these tactics “healthy politics.”
In 1987, run-away inflation wiped out the saving of a large portion of the Burmese population, leading the UN to admit Burma to the club of Least Developed Nations. The following year Ne Win announced he would be stepping down, after which, driven by economic malaise, mass demonstrations broke out across the country, known as the “democracy summer.” In 1988, following the police killings of 3000 demonstrators and amidst vast repression which forced political activists to flee the country, a coalition of ethnic nationalities congealed into a formal resistance movement. One of those who returned from foreign exile, was future Nobel Prize Winner and daughter of freedom fighter Aung San, Aung San Suu Kyi. During this period, fearing revolutionary overthrow, the military imposed martial law and instituted the State Law and Order Restoration Council (SLORC). A burgeoning democracy movement led by Suu Kyi was forming. Suu Kyi was quickly placed under house arrest before the SLORC, honoring a long-standing promise, held multi-party elections in May 1990. The Suu Kyi-led National League for Democracy (NLD) experienced an overwhelming victory. In response to this, the military refused to hand-over power. During this period, the government officially changed the name of the country from Burma to Myanmar.
Yet Another Promise of Democracy
In 1992, General Than Shwe took control of the military administration. The following year a National Convention was convened to draft a new constitution that would prepare the country for democracy. Yet, when it turned out this was merely a play by that state which they hoped would preserve military dominance, the NLD removed itself from the process. During the 1990s, through the promise of benefits which even today remain immaterial, the military negotiated cease-fire agreements with many of the insurgent political and ethnic groups. The military, for merely aesthetic purposes, with the intent to better its outside image, renamed the SLORC into the State Peace and Development Council. In 2003, the administration officially announced the seven-step “roadmap to democracy,” and in 2005, another National Convention was convened. In 2007, widespread protests caused by rises in fuel prices broke out in Rangoon. In 2015, the military was forced by public pressure to hold another round of elections, which Suu Kyi again won. Yet, to placate the military, the constitution which had been drafted forced her to govern a parliament in which 25% of seats were reserved for military personnel, including some in her cabinet. This effectively stalled any constitutional change.
Democracy’s Lastest Demise
After November 2020, parliamentary elections brought yet another decisive win to Suu Kyi’s NLD. The military promised to honor the democratic results of the election, which established what amounted to the first civilian government in Myanmar since 1962. Yet on the 1st of February, the military launched a coup d’état against the newly elected democratic government, given the imminent first parliament session. This session would have enshrined democracy in Myanmar through the approval of Suu Kyi’s government, which was shared by an overwhelming 70% of the population. The military detained all prominent cabinet members, including President Win Myint, the only person with the necessary authorization to enact a state of emergency. The actions of the military have left the citizens of Myanmar feeling “betrayed” and as if they now have “no protection under the law.” The international response has been overwhelmingly against the new military regime, with newly elected US President Joe Biden releasing a statement denouncing the over-ruling of “the will of the people” and the “attempt to erase the outcome of a credible election. UK Prime-Minister Boris Johnson has likewise voiced his condemnation of “unlawful imprisonment of civilians, including Suu Kyi,” and urged that the results of the election be honored, and will of the majority, respected.
Democracy has been a goal of much of the developed world following the decolonization efforts of the 20th century. Nevertheless, many of the nations suffered under the weight of the social and political consequences of colonial policy, which often bred ethnic resentment and saddled successor states with existential threats to their legitimacy. The military rule of Burma under the British Empire burdened the nation with ethnic strife caused by long-lasting preferential treatment. The military administration, which oppressed the country during the colonial era, instructed several groups in the post-colonial period and cemented a culture of authoritarian power-struggle into the political structure of the briefly-free Myanmar. It is evident, the only constant in Myanmar’s recent history has been the subjugation of the people under authoritarianism, with masters being never successfully overthrown, but merely exchanged. Myanmar’s path to democracy has experienced a set-back, and the country is still haunted by the specter of colonial rule in the form of the military autocrats who modeled themselves after the tyrants they replaced. It is fascinating to wonder if these men who have plunged a knife into the beating heart of a whole nation ever peer into the mirror. And, when they do, if they notice the insidious resemblance to some embalmed relic of an empire. If they recognize in themselves something of the monsters they once sought to destroy.