On Sunday, February 14th, protests in Myanmar escalated further, as the military junta in control of the government deployed more armoured vehicles. These largely civilian-filled protests were sparked when the Myanmar military overthrew the previous democratic government and jailed former leader and Nobel Prize Winner Aung San Suu Kyi. These protests―described by Reuters as some of the “biggest protests in Myanmar in more than a decade”―are largely student and youth filled.
Youth activist Esther Ze Naw serves as a voice for the protestors: “We don’t want to live under a military dictatorship. We want to establish a real federal union where all citizens, all ethnicities are treated equally.” This statement not only draws upon earlier bloody memories of 2011 military crackdowns in response to civilian opposition to Myanmar military rule, but this also calls back to the earlier genocide of the Muslim Rohiynga ethnic minority carried out by the Myanmar military. It is very clear to see that the current layout of Myanmar’s political landscape is one of authoritarian rule that is violently enforced against the people’s consent. Let’s take a look at a deeper examination of the causal roots behind this situation, also exploring the deeper nuances that can provide alleviation to this crisis.
From 1962 to 2011, the former Burmese (now known as Myanmar) military had ruled the region in an authoritarian dictatorship. From 2011, due to massive public outcry, the military had slowly been withdrawing itself from political affairs, and the government began to transition into a democracy. This fell apart on February 1st of this year, when the Myanmar military government began a series of raids against the National League for Democracy (NLD) political party culminating in a series of arrests including the aforementioned Aung San Suu Kyi.
Aung San Suu Kyi, who won the Nobel Peace prize in 1991―yet has also come under fire for refusal to condemn the Myanmar military for the Rohiynga genocide―was the democratic winner in a landslide victory prior to the coup. The USDP, a Myanmar political party backed by the military, lost heavily in the 2020 November elections. This combined with the election commission’s shut down of the USDP’s cries for election fraud likely explain the reasoning for the coup.
This theory which is also supported by the BBC staff, gains even more merit when we realize that on February 1st, the Myanmar parliament had originally planned to confer to officially enshrine the results of the election. Thus, it is fair to note that the military coup was done as an act to not only delegitimize the election but to also seize power for themselves.
So where do we go from here? Well first off it is highly unlikely that Suu Kyi will cooperate with the military even with a gun to her head. Considering she won her Nobel prize for organizing pro-democratic rallies from detention from 1989 to 2010, there is little reason to assume that she will bow down to authoritarian forces. While her deplorable hesitation surrounding the situation of the Rohyinga people could be seen as racist inaction, there is also the possibility that her silence was a deliberate political ploy in order to appease the military and protect Myanmar’s (clearly) fragile democratic institutions.
The coup naturally triggered widespread protests from the people, who clearly felt betrayed by the USDP and the military. While initially the protests were surprisingly met with little military force, the update from February 14th, which showed the deployment of military vehicles, suggests that violent force is imminent. To quote U.N. Special Rapporteur Tom Andrews: “It’s as if the generals have declared war on the people.”
While UK Prime Minister Boris Johnson condemned the coup on Twitter, new U.S. President Joe Biden has threatened sanctions against Myanmar as an attempt to economically stand up for Myanmar democracy. While personally, I recognize the “good intentions” behind Biden’s foreign policy threat, I cannot help but call for a more thought out response. While sanctions not only damage the civilian populace of the regions that it targets, a quick look at the history of U.S. sanctions in “promotion of democracy,” sees that political sanctions have largely not been used for the betterment of third world peoples but rather as a tool to promote neo-imperialist U.S. hegemony.
Instead of taking historically dubious and inhumane sanctions, I instead call for the U.S. government to fund NGOs that target and work for Myanmar civilian grassroots organizations. Through this event we not only address the current military dictatorship in a non-violent and ethical fashion, but we also affirm the Myanmar people’s right to self-determination by putting the power and capital in the hands of the Myanmar people.