Myanmar’s military regime has extended the nation’s state of emergency for another six months to Feb 1st, 2023. The head of Myanmar’s military Junta Min Aung Hlaing has advanced that the country’s instability, the COVID–19 pandemic, and the need for additional election preparations all need to be resolved before free and fair elections can take place. This extended state of emergency—which began after a 2021 coup d’état that deposed the state’s democratically elected members—is the latest development in a vicious saga that began shortly after Myanmar gained its independence from Britain in 1948.
In a statement that is consistent with state media reports, Min Aung Hlaing has “called for electoral reform that would give greater weight to proportional representation.” Curiously, he also claimed that the supposed efforts toward a Myanmar safe for free and fair elections is a necessary shift from the previous command of “powerful parties [that were] preventing political propriety in the polls.”
Military-led political reform to ready Myanmar for democracy is not new. In fact, it is a part of a near 30-year transition that envisioned the country as a “discipline-flourishing democracy.” However, efforts toward democracy in Myanmar (formerly known as Burma) have been tepid and unstable.
In 1990, the military government, then headed by the State Law and Order Restoration Council (SLORC) held the first free multiparty general election in 30 years. According to a report by the United States Institute of Peace, the leaders of this regime—imbued with a false sense of confidence in their monopoly on power and fear—assumed that no party would overwhelm their own. Accordingly, they were not prepared for the shock of winning only 10 of the 492 seats. The National League for Democracy, under the leadership of Aung San Suu Kyi, won an astounding 392 seats. In response to these unfavourable results that threatened to uproot their hold on power, the military junta refused to cede power, nullified the election, and placed Aung San Suu Kyi under house arrest for 15 years.
In 2008, with ratification of a new Constitution, the military government committed to renewed efforts to introduce minimal democratic reforms. In what was described as a roadmap to democracy, the military’s hold on political power continued to remain inviolable with the allocation of 25% of parliament seats and control over key government ministries.
A general election in 2010 yielded former general Thein Sein as president. Under President Sein, Myanmar made marginal gains toward democracy through a series of political and economic reforms. This hopeful trend continued in 2015 with the first openly contested elections since the annulled 1990 elections. With results near parallel, the National League for Democracy (NLD) won an absolute majority in both chambers of the national parliament. Though contrary to 1990, the military did not invalidate the results of this election, resulting in the rise to power of the first non-military president since 1962.
The totality of Myanmar’s election history pieced together unveils that its current state of affairs is unsurprising. Though lamentable, the coup that followed the “humiliating defeat” of the military-backed Union Solidarity and Development Party (USDP) to the NLD in the 2020 elections is consistent with a pattern that makes one thing clear: there can be no Myanmar where any form of democracy and military rule simultaneously exist.
The military’s record of hedging around democracy, only to vehemently recoil when it cannot use it to reinforce its own power, demonstrates that their efforts are never rooted in advancing the best interests of its constituents—who have consistently demanded democracy. Rather, their record is best characterized as an unabating endeavour to entrench their power through the rubber-stamp that democratic elections would provide as justification of their rule both domestically and internationally.
The implications of this acknowledgment are grave. It means that the junta’s lengthening of emergency rule is not to ensure that democracy prevails—as is claimed. Instead, the more likely intention is to give the military more time to reimagine their grasp on power.
In a statement to Radio Free America, Hunter Marston, a researcher and analyst at Australian National University in Canberra, posits that the emergency rule “gets the [junta] that much closer to holding an election under its rules and preferences, by which time it will have had its chance to remove the NLD’s top political leaders and intimidate all other political parties as well as voters into voting under its preferred [proportional representation] system.”
Beyond the forestalling of their inevitable demise, the junta—since the beginning of their coup—have been responsible for other egregious exploits against their people. These include the execution of four democracy activists, the killing of more than 2,100 civilians, and the arrest of nearly 15,000 others. Widespread violent clashes between the military and anti-junta paramilitaries with armed ethnic groups, the refusal by tens of thousands of bankers, healthcare workers, and teachers to work under the junta, and the establishment of a parallel government called the National Unity Government (NUG) illustrate the chaos and dissension that colour Myanmar.
With the military junta giving no indication that it is willing to relinquish its domination, many analysts have acknowledged that Myanmar is on the brink of state failure. It will be up to the international community to match the resilience and determination for democracy displayed by Myanmar’s people. Futile attempts by ASEAN to implement peace through a five-point plan has been resolutely disregarded and condemnation by Western governments, the UN, and the EU register little with the military. More must be done.
Foremost, the international community will need to do everything it can to sustain Mymanmar’s democratic movement. Despite the atrocities committed by the military regime, Myanmar’s people have refused to be conquered. As such, nations will need to support these networks of people by providing a steady flow of food and water assistance, monetary aid, medical supplies, and COVID–19 vaccines—particularly considering that the junta has cut off access to these supplies.
Most importantly, avenues toward peace will need to be reconfigured. The military and all of Myanmar’s ethnic groups will need to construct a shared revision of the constitution such that it satisfies the aspirations of all. This can only occur if facilitated by the international community—namely ASEAN, China, Japan, and the U.S. Failure to develop a shared vision for peace will keep Myanmar on a path that it has traveled for far too long—one of divisiveness, violence, and tyranny.
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