Myanmar, a nation whose young democracy began only a decade ago, is currently facing a threat it may not recover from. On February 1st of 2021, the military of Myanmar staged a coup d’état in the Southeast Asian country, overthrowing the democratic government and issuing a year-long state of emergency. Orchestrated under the idea that the nation’s November election was fraudulent, a claim that lacks any substantial evidence, the armed forces took control and arrested senior members of the elected National League for Democracy (NLD) party. The situation was exacerbated by the detention of Aung San Suu Kyi, a pro-democracy activist and Nobel Prize winner, who led the NLD. The country’s state of emergency has been extended for another two years under the direction of Min Aung Hlaing, a leading army general who declared himself to be the nation’s prime minister at the beginning of August. Now, after months of violence and oppression, Myanmar is confronted with the same military regime that it suffered under previously.
The populace of Myanmar has expressed their outrage over the return to military rule in the form of extensive protests. The demonstrations first became lethal on February 20th, when two unarmed protestors were killed by militant forces—by the 22nd, millions of civilians were marching in the streets, and the movement has since expanded into a large civil disobedience campaign. According to Reuters, at least six separate protests recently occurred on August 8th, the anniversary of a 1988 uprising against the earlier military junta. Across all of these events, violence has only escalated. Responses from the installed government have included rubber bullets, water cannons, and live ammunition – which has had deadly consequences. The Assistance Association for Political Prisoners has documented the deaths of 965 protestors since the military’s coup, along with the arrests and sentencings of over 5500. Furthermore, reports from the International Rescue Committee have detailed the disruption of social media and online communications in the country, systems that protestors rely on to organize.
The humanitarian crisis caused by the military takeover has left Myanmar crippled. The large-scale fighting has impeded civilian access to public services and basic life necessities, such as food and water. Businesses and financial institutions have closed, leaving people out of work and fleeing from cities while Myanmar’s economy collapses. On top of the thousands of refugees that the coup has created, COVID-19 continues to ravage the nation. Reuters announced that the United States alone has given Myanmar $50 million in aid for coronavirus relief. The situation is intensified by the government’s detainment of medical professionals who have spoken out against the military and participated in civil disobedience. According to the Wall Street Journal, almost 200 doctors have been imprisoned and many more are facing warrants for their arrest. Despite this, hospital workers and practitioners continue to toil in secret to help people suffering from COVID-19. The restraints imposed by the government have impaired Myanmar’s ability to respond to the virus and the destruction it brings, leaving millions at risk.
International reactions have been consistent in the condemnation of Min Aung Hlaing and his military government. Multiple actors, including the United States and the European Union, have issued sanctions on the government’s martial officers. Other countries in the region, especially those within the Association of Southeast Asian Nations (ASEAN), have worked to find a diplomatic solution to the crisis. Even with these endeavors, finding an answer to end the government’s crackdown and move towards peace has been difficult. ASEAN held a summit in April at which General Min Aung Hlaing agreed to abandon the fighting and engage in communication. While this connection indicated progress, the unstable agreement lacks substance and the international denunciation of the coup has not pushed the government back towards any semblance of a democracy. The human rights abuses in Myanmar have expanded and the military government has only raised the death toll higher. As violence persists and the country’s humanitarian crisis grows, the need for progress towards a secure and peaceful state is increasingly apparent.
Amidst the disorder and dangers, Myanmar is struggling with the problem of democratic backsliding; the nation’s government has gone from the bare minimum of democracy to a military junta. The electoral system only lasted a decade, having been founded in 2011, and the country has now regressed to the same militant regime that held Myanmar for over half a century. Despite the promise of General Min Aung Hlaing to return to “a free and fair multiparty general election” in the future, the chances of this happening are slim. The deconstruction of their budding democracy has only increased the trials that the public faces, and the new regime is unlikely to promote the welfare of the populace. Myanmar’s survival as a democratic government has been limited even further. With development towards a liberal democracy halted, if not completely destroyed, the future of Myanmar stands in the balance.
In order for there to be a resolution to this crisis, the international community needs to create an environment conducive for peace and a strong electoral government. This involves promoting discourse between the military leadership, the opposing political party, and other countries in Southeast Asia. External actors need to use their power to influence the military regime and push them away from violent crackdowns and towards a conflict-free outcome. Isolating the administration and refusing to engage in dialogue will only aggravate the issue. Moreover, avoiding economic repercussions is crucial, as the citizens of Myanmar do not deserve and cannot handle the additional pressure that such actions would cause. The country’s current condition is perilous and requires the world’s attention, but beyond what has already occurred, there are few options that emphasize the protection of the public.
The consideration of these restricted possibilities highlights a fundamental aspect of the situation that must be improved upon: intensifying the level of international accountability that Myanmar’s military is facing. Authoritarians and armies cannot be allowed to continue discrediting democratic proceedings for their own gain. Questioning the integrity of voting systems and using that as an excuse for a takeover, such as what happened in Myanmar, damages the electoral institution from the inside. It threatens the reliability and stability of democracies around the globe, and when no punitive action is taken against the perpetrators, it opens up the prospect to other abusers worldwide. The increase in democratic backsliding and corrupt leadership that can be seen in the recent past demonstrates how great the need is to encourage a resolution to this crisis.
Should democracy in Myanmar be restored, returning the country to its previous state of affairs is not the most beneficial outcome. If international efforts to reestablish peace and democracy can succeed and result in the rehabilitation of the nation’s government, it cannot end with the implementation of what existed before the coup. Myanmar’s democracy was under the influence of the army before the coup. In 2017, the Myanmar government initiated a military operation against the Rohingya, a Muslim minority group. The Council of Foreign Relations approximates that 700,000 Rohingya people were forced to flee the country and become refugees. Returning to that quasi-democracy will not improve human rights or the nation’s state of affairs. World leaders need to work on building up Myanmar and giving them enough support to create a government and national order that will last. With the revival of the country’s military control, outside organizations must help in the reinforcement of democratic values and norms. Offering financial and political backing to the civilians of Myanmar throughout the myriad of crises they face is essential. While the military government will be resistant to change, combining the condemnation of democracy’s decline and the provision of aid to victims of oppression are ways in which peace and stability can at least be encouraged.
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