The world watched in horror as state security forces carried out ethnic cleansing of the Rohingya in the fall of last year. Many wondered how such a promising case of democratic reform could go so horribly wrong.
In response to widespread protests demanding an end to military rule, the military regime announced a new constitutional settlement.
But democratization did not go all the way. Myanmar essentially became a mixed regime, combining elements of democracy and with continued military rule.
Key provisions of the constitution preserve important military prerogatives. First, the constitution effectively gives the military veto power over any constitutional change that would further limit its power. It does so by requiring majorities of 75 percent in both houses to pass constitutional amendments while apportioning 25 percent of seats in both houses of the legislature to the military.
Second, the constitution does not guarantee civilian oversight of the military. It also gives the military control over the Ministry of Home Affairs, which oversees the entire security apparatus of the country.
Changes in Burmese society a sense of insecurity and frustration. As authoritarian controls on the media and civil society were lifted, citizens gained newfound opportunities to express themselves. They aired grievances and grew frustrated with the slow pace of change. As society opened up, deep insecurities about rapid social change were revealed.
Within this context, Buddhist nationalism became more visible. The military and its allies attempted to insert nationalism into the public debate through friendly media outlets. They wanted to change the issue agenda from their long history of failure.
In 2012, the security forces instigated intercommunal violence in the Rakhine state between Rakhine Buddhists and Rohingya Muslims. Harsh crackdown followed. Large populations of Rohingya were relocated to townships and deprived of their means of survival.
The coming election also created an incentive for the military to disenfranchise the Rohingya. At the behest of the majority ethnic group of Rakhine state (who are generally aligned with the military), security forces seized registration cards from the Rohingya making it impossible for them to vote.
Despite these efforts, the military did not fair well in this new political landscape. 2015 Election saw Aung San Suu Kyi’s pro-democracy party win supermajorities in the both houses of the parliament. The extent of its victory was widely unanticipated. But the constitution prevented the new government from taking control of the military. Pushed into survival mode, the military would use its control over the security apparatus to try to win back public opinion.
At the same time, the Rohingya were pushed to the point of desperation. As a result, a minor insurgency, known as the Arakan Rohingya Salvation Army (ARSA), emerged. By 2016, it began launching limited attacks on security forces. According to reports, this “brought the perceived threat of violent Islam to the forefront of the national consciousness and anti-Muslim sentiment spiked.”
Attacks in the fall of 2017 provided a pretext for military action. (There is evidence that the military instigated the Rohingya). So-called clearance operations against Rohingya communities commenced.
As early as 2015, analysts from the International State Crime Initiative could see the writing on the wall. “The evidence points to an insecure military that fears displacement by the democratic transition process, and civil unrest is seen to provide an opportunity to exercise military power and authority.”
The so-called ‘clearance operations’ have been popular. The military has managed to portray itself as a savior to the very crisis engineered.
Suu Kyi remains a popular figure in the country because she has been supportive of military’s actions. This position has come at considerable cost to her international reputation. She has squandered sizable reserves of international good will, which will benefit the military in the long run.