The Myanmar military took power quietly overnight; yet this coup did not surprise many people. Myanmar has struggled with democracy for many decades under both military and civilian rule. In fact, under civilian rule, in 2017, Myanmar’s military committed genocide against a Muslim minority group, the Rohingya. This coup is a reminder that exclusion of some is in fact anti-democratic, and it is a reinforcement of Myanmar’s de-democratization.
On February 1, 2021, Myanmar’s military staged an overnight coup to seize control of the government. The military detained civilian leaders, including the country’s de facto democratic leader, Aung San Suu Kyi, alongside other members of her party, the National League for Democracy (NLD). The NLD won the 2020 election with an overwhelming majority, much to the dismay of the military, which was backing the opposition party. Hence, citing unverified election fraud claims, the military declared a one-year state-of-emergency and promised to hold a new election.
Such anti-democratic turn of events, albeit shocking, is not at all surprising for those familiar with the politics of Myanmar. After gaining independence from British colonial rule in 1948, Myanmar struggled with ethnic violence. In 1962, the military seized power and maintained a violently oppressive regime for nearly five decades. Finally, in 2011, the military ceded to the civilian government, and in the 2015 elections, the NLD won with a sweeping margin, making Suu Kyi the de-facto leader of the country. This event was hailed world-wide as a huge victory for democracy. However, Suu Kyi’s government was not democratic to begin with because societies imbedded in exclusion never are. Suu Kyi’s government was based in a nationalistically excluded society. Instead of remedying this issue, Suu Kyi actively de-democratized her country by further intensifying this exclusion, especially of the Muslim minority group known as the Rohingya. Together this lack of democratic foundation and the active erosion of democracy in Myanmar culminated in an unsurprising coup this year.
The Cyclical Pattern of Exclusion
Colonialism is at least partially responsible for many modern-day evils. In his book, Neither Settler nor Native, author Mahmood Mamdani masterfully reveals how colonial policies of exclusion resulted in cyclical patterns of excluding “others” from the nation-state in the post-colonial era. He explains that under indirect rule, colonial subjects were divided along cultural and ethnic lines into separate territories and legal administrations. Therefore, “[t]he territorial and legal boundaries created by indirect rule… became the basis for postcolonial conflicts over political belonging” (Mamdani, 11). The violent nationalism of the post-colonial era reflected the struggle of colonial minorities to “become the nation” which often manifested in “blood and terror, ethnic cleansing and civil wars, and, sometimes, genocide” (Mamdani, 3).
Such was the case in Myanmar. It was under British rule that Hindus and Muslims of Indian descent were brought to Myanmar (previously called Burma) as migrant labor. It was under British rule that Buddhism, practiced by an overwhelming majority in Myanmar, was repressed, while people of Indian descent, upon colonial encouragement, started dominating sectors of the economy. Hence, it was under British rule that the population was divided along ethnic and religious lines, while seeds of inequality and resentment were sown amongst them. Indeed, as early as 1930, there were violent clashes between those of Burmese descent and those of Indian descent, especially Muslims.
The nationalists who fought against colonialism carried forth the pattern of exclusion and repression. In particular, the military harassed minority religions too, but it came in direct conflict with the Buddhist majority as it actively repressed peaceful protests by the monks.
Yet, this cyclical pattern of exclusion continued after the Buddhist struggle for democracy yielded fruitful results. The Rohingya were persecuted under military and civilian rule alike. For example, the 1982 Citizenship Law, which was enacted under military rule, remains the legal basis of discrimination against many minorities even under civilian rule. Per this law, only members of ethnic groups that were in Myanmar before 1823 (before British rule), are full citizens of Myanmar. This excludes ethnic groups that came to Myanmar as migrant labor, groups such as the Rohingya. Hence, the oppressed become the oppressors, as those once excluded from political power start excluding others upon gaining power. As Mamdani explains, “political modernity is instantiated by people whose ancestors rejected it” (Mamdani, 3). Such blatant exclusion was the foundation of ‘democracy’ in Myanmar.
Aung San Suu Kyi and De-democratization
Myanmar was an imperfect democracy between 2011 and February 2021. Not only did the military retain partial control over government, the civilian regimes continued their exclusion of minorities. For Mamdani, democratic solutions to the cyclical patterns of exclusion include “granting only one kind of citizenship and doing so on the basis of residence rather than identity” (Mamdani, 36). All governments in Myanmar have failed to achieve this basic democratic principle. Instead, Suu Kyi’s government further de-democratized the political system.
Charles Tilly developed the idea of de-democratization, per which governments can move away from democratic principles just as much as they can move towards them. Much like Mamdani, Tilly stresses the importance of equality in a democracy. He writes, “increases in categorical inequality across a regime’s subject population and declines in the insulation of public politics from categorical inequality tend to de-democratize regimes” (Tilly, 37).
Such de-democratization ensued in Myanmar in August of 2017 under the watch of Myanmar’s democratic idol, Aung San Suu Kyi. Following violent ethnic clashes between the Rohingya and the Buddhist majority, Myanmar’s military carried out a brutal campaign against the Rohingya, killing at least 6700 Rohingya within a month. Meanwhile, over 700,000 members of the minority group fled violence and sought refuge in neighboring countries, most prominently, in Bangladesh.
Suu Kyi initially remained silent on the issue, which resembled her failure to insulate public politics from inequality. However, she also aided the repression of the Rohingya by providing a cover for the military. Despite her claim that the security forces operation ended on September 5, 2017, many of the Rohingya’s villages were destroyed after that date. Instead, she used Islamophobic rhetoric by equating the entire Rohingya group with terrorism. Furthermore, she denied allegations of ethnic cleansing against the Rohingya by stating that, “Muslims have been targeted but Buddhists have also been subjected to violence,” even though violence against the Rohingya was disproportionately greater and it was carried out for the purpose of eliminating entire Rohingya villages. She even went as far as to blame the victims, stating that the Rohingya refugees are exaggerating the degree of violence that they faced in Myanmar. As recently as last year, Suu Kyi defended the military at the International Criminal Court (ICC), by citing yet another ambiguity in international law: “surely, under the circumstances, genocidal intent cannot be the only hypothesis.” She has gone to extreme lengths to protect the military from international punishment by claiming that if guilty, the Myanmar military will be prosecuted through the country’s military justice system.
Perhaps it is fitting karma that Suu Kyi’s regime ended with a coup, her detention, and her loss of international credibility. A Rohingya activist, Wai Wai Nu has linked the coup directly to the lack of response to the Rohingya crisis by saying, “[t]he military was emboldened by the fact that they got away with the genocide, and now believes that they can get away with a coup.” Suu Kyi’s actions certainly de-democratized Myanmar, while facilitating the authoritarian and unequal environment which eventually became ripe for a military coup.
Some in Myanmar are realizing the inherently anti-democratic nature of exclusion. As they protest the coup, some are apologizing to the Rohingya for failing to protect them. Such people finally understand that yesterday the Rohingya were persecuted, and today the whole country is losing its rights; that until democratic rights are extended to everyone, they are not secure for anyone.
Yet, the Rohingya, who still see Myanmar as their country, are not gloating. Instead, they are participating in protests against the coup, even from refugee camps in Bangladesh. This is because they know that their future, including their potential return to Myanmar, their safety, and their full rights of citizenship, is even more endangered under the military.
Until Myanmar corrects its exclusion of the Rohingya, it cannot attain democracy. While the coup is making people realize this fact, human beings tend to have short memory, especially when we are not being excluded. Case in point – the 2017 Rohingya exodus was the third one in the country’s relatively short history. There must not be a fourth! The end of military coup must be accompanied by the end of Myanmar’s exclusion, for the sake of democracy. Rohingya must be able to return safely and justly to their homes with full democratic rights. Although the pessimist in me might say that Myanmar deserves the military coup, I know that justice for the Rohingya is only possible under democratic conditions. And of course, the victory of democracy in one place is good news for democracy everywhere.