Myanmar’s military carried out a promissory coup Feb. 1, 2021 ending a brief five year run of democracy that began in 2015. A promissory coup, as described by Nancy Bermeo in On Democratic Backsliding is a modern style of coup that is done under the guise of defending democracy.
The junta-interim is claiming that the results of Myanmar’s 2020 election are illegitimate and is promising to host a new election in the future. The ousted leader, Aung San Suu Kyi, is facing charges; from BBC “Ms Suu Kyi originally faced two charges of illegally importing walkie talkies and violating Myanmar’s natural disaster law, but a further two charges were added on Monday. She was accused of using illegal communication equipment and causing “fear and alarm”. The charges being faced could block her from running for office in the future. Party leadership has been replaced in the legislative body as well. Myanmar’s military commander-in-chief, Min Aung Hlaing, has replaced president Suu Kyi. Average life in Myanmar is under martial law, with curfews and restrictions on public gatherings. Conditions have only become more oppressive. However, the Burmese people aren’t giving up the ghost so easily. Myanmar’s major cities have seen daily protests and there’s no end in sight, yet.
Despite public reaction to the recent coup, it was easy to see coming; Myanmar has a long history of autocratic rule. Most of Myanmar’s post-colonial leadership has been military led autocracies. Other than the most recent stint, Myanmar has not been democratic since circa the 1950s. Myanmar has only had democracy twice and for very brief periods, yet the struggle for democracy persists. The road to democracy has been long and incremental. The first openly contested election took place 7 years after the formation of Myanmar’s constitution in 2008. Things are slow moving. But with restless streets and international disapproval of the new regime, things are especially volatile right now. Foreign interference would likely end poorly but international opinion does affect the legitimacy of a government. While democracy had only a short run, the fight is nonetheless bloody.
One and a half months after the coup, things have only grown more violent and deadly. At one point it was possible to gather reliable information and figure out a possible number of deaths resulting from Myanmar’s counter-coup movement. Death counts become less reliable as the protests escalate. As the nation becomes increasingly angered and unified against the regime, the more harshly the military responds. The death toll rises unpredictably. The current, modest estimates begin at seventy. Countless have been injured.
Things weren’t initially violent. Tensions escalated very quickly at the end of the first month. The final Sunday of February saw at least 18 dead and 30 injured after the Burmese military opened fire at protestors in the streets of Myanmar’s most populous city, Yangon. However, as stated, this was not without warning. Roughly one week prior to the massacre the junta used the state-run news channel to broadcast the message that further protests would be met with lethal repercussions. But democracy doesn’t die easily. The fight for democracy persisted and the military kept their promise.
The protesters are unyielding and largely unorganized. Myanmar’s large union of parties aren’t represented much in the streets. This is a true grassroots movement. People are enraged. The tension in Myanmar continues to swell. I don’t believe that it’s purely a matter of politics anymore. On the other hand, the face of Suu Kyi on banners and posters is a frequent sight. Suu Kyi had only just begun her second term in office and has for decades been a key figure in Myanmar’s revolutionary democratic efforts. The fight for democracy appears to be a true grassroots movement, focusing not on parties but democracy itself. The unification and teamwork being shown by protestors in the streets bodes well. Even if protests are momentarily squashed, there is a general agreement that conditions are unacceptable. There is an acknowledgement that the social contract has been invalidated.
Many formerly colonized countries experience democracy in waves. Myanmar is hardly alone in this. If the current volatility meets only the bare minimum of its potential, then it is simply the trough following the second wave of democracy in Myanmar. The moment has the potential to be so much more than a trough, though. To call the contention in Myanmar a trough in a wave of democracy is limiting and pessimistic. It seems almost inevitable that Myanmar will eventually become a democratic nation again. Even if this junta marks the end of a wave of democracy, there will be sparks of democracy in the near future. As pointed out in Autocratization Surges- Resistance Grows, autocracy comes in waves as well, and all waves must eventually recede. Democracy in Myanmar has been a long and incremental process, and progress isn’t linear.
As it stands, the protests are not ending. What is beginning to be a trough in a wave of democracy doesn’t necessarily need to be so. This is history in action. The Biden administration may decide not to have another “Libya” or “Syria” situation of too little too late. Western powers may press for NATO interference. The United Nations may send in peacekeeping forces by the end of the week. The military could turn against the regime, as it often does in coups. Myanmar is volatile and has endless potential. Democracy won’t be abandoned, and the Burmese people will persist.
Works Cited Maerz, S. F., Lührmann, A., Hellmeier, S., Grahn, S., & Lindberg, S. I. (2020b). State of the world 2019: autocratization surges – resistance grows. Democratization, 27(6), 909–927. https://doi.org/10.1080/13510347.2020.1758670 Bermeo, N. (2016). On Democratic Backsliding. Journal of Democracy, 27, 6.