On February 1, 2021, Myanmar’s military seized power and declared a one-year state of emergency after the National League for Democracy (NLD) won a landslide victory. The military backed the opposition party in this election and claimed that widespread voter fraud led to the election of a supermajority of NLD representatives. Myanmar’s military claims its actions are to save democracy in Myanmar, although the country’s election commission holds that the claims of voter fraud are unsubstantiated. It is important to note here that the election was certainly not without flaws, many of the Rohingya people, a minority group in Myanmar that has been the target of a genocidal campaign by the Myanmar military, remain disenfranchised and thus did not vote in this election. However, there is little doubt among outside observers that the NLD achieved a massive victory. On the surface, it appears as though democracy may return to Myanmar swiftly, with the military promising elections at the conclusion of the state of emergency. However, violent clashes between police and pro-democracy protesters and the substantial power and privilege the military now holds leaves many feeling less than optimistic. Furthermore, even if elections are held as promised, there is no guarantee that the elections will be won by pro-democracy candidates.
Myanmar’s military coup is most accurately called a promissory coup, as defined by Bermeo (2016) to explain a coup in which a self-identified defender of democracy seizes control in order to save democracy from those that would see to its demise. Instigators of promissory coups promise to hold elections soon, however, the amount of time between the seizure of power and actual elections varies widely (Bermeo, 2016). There are two reasons to believe that democracy will not be restored and repaired in Myanmar anytime soon. First, Myanmar’s military has promised to hold elections in one-year but, as it stands there is nothing preventing them from extending that deadline or never holding elections at all. Furthermore, the military has shown that they have no plans to change course at this time, even with the widespread and long-lasting nature of the current protests occurring across the country. In fact, the military appears to be tightening its grip with 18 people killed on February 28, 2021 after police opened fire on protesters.
Moreover, elections are not necessarily the end-all-be-all for the restoration of democracy. In Bermeo’s (2016) analysis of elections held after promissory coups, even in elections that were deemed free and fair by Western observers, half were won by the coup instigator or their preferred candidate. Many of those who perpetrated coups, 2001 in Fiji, 2009 in Honduras, 2013 in Madagascar and Mali, have shown their ability to win democratic elections despite being the ones to override democratic rule in the first place (Bermeo, 2016). While the passion of citizen protesters in Myanmar may lead one to believe that democratic candidates will be victorious in an election, the fact remains that the military now holds a substantial amount of power that it could use to prevail in the elections.
It is without a doubt that Myanmar’s military holds all of the de facto political power in Myanmar. Acemoğlu and Robinson (2006) define de facto political power as a source of power that a group has based solely on what that group can do through use of force. Given that the military controls all weapons and police forces in Myanmar, they are clearly able to impose their will on society through the sheer use of force. Furthermore, the military now holds the de jure political power in Myanmar, as they control all of the political institutions (Acemoğlu and Robinson, 2006). Given this immense level of power, the military has the ability to strategically manipulate the elections to ensure victory without committing overt acts of fraud. Bermeo (2016) identifies strategic manipulation as actions that make it more likely for an incumbent to be reelected. The military has already instituted widespread internet blackouts across the country in an attempt to quash dissent and protest planning. The military may keep blackouts in place to prevent election opposition from reaching a wide platform of voters. Moreover, prominent activists, politicians, and others have been arrested, begging the questions: who will run against the military’s candidates when elections are held and will the military even allow opposition candidates to run?
While it appears as though Myanmar is a ways off from reinstituting a democratic regime, it is possible that the protests occurring across the country will lead to a swifter transition than argued here. The military are meeting protesters with increasing levels of violence, but these acts of violence against peaceful protesters could encourage them to double-down on their efforts to oust the military. However, with the substantial amount of power the military now yields and its ability to use that power to shape the country as it sees fit, Myanmar’s citizens are certainly fighting an uphill battle in their quest for a democratic government.