The military coup that occurred in Myanmar last February 1, 2021, sparked new tensions between the pro-democracy protesters and the state’s military regime. It was a resurrection of an Army-state which has ruled the country since 1962. It was a frustrated democracy. Is the military really on the side of the people as Gen. Hlaing reassured after the coup? Can Myanmar move past the fragility of its democracy amid the crackdown? What does this coup mean for the Rohingya?
A “finished” democracy
More than 800 people were killed by the security forces in Myanmar since the February 1 coup. There were massive protests and series of unrest as a great majority of the fatalities include anti-coup protesters. Pro-democracy protesters took their fight for democracy to the streets, castigating the coercive rule of the junta and demanding the release of civilian leader Aung San Suu Kyi and her elected members whom the people voted for. The entire nation is in turmoil. Besides being back in the headlines, the coup was a major blow to the country’s fragile transition to democracy. What does Suu Kyi’s removal from power mean for Myanmar’s democracy?
The coup signifies the eroding democracies that Southeast Asian nations are experiencing including Indonesia, Thailand, Cambodia, and now Myanmar. The demands of the armed forces to have a rerun of elections after Aung San Suu Kyi’s landslide victory and her arrest show how Myanmar is backsliding from democracy. The army-backed opposition party is also claiming cases of fraudulent elections which cannot be supported by evidence. What is happening in Myanmar illustrates one of the several forms of democratic backsliding that several scholars have pointed out. Modes of democracy breakdown can come from external but excessively strong forces that terminate the existing government usually done through a military coup. This mode of democratic backsliding is highly distinguishable from lack of accountability and turns out to be more violent and sudden. In the case of Myanmar, the coup marks a major crackdown on its transition to democracy which began over a decade ago.
The new era of digital transformation offers more avenues for undermining democracies rather than promoting them. Ideally, robust social media platforms would mean increased access to factual information that would promote sound decision-making, especially in a democracy. As Pomerantsev cited, the new era has found new ways to manipulate the public through spreading fake news, dark ads, falsehood information, and trolls. However, this isn’t the case for Myanmar and in some Southeast Asian states. Social media has inflicted adverse effects on the political environment of Myanmar. Given that Myanmar is under the crisis of a fragile democracy, the detrimental effects of social media continue to threaten the eroding democracy of Myanmar.
The coup for one is a primary mechanism that undermines the democratic institutions and their principles. Before the 2020 elections that sparked the coup, Myanmar was already struggling with disinformation and fake news. On a positive note, social media has made positive effects before the 2015 elections. Online tools were utilized by the NLD party to promote support from the people through spreading democratic messages. However, on the contrary, disinformation in Myanmar was exacerbated by the radical groups spreading hate speech and fake news about the Muslim communities with the aim to dehumanize them. Myanmar is under the grappled reality that these online tools can be used to undermine democracy by compromising the people’s access to truthful information. Disinformation is being used in Myanmar as a propaganda tool that fueled ethnic tensions. The Rohingya Muslims were not exempted and perhaps the center of this disinformation. Disinformation campaigns against the Rohingya Muslims were used by the Myanmar military to weaponized information that made the achievement of harmony elusive.
Recent occurrences of disinformation are propagating in Myanmar before the 2020 elections. Radio Free Myanmar perpetuated the spread of false information about Aung San Suu Kyi and the NLD party to influence the elections. And recently, the threat of disinformation has fueled the military coup that occurred last February 2021. Besides cutting out internet access, the Burmese military was accused of the intentional blackout before it took over the government and detained Aung San Suu Kyi and other NLD members. Using social media and hate speech to justify violent attacks against the Rohingya Muslims was one thing, but the denial of factual information about the coup is a different issue. The Tatmadaw has begun controlling Twitter and Facebook accounts to deceive the public and cause fear amongst the Burmese people. The series of events before and after the military coup revealed how the military junta has sustained strong political power to stage a coup, spread falsehoods against the opposition, and deny accountabilities for its coercive actions. This has potentially proved that disinformation in Myanmar has spread throughout the country, threatening the nation’s achievement of democracy. It does not only threatens the fragile democracy of Myanmar but it further destabilizes the state’s capacity to engage in communication and resolve conflicts.
What’s in it for Myanmar?
Recent uprisings and demonstrations in Myanmar have exposed that disinformation, repressive media freedoms, weak rule of law, and failure to address ground conflicts specifically the Rohingya crisis are looming threats to the fragile democracy of Myanmar. The democratization of Myanmar has become vulnerable to military intervention and the victory of the NLD party poses more problems than solutions. In the case of the Rohingya crisis, the recent military coup last February has worsened the already dire situation of the Rohingya population. Overall, the democracy-eroding events and the failure to manage the complex crisis in Rohingya are curtailing the capacities of Myanmar to achieve state stability and legitimacy. Until the government and the international community reach genuine and inclusive ceasefire agreements, the fragility of Myanmar’s democracy will further collapse and the chances of political transformation will remain an uphill battle.