The military coup on February 1, 2021 in Myanmar succeeded in doing something that the Republican Party could not accomplish in the United States after the election of 2020; overthrowing a democratically held election. This coup d’état exacerbated the worsening conditions of the people and continues to pose a distinct threat to democracy in Myanmar.
According to Philippe Schmitter and Terry Karl in What Democracy Is…and Is Not, democracy “is a system of governance in which rulers are held accountable for their actions in the public realm by citizens, acting indirectly through the competition and cooperation of their elected representatives”. This means that in order for a nation to be considered a democracy, the rulers must be able to be held accountable and there must be a free and fair competition between parties in an election. By these standards, Myanmar is not a democracy as the military junta, who overthrew an election because their political opposition won, are not able to be held accountable for their actions and there are no free and fair elections.
I argue that democratic erosion in Myanmar can be seen in three important aspects of a democratic nation. This erosion is seen most significantly in the overthrowing of a democratically held election as the Military run government suppresses the free press, arrests its political opposition and the economy contracts.
In November of 2020 Aung San Suu Ki was democratically elected during the Myanmar general election, supported by her Nation League for Democracy (NLD) party. She was arrested in a raid and charged for violating an export-import law, communications law and breaching coronavirus rules. This sparked massive protests by citizens, most notably the protest on March 27 in response to the annual Armed Forces Day as the brutal crackdown of opposition pushes the death toll to more than 1,500 since the military coup occurred over a year ago. The military junta has also arrested over 12,000 people who are either political opposition, protestors, or human rights advocates.
In order to try and maintain their control over the country, the military run government crushes the free press. The government recently arrested two journalists, sentencing them to seven years for allegedly publishing state secrets. In the first six months after the coup, 98 reporters had been arrested for writing stories that put the junta in bad light and there is currently a zero-tolerance policy in regards to the independent media in Myanmar.
Aziz Huq and Tom Ginsburg in How to Lose a Constitutional Democracy develop a theory of the interworking mechanisms that push for democratic backsliding. This, in the case of Myanmar, can be seen through constitutional regression where important democratic institutions are eroded, such as the ability to hold elections and have free speech, as the military junta, under the command of the current Military commander-in-chief Min Aung Hlaing, suppress the will of the people. While this military coup was not democratic erosion, as it occurred all at once, throughout the years since Myanmar got its independence from the British, numerous steps have been made to erode the ability of the people to contest the government and engage in politics.
Throughout the turbulent history of Myanmar attempts at democracy have been made, however there has also been a long history of numerous human rights violations. While this occurred before the military coup, Min Aung Hlaing has increased the repressive tactics of the government to suppress political opposition. This military junta has continued to suppress most all basic human rights as well, including arresting people as political prisoners, forced labor, and rampant use of sexual violence done by the government as a form of control. The government has also committed atrocious human rights violations, most notoriously in their treatment of the Myanmar Rohingya.
Another issue that has resulted in democratic erosion in Myanmar is the economic decline. Linz and Stephan in their work, The Breakdown of Democratic Regimes, develop the theory of economic growth and express the notion that economic decline is bad for democratic stability. Since the coup in 2021, the flow of foreign funds into the country has decreased and people have withheld tax and utility bill payments as a way to protest the military takeover. On February 1, 2022, many businesses in Myanmar closed their shops and joined a silent protest against the military junta, marking the one year anniversary of the military coup.
This forced seizure of the government by the military over a year ago in the coup d’état has continued to worsen the fledgling democracy that had started in Myanmar in 2011 after the military gave up some control of the government, allowing for a semi-democratic system to take hold. By overthrowing the democratically elected leader, Aung San Suu Ki, who won by a landslide number of votes, in 2021, the military junta has stopped the democratic experiment happening in this country as the government now suppresses the press, is no longer going to he holding elections for a while due to unsubstantiated claims of election fraud, and and economic downturn. All of these conditions do not bode well for free and fair, or any, elections to occur anytime soon in Myanmar.
Chenoweth, Erica, and Maria J. Stephan. Why Civil Resistance Works: The Strategic Logic of Nonviolent Conflict. Columbia University Press, 2013.
Head, Jonathan. “Myanmar: Why Once Peaceful Protesters Are Now Choosing Violence.” BBC News, BBC, 30 Jan. 2022, https://www.bbc.com/news/world-asia-60137053.
Huq, Aziz & Tom Ginsburg. 2017. “How to Lose a Constitutional Democracy.” UCLA Law Review 65(78): pp. 80-169. Parts 1,3, 4.
Linz, Juan J. & Stepan, Alfred. 1978. The Breakdown of Democratic Regimes. Ann Arbor, MI: University of Michigan Press. Chapter 2.\
“Myanmar: What Has Been Happening since the 2021 Coup?” BBC News, BBC, 1 Feb. 2022, https://www.bbc.com/news/world-asia-55902070.
Schmitter, Philippe C, and Terry Lynn Karl. “What Democracy Is. . . and Is Not.” Journal of Democracy, vol. 2, no. 3, 1991, pp. 75–88., https://doi.org/10.1353/jod.1991.0033.