When Aung San Suu Kyi received the Nobel Peace Prize in 1991, Myanmar was seen as a specimen of change and of democratisation despite its long history of military rule. More than maybe any other country, Aung San Suu Kyi became the very face of this change within the international society. Like with many other countries democratising throughout the 90s, however, the optimism was not to last forever.
Today Myanmar is characterised as “Not Free” by Freedom House, with an ongoing ethnic cleansing of its Muslim minority, the Rohingyas, and with a military coup taking place in 2021 (Freedom House 2022). In one interview after another, the international society has been shocked to witness Suu Kyi downplay the ethnic violence in Myanmar (The Guardian 2019, The Economic Times 2020). And in 2019, Suu Kyi even went to The Hague to “personally defend the country against accusations of genocide” (Freedom House 2020). Awkwardly the Nobel Peace Prize handover in the 90s had become a symbol of misjudgement of Myanmar’s democratic transition by the international community. In the aftermath it can be argued how the international society failed to recognise the full picture of Myanmar’s development. Even though there were arguments supporting the optimism of Myanmar’s democratisation, it is also possible to shift the attention on developments pointing the other direction, such as a growing ethnic tension (Mon Htun 2020). Two key actors in the rise of Islamophobia and buddhist-nationalism in Myanmar are the 969 and the Ma Ba Tha-movement. The latter was founded in 2014, while the former goes all the way back to 1988 (Mon Htun 2020). Their influence on civil society is argued by scholars to be vastly understudied. (Ibid: 164) One cause of this might indeed have been influenced by the democratic optimism and focus on the role of Suu Kyi by the international society. (Ibid: 164)
Scholars like Mon Htun have studied the rise of ethnic tension and Islamophobia in Myanmar, mapping out several points where supporters of Buddhist nationalism have clashed with the Rohingya minority particularly throughout the last decade. In her study of the 969 and Ma Ba Tha, Mon Htun characterised the movements as right-wing exclusionary populists (Ibid: 174). Right-wing, because in the material aspect they are concerned with protecting the resources of “the people”, referring to the Buddhist majority, from “threats” of the Rohingya minority, perceived as an “enemy within” (Ibid: 171). The 969 and Ma Ba Tha movements frame their agenda as the “general will” of the people to protect Myanmar’s identity and religion from the Islamic threat (Ibid: 173), and viewed the Suu Kyi-government and its international supporters as an antagonistic elite, blocking the will of the actual people of Myanmar (Ibid: 171).
Because a large part of the international focus has been on the role of Suu Kyi, the international society might have overlooked both the rise of these movements’ popularity, particularly in rural areas, as well as the scope of its consequences. Scholars like Mouffe and Ernesto, argue that populism ought to be taken seriously rather than framed as crazy or incomprehensible. In their argument, populism can both be a threat but also a corrective of democracy, as it can allow for larger participation of underrepresented parts of society. For this reason, they argue that populism should rather be seen as a rival than enemy of democracy (Ernesto and Mouffe 1988)
This characteristic of populism can be related to the rising popularity of the Ma Ba Tha and 969 in Myanmar. While the Suu Kyi-led government has been the outer-face of the country, the two movements have had a large influence on the local matters. Both the 969 and Ma Ba Tha movement have offered basic schooling, free clinics, engaged in local politics and been units for personal advice in especially rural areas (Mon Htun 2020: 174) The two movements have therefore succeeded in mobilising elsewise underrepresented citizens, who might not fully identify with Myanmar’s government, through local engagement. This mobilisation have, however, sparked a rising criticism of both the government and its supporters as “elitist” and a rising Islamophobia against the Rohingya minority (Mon Htun 2020). Both which have crystallised into the 2021-coup as well as the ethnic cleansing of the Rohingyas.
The case of Myanmar underlines how populism ought to be taken seriously; It has the ability to increase participation of a formerly underrepresented part of society, and in this way it can play the ambivalent role of both being a corrective and a serious threat to democracy. Even though the focus of the populist threat and the role of the 969 and Ma Ba Tha movements does not draw a full picture, it can contribute to understand the shocking recent developments. In this way it can put a light on how the recent developments could happen despite the vast democratic hope from the international community.
Mon Htun, Yee (2020), “The Populist Threat to Democracy in Myanmar”, Cambridge University Press, Chap. 8
Mouffe, Chantal and Laclau, Ernesto (1985) “Hegemony and Socialist Strategy: Towards a Radical Democratic Politics”, Verso
Freedom House (2020), “Myanmar”, (visited 22/12/2022)
Freedom House (2022), “Myanmar”, (visited 22/12/2022)
The Guardian (2019): “Rohingya fury at Aung San Suu Kyi’s genocide denial to world court”(visited 22/12/2022)
The Economic Times (2020) “As Aung San Suu Kyi denies genocide, opponents up anti-Rohingya rhetoric” (visited 22/12/2022)