Home Commentary A year later, struggle for democracy continues in Myanmar amid deepening violence...

A year later, struggle for democracy continues in Myanmar amid deepening violence and humanitarian crisis

While international attention is focused on Ukraine, another struggle against totalitarianism continues in Myanmar

With Russia’s invasion of Ukraine dominating the international news, it is important to remember that a year after Myanmar’s military coup, the popular struggle goes on there against another increasingly violent authoritarian regime.

The coup followed the country’s November 2020 general elections, which were overwhelmingly won by the National League for Democracy, or NDL, led by popular icon Aung San Suu Kyi. The opposing, military-backed party was almost wiped out in the voting.

Having failed at the democracy game, the Tatmadaw, as the armed forces are called, fell back on its older tactics. Junta leader General Min Aung Hlaing and his allies insisted there had been widespread election fraud, and on February 1, 2021, they arrested Aung San Suu Kyi and other NLD leaders, and proclaimed that after one year of a state of emergency, there would be new elections.



Miscalculating resistance

Just as Putin miscalculated the degree of popular resistance in Ukraine, so had Min Aung Hlaing in Myanmar. He may have thought he could easily bring an end to Myanmar’s experiment with democracy, and that the people and outside world would simply accept the new course. But housed in their remote inland capital of Naypyidaw, the military brass was clearly out of touch with their country.

The coup led to weeks of noisy street protests, during which hundreds of protesters were killed and thousands arrested. The military quelled open resistance where it has continuous presence. But even there, there are often “silent” protests including closing of shops or simply not showing up for work, despite military intimidation.

Outside the major cities, credible UN and other observers report violence at an all-time high, spreading beyond the traditional conflicts in ethnic minority-dominated areas. The opponents of the junta created a National Unity Government (NUG), which encourages open and armed as well as passive resistance. The military’s response has been to double-down on suppression, with widespread reports of bombings, massacres, burning of whole villages, and other human rights abuses. Parents of young adult protesters have had to publicly disown their children in order to save their property from military confiscation.

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International isolation

Externally, the junta is isolated. Foreign governments and organizations, including the UN and ASEAN, have refused to recognize it. Countries that do, like China, give only de facto recognition. Russia has been a major supporter and arms supplier, but continuation of those supplies are now doubtful. Many western governments have ramped up sanctions against the Myanmar junta, and large companies are leaving the country.

The NUG enjoys international sympathy and receives assistance from overseas Burmese and pro-democracy groups, but also lacks recognition. It promises a future that foresees a federal structure, full human rights, and public participation for minorities—including the Muslim Rohingya, long a target of discrimination and repression.

Deepening stalemate

Thirteen months after the coup, it is difficult to discern a peaceful way to contain the escalating civil violence, or to foresee escape ramps from the crisis. Neither side is disposed toward dialogue and compromise. The military has designated the NLD as a terrorist organization and has convicted Aung San Suu Kyi on various trumped-up charges to keep her in detention and out of politics forever. The promised elections have slid further into the future, and few believe they will take place at all, or at least not fairly.

Meanwhile, the NUG has formed a People’s Defense Force and refuses discussions until political prisoners are released, especially given the military’s history of using dialogue simply as a delaying tactic. Many associated with the NUG regard compromise as out of the question, since in their view the people have already spoken in a legitimate election.

Despite the stalemate, it is increasingly obvious that the military’s effort to turn back the clock will fail. One reason is that, unlike earlier coups and crackdowns, over the last decade people had experienced a real vision of an alternative future. Before the coup, external sanctions had been reduced or eliminated, foreign investment and tourism boomed, aid and scholarships expanded, and people enthusiastically participated in democratic elections.

Institutions such as the East-West Center were able to expand civic programming in the country. In 2014, for example, the Center convened its biennial International Media Conference in Yangon, bringing several hundred journalists to Myanmar and demonstrating the value of a free media first-hand.

Poverty has greatly worsened along with the violence. As a consequence of both the coup and pandemic, Myanmar lost an estimated 1.6 million jobs and 20 percent of its GNP last year. The country’s currency has lost about 60 percent of its value since September, while the health care system is in crisis because so many health workers have walked off the job, were arrested, or fled.

Because of the deepening humanitarian crisis and violence, the International Rescue Committee has placed Myanmar on an “Emergency Watchlist.” While the future will ultimately be determined by the people of Myanmar, the outside world should neither forget nor protest in silence. We should continue to show solidarity with the aspirations of Myanmar’s people and demand that the junta leaders reverse their destructive course.

Written by Miemie Winn Byrd and Charles E. Morrison, adjunct fellows with the East-West Center, with Karen Knudsen, former East-West Center director of external affairs.

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