History Repeats Itself: Myanmar's Coup

If you are asking yourself and others about what is currently going on in Myanmar, then you are not the only one. If I’ve said it once, I’ve said it a million times, to live in the year 2021 is to watch history unfold around us. On February 1st the military detained Aung San Suu Kyi, the State Counsellor (a role equivalent to president). Suu Kyi has not been sighted since, she is believed to be detained in her home, but there is no confirmation. The military was able to seize power during the time when many were calling for a recount of the vote, as Suu Kyi’s party had won by a considerable amount, and the opposition had alleged voter fraud. The military is apparently acting with the same concerns shared by the opposition party; however, it does seem like a convenient way to get access to the main seat of power, and still not have to share it with the opposition. Immediately, protests broke out in response to the coup, as a majority of the country is against the military regime. 

Myanmar, formally Burma, is no stranger to military rule. After the country gained independence in 1962, military rule was instated through a coup d’état which was led by General Ne Win. Until 1988 the country was ruled under a single party system; the military had based this system on a form of soviet-style socialism. It was during this time period, from 1962 to 1988, that Myanmar become one of the world’s most impoverished countries. 1988 is the year that saw Aung San Suu Kyi increase her level of influence, as it was the year of the “8888 Uprising.” The uprising saw thousands of people engaging in protests against the military; it was the first taste of a democratic movement for the country. The unrest was violent, with the higher end of the fatality estimates being in the 10,000s, but officially the military figures had placed casualties at 95. Suu Kyi gained entrance to the stage of politics through this uprising; when she came out in support of the pro-democracy movement she also became the face of it.

But in 1988 there was no room for democracy in the military stronghold that was (then) Burma (now, Myanmar). Without this being too much of a history lesson, I do want to point out that the time period of 1988 to 2011 was littered with instances of internal conflicts, which were a result of the people fighting against the state, a state that was the direct result of an intense military regime. Civil conflicts have been a hallmark of post-independence Myanmar and have also plagued the country in the democratic years, but there was a break in the civil-conflict-storm in 2008, when the country held a constitutional referendum. It presented a new constitution which, endorsed by the military regime, created a democratic nation, and changed the name of the country from the “Union of Myanmar” to the “Republic of the Union of Myanmar.” There was then a general election held in 2010, and though this was one point in the country’s history that was not impacted by violence, internal observers as well as the United Nations claimed that the election was fraudulent. The result of this election was continued military rule, but now in the form of a political party. Then, like now, opposition parties called for a new election, with intense claims of fraudulence. In 2011 the military junta began to dissolve, and Thein Sein was elected to power, with Aung San Suu Kyi as the main opposition leader.

It is widely considered that 2011 is the turning point from military rule to democracy in Myanmar, but even then, people question as to the level of true democracy in the country. Sein, at this point the president of Myanmar, was also prime minister during the military junta rule. While there was legislation now in place to facilitate the progression of democracy, the man in power was still a member of the military junta party. While the game had changed, it would appear that the players had not. Thein would also publicly engage with Suu Kyi, something that gave him good favor in western media. However, his party ties would then show themselves again, when he became the individual to present the idea that Rohingya ethnic minority are “non-citizens,” something that has continued to this day, and has also resulted in intense violence (which I will touch on more later in a follow up to this article).

Fast forward once to 2016, and Aung San Suu Kyi is now president, which represents a larger step away from the military influence in the political sphere. After helping during the 8888 Uprising, and later receiving a Nobel Peace Prize for her work for democracy and human rights, the fruits of her efforts had finally blossomed. But now she sits in house arrest, placed there by the very people her work helped remove from power. So let’s get back to the present, now that we better understand the military history, and try to work out just what exactly is going on. So, as I said earlier, February 1st, the military enacted a coup, and has taken over. In the first TV address the new acting ruler, Min Aung Hlaing, has claimed that Suu Kyi’s landslide victory was unfair. It should also be noted that the military has not yet presented evidence to this claim. Suu Kyi and her fellow party leaders, as well as an Australian national who was an economic advisor to the president, have all been put under house arrest. The military’s claims of fraudulence should be taken with a grain of salt. Suu Kyi is widely popular in Myanmar, though her popularity has fallen in the west. Testaments to her popularity in country include the large scale protests that are ongoing in Myanmar, all of which are denouncing the military rule, and demand a return of Suu Kyi.

So what do these protests look like? Well, they look like the people of Myanmar. They are also being, or are attempting to be, repressed by the military regime. Facebook has been censored, and martial law has been declared in certain townships. This has not stopped the thousands of people that have flocked to major cities to protest. What did I mean when I said that these protests look like the people of Myanmar? Well, they are made up of multiple demographics, and each city has a different makeup of protesters. In some areas the protesters are nurses, or doctors. Much like the 8888 Uprisings, many protests are also being led by students, with teachers joining in. Much like the Saffron Revolution (another internal conflict), there are also monks who are participating in anti-military protests. Each demonstration is being met with intense police force, all of the officers are adorned with riot gear. Water canons have been used to disperse protesters, and recently rubber bullet were fired into a crowd – with one woman being hit and seriously injured. With some social media platforms being restricted, and a state of emergency being in place for the next year, at this point in time it is hard to determine where the coup will lead – with many western countries condemning the act. What my attempt was today was to highlight the familiarity of the situation, which is why we took that detour through the military regime’s history. Does history repeat itself? For the sake of the citizens of Myanmar I hope not, but this may prove to be another pattern in the familiar behavior of the military junta. In my next installment I plan to delve deeper into what is happening to the Rohingya ethnic minority, how the military and Suu Kyi play into the Rohingya genocide, and if we can apply any lessons from it to what is going on with the Uyghur minority in China.