More than a week ago, the military of Myanmar (known as Burma by some) took power again after what had seemed like a Myanmar on track to become a beacon of democracy. People worldwide were perplexed that this happened, but experts on the matter say that the cracks in Myanmar’s democracy were there for years. So what were those cracks?
From 1962 until 2011, the military of Myanmar (also called Tatmadaw) was in complete control of the country. It was, by every measure, a textbook dictatorship. However, in 2008, there was a constitutional referendum, and in 2010, a show election was even held. Finally, in 2011, the military junta was dissolved and the tone of the government changed. Aung San Suu Kyi, the country’s foremost activist for democracy, was released from house arrest. Hundreds of political prisoners were freed. Press censorship was eased and laborers were given the right to go on strike. A human rights commission was even established. But in the end, all was for naught. The systemic cracks were too many, and the fragile structure of Myanmar’s democracy collapsed.
These cracks had been present for a long time, put in place by the military to retain some elements of power and perhaps one day even make a comeback (like what happened last week).
For one, the military still held a quarter of the seats in parliament, giving them tremendous influence in the fledgling democracy. They also had “emergency constitutional powers”, which gave them the authority to declare a state of emergency on February 1st and arrest prominent politicians on trumped-up charges (Aung San Suu Kyi herself was arrested on the basis that she had illegally imported walkie-talkies).
This all is to say that what happened should have been expected. The military, sensing widespread public opposition to their rule, slowly conceded most of their power away to placate the population. But what they didn’t concede was an easy way to get that power back when it most suited them. They kept some seats to have influence in even the democratic parts of Myanmar’s government, and they retained the option to enact emergency dictatorial rule (the pandemic providing a perfect distraction and even an excuse for their stunt).
Of course, other factors too were at play that allowed the coup to go forward without much external opposition. After Aung San Suu Kyi denied that Myanmar was committing a genocide against the Rohingya people who live in Myanmar, Western support faltered and slowly sputtered out. However, the genocide denial’s biggest effect on Myanmar wasn’t less Western support but that it in a way shielded the Tatmadaw from what could have been a just reason to definitively oust them from power with foreign support.
Some, of course, claim that her reasons for denying it also included appealing to the rising nationalist sentiment in Myanmar, which proved itself useful in recent elections. Ultimately, though she won the election, she did not reap the benefits of the win.
All in all, Myanmar is a tragic story of a failed democratic experiment. If one lesson for young democracies is to be learned from the whole debacle, it should be that democracy cannot succeed unless all power and influence of the previous undemocratic regime has been purged.