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Democracy Tumbled in Myanmar; What Next?

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Intro: General Min Aung Hlaing takes charge of Myanmar for a yearlong state of emergency. The Junta has expressed that elections would be held once the state of emergency ends, but experts believe that the military may retain power indefinitely. India has her fingers crossed.

By Our Foreign Correspondent

After detaining Aung San Suu Kyi and other senior members of the ruling National League for Democracy (NLD) party, Myanmar’s military, officially known as the Tatmadaw, declared a state of emergency in the country. Once again, the military junta is firmly in charge, after a decade-long experiment with limited direct democracy.  But why it’s surprising? For nearly half a century, the army ruled this Southeast Asian country with an iron hand. However, in 2011, desperate to draw more investment into the country, the generals cut a power-sharing deal with opposition leader Suu Kyi and her NLD. Suu Kyi served as State Counsellor of Myanmar from 2016 to 2021 following a long struggle for democracy in the nation that earned her Nobel Peace Prize in 1991. However, it was later that her silence over the massacre of Rohingya Muslims and defense of the military's genocide at the international court drew harsh criticism across the globe.

However, the reactions against the military coup were more measured from Myanmar’s neighbors in the region. India released a statement expressing concern and reiterating its support for Myanmar’s democratic transition. However, New Delhi was cautious of overtly criticizing the military owing to its deepening security relationship with the Tatmadaw and cooperation on counterinsurgency and border management along its troubled north-eastern border, which included a three-week long coordinated operation in May 2019. A joint visit in October 2020 to Myanmar by India’s foreign secretary and chief of army staff reflected the importance of security ties to the bilateral relationship. After the visit India gave Myanmar its first submarine. New Delhi has adopted a pragmatic approach to its relationship with Myanmar, regardless of who is in power. Even while Myanmar was ruled by the military government until 2011, India supported the process of democratization while continuing to engage with the government and opposed the imposition of sanctions by the US and EU. Given India’s ongoing tensions with China, and broader Sino-Indian strategic competition in South Asia, it will be concerned that the potential diplomatic isolation of Myanmar might work in Beijing’s favour.

Impact on Indo-Myanmar Relations

Geopolitical concerns apart, India has economic interests in Myanmar. Myanmar serves an important function for India as the only ASEAN member that it shares a land border with, making it an important feature in its ‘Act East’ policy, which is intended to expand India’s relationships with Southeast and East Asian countries. The country is pivotal to two major projects under this policy, the India–Myanmar–Thailand trilateral highway and the Kaladan Multi-Modal Transit Transport Project, which includes the development of a deep-water port at Sittwe.

For Bangladesh, this is currently the most important issue in its relationship with Myanmar. With Bangladesh hosting nearly one million Rohingya refugees, Dhaka has been eager to achieve a resolution that allows for the voluntary repatriation of the community. Although Bangladesh’s foreign minister noted that they expect the repatriation agreement signed with Myanmar to be followed regardless of who is in power, the seizure of power in Myanmar is likely to complicate an already fraught process, especially as General Min Aung Hlaing, Commander-in-Chief of the Tatmadaw, has been sanctioned by the US and the UK for human rights abuses against the Rohingya community.

China, which borders Myanmar, has been the country’s largest trading partner and its closest ally in recent years. China has funded infrastructure and energy projects throughout Myanmar as part of its Belt and Road Initiative. Oil and natural gas flow through pipelines from Myanmar to China. Beijing is also working to create a China-Myanmar Economic Corridor in Rakhine State to connect China’s landlocked Yunnan Province to the Indian Ocean.

China’s influence

However, Myanmar officials have long been wary of China, fearing that country could fall too deeply into Beijing’s sphere of influence, according to the International Crisis Group. Analysts believe that this fear in part drove military leaders to institute the 2011 reforms and begin developing ties with other countries. Some experts believe that the 2021 coup could lead Myanmar to move closer to China as other countries consider re-imposing sanctions.

Beijing has used its role on the UN Security Council to shield Myanmar from international criticism and prevent actions such as a comprehensive arms embargo. It has also provided military support, and continues to shield the Myanmar generals from repercussions of the coup.

Myanmar’s return to civilian rule and economic reforms led the United States and many other countries to re-establish ties with it and drop some sanctions.  President Barack Obama ushered in a new approach to U.S. relations with Myanmar. His administration boosted humanitarian aid, eased bans on new U.S. investments, and in 2012 named its first ambassador to the country in twenty-two years. Obama visited Myanmar twice, and President Thein Sein made a trip to Washington. Obama removed most U.S. sanctions a year after Myanmar’s 2015 elections, though a variety of noneconomic restrictions remained in place, including an embargo on arms sales and visa restrictions on some officials. The Donald J. Trump administration continued on a similar path, welcoming increased ties with Myanmar but maintaining sanctions on some individuals and restrictions on certain practices. The administration imposed targeted sanctions on top military commanders, including Senior General Min Aung Hlaing, due to their role in the killings of Rohingya. Some members of Congress called for additional restrictions over the suspected genocide and other human rights abuses.

Following the 2021 coup, President Joe Biden said his administration will work with U.S. partners to “support democracy and rule of law” in Myanmar. Urging military leaders to relinquish power and release people they captured, Biden warned that the United States could impose consequences on those responsible for the coup, and his administration initiated a review of U.S. sanctions law.

History of Military Rules

Myanmar has been ruled by a military junta for many of the years since it gained independence from British colonial rule in 1948. The Union of Burma began as a parliamentary democracy, like most of its newly independent neighbors on the Indian subcontinent. But representative democracy only lasted until 1962, when General U Ne Win led a military coup and held power for the next twenty-six years.

Ne Win instituted a new constitution in 1974 based on an isolationist policy and a socialist economic program that nationalized Burma’s major enterprises. The economic situation deteriorated rapidly, and a black-market economy took hold. By 1988, widespread corruption, rapid shifts in economic policy related to Myanmar’s currency, and food shortages led to massive student-led protests. In August 1988, the army cracked down on protesters, killing at least three thousand and displacing thousands more.

In the aftermath of the 1988 crackdown, Ne Win resigned as chairman of his party, although he remained active behind the scenes as another military junta took power. In 1989, the new military regime changed the country’s name from the Union of Burma to the Union of Myanmar, and the capital, Rangoon, was renamed Yangon. In 2005, the military government moved the administrative capital to Nay Pyi Taw, a city it built in central Myanmar. The junta argued that the name “Burma” was a vestige of the colonial era that favored the Burman ethnic majority, and that “Myanmar” was more inclusive. Official U.S. policy still refers to the country as Burma, though most nations call it Myanmar.

In 2007, the so-called Saffron Revolution—widespread anti-government protests that were sparked by fuel price hikes and named after the saffron-colored robes worn by participating Buddhist monks—and international pressure prompted shifts in Myanmar. In addition, the military government wanted to attract investment, reduce its reliance on China, and build relations with more countries. The junta pushed forward a new constitution in 2008, which is still in place today, that gave the military widespread powers even under civilian rule. The military junta unexpectedly officially dissolved in 2011 and established a civilian parliament for a transitional period, during which former army bureaucrat and Prime Minister Thein Sein was appointed president.

Role of Aung San Suu Kyi

Aung San Suu Kyi, the daughter of independence hero General Aung San, rose to prominence during the 1988 protests. After the crackdown, she and others formed the NLD opposition party. She was detained in 1989 and spent more than fifteen years in prison and under house arrest until her release in 2010. In 1991, Suu Kyi was awarded the Nobel Peace Prize while still under house arrest. Suu Kyi became Myanmar’s de facto leader in 2015 though the constitution prevents her from assuming the title of president. She continues to enjoy widespread domestic support. Starting in 2011, President Thein Sein spearheaded a series of reforms, including granting amnesty to political prisoners, relaxing media censorship, and implementing economic policies to encourage foreign investment. And in 2015, Myanmar held its first nationwide, multiparty elections—considered to be the freest and fairest elections in decades—since the country’s transition away from military rule. Suu Kyi’s opposition NLD party won a landslide victory, securing a majority in the upper and lower houses of parliament. New lawmakers elected Htin Kyaw, a longtime confidant of Suu Kyi, as Myanmar’s first civilian leader in decades. Suu Kyi was appointed to the newly created position of state counsellor, becoming the de facto head of the civilian government.

What Next in Myanmar?

But experts say the Tatmadaw continued to wield much control. The 2008 constitution includes several provisions to protect the military’s dominance. For example, 25 percent of parliament’s seats are reserved for the military, and any changes to the constitution need approval from more than 75 percent of parliament, effectively giving the military veto power over any amendment. In addition, the military’s proxy party, the Union Solidarity and Development Party (USDP), maintained seats in the powerful defense, home affairs, and border affairs ministries.

In 2020, Myanmar held its second national elections under civilian rule, which the NLD party overwhelmingly won. Though Human Rights Watch and other groups said the elections were flawed because of the disenfranchisement of Rohingya and other issues, the NLD achieved a massive victory. The military suffered a major blow in the elections: the USDP won just 33 of 476 available seats, while the NLD won 396. Military leaders alleged voter fraud, and after the country’s election commission rejected the military’s claims, it staged a coup in February 2021.

Senior General Min Aung Hlaing has taken charge of Myanmar during a yearlong state of emergency. Country’s military said that elections would be held once the state of emergency ends, but experts say the military could retain power indefinitely. In the aftermath of the coup, Myanmar saw its largest protests since the Saffron Revolution, with tens of thousands of people calling for democracy and the release of Suu Kyi and others. The Tatmadaw used the constitution to justify its actions. The document allows the military to take control in any situations that could cause “disintegration of the Union, disintegration of national solidarity, and loss of sovereign power.” The military argued that the allegations of fraud in the elections fit this description.

This Article First Published In Our Magazine

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