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Mainstream, VOL LIX No 9, New Delhi, February 13, 2021

Myanmar: A turbulent Democracy | Priyanka Mallick

Friday 12 February 2021

by Priyanka Mallick *

Myanmar is again under military rule. After a gap of almost one decade, Myanmar is directly under military control. The State Counsellor of Myanmar and the leader of National League for Democracy (NLD), Aung San Suu Kyi are detained in the early hours of February 1, 2021, along with other politicians. Min Aung Hlaing, the Commander-in-Chief, took control over the country for one year and declared a state of emergency.

In November 2020 General Election, Aung San Suu Kyi party NLD won more than two-third seats. However, the election result was not supported by the main opposition party Union Solidarity and Development Party (USDP). This party was founded in 2010 and heavily supported by the military—most of the party members either directly or indirectly linked with the military forces. Opposition party and Army claims, “fraud in the voter list” and several other irregularities. Since that time, there is a tension between military and civilian government.

In Myanmar, the role of armed forces is deeply rooted in the country’s historical and political development. Unlike the “Ahimsa” led the independence movement in India, the Myanmar national movement was carried forward by the group “Thirty Comrades” later established the “Anti-Fascist People’s Freedom of League”. The members of this group were military trained and took a pro-active role in the independence of Myanmar. The first military dictator of Myanmar Ne Win was also a member of the group. The army of Myanmar officially known as “Tatmadaw” played a crucial role in the independence struggle of Myanmar under the name of the “Burmese Independence Army”. In the beginning armed forces also received a lot of support and respect from the people, which faded with time.

History of Military Rule in Myanmar

In Myanmar, the first military coup happened in 1962 by Ne Win against a democratically elected U Nu government and ruled Myanmar till 1974 by the Revolutionary Council. In 1974, a new Constitution of Socialistic Republic of Union of Burma was adopted in 1974 by Ne Win and transformed the country under one-party rule, Burmese Socialist Programme Party (BSPP) headed by Ne Win. It led to a massive economic crisis and series of the demonstration by the pro-democratic group. In 1988, the famous “8888 Uprising” forced Ne Win to step down. The pro-democratic group formed a new political party National League for Democracy under Aung San Suu Kyi’s leadership. However, the movement was crushed, and Myanmar came again under the direct military rule that continued till March 2011. Since 2011 Myanmar has been transformed from military to the democratically elected government. According, Marco Bunte, this transition is similar from a ruler to a guardian. Earlier administration was directly under the control of the army, and now they are the guardian of the civilian elected government. The army never left the control over the administration of Myanmar. It is visible in the new constitution of the Myanmar that was formed under the military government in 2008.

Controversial features of the 2008 Constitution

The new constitution was formed in Myanmar to give away to the democratic civilian government. Nevertheless, a lot of features of the constitution makes it more undemocratic. Amendment in these principles is very crucial for a genuinely democratic transition in Myanmar.

  • Twenty-five per cent of the Parliament seats (Pyidaungsu Hluttaw) is reserved for the military personnel.
  • Important ministries of the house like -Home, Border and Defense must be headed by the military officials.
  • President of Myanmar must not have a family with a foreign citizen. Thus, a particular post of State Counsellor was created for Aung San Suu Kyi as she marries a British citizen.
  • The amendment process is very tough as it requires more than 75 per cent of both the house of Parliament and a referendum also needed in some cases.

Now, the main question is how Myanmar again come under direct military control when most countries are on the path of elected civilian government? The one aspect is visible in the political system of the country. Various other factors lead it to a weak democracy. In Myanmar, the civil society group is not strong and highly divided on the numerous domestic issues. Myanmar has multiple ethnic groups, and since the time of independence, some of the ethnic groups are under armed conflict with the government. The most important ethnic group Burman constitute the 60 per cent of the population and mainly lives in the central part of the country. However, the other ethnic groups like Shan, Karen, Kachin, Chin, Rohingyas etc. are living in the periphery of the country. These ethnic minorities feel marginalized and excluded from Burmans’ mainstream in almost all areas like politics, economics, education, etc. There are numerous cases of human right violence and suppression of civil liberties by government officers and army. Nationalists also fear the disintegration of the country because of the ongoing armed conflict with ethnic groups. The civilian government is also not getting support from all the ethnic groups. Myanmar never achieved democracy in its true sense. The new phase of the military rule further deteriorates the condition of minorities.

Military coup is criticized by UN Security Council. In its Press release UNSC condemned it and asked for the release of Aung San Suu Kyi and all other leaders. They expressed “continued support of the democratic transition in Myanmar.” This new transition is also not good for the India-Myanmar ties. India always supports a peaceful democratic government. Myanmar is the entry point in India’ Act East Policy. Development and growth of India’s northeast region are also very much influenced with the political development in Myanmar. Kaladana multi-modal project and India-Myanmar-Thailand trilateral highway project may also face some setback because of the current transition in Myanmar. Recently, Bangladesh Prime Minister Sheikh Hasina also expressed her interest to join this trilateral highway project. Only the future can say how far this transition would impact regional cooperation. It is also essential to see whether this military coup has any influence in any other country of the region that already come out to an elected civilian government after a long military rule.

References

Aung, Myo, (2016), “Why the Military Rule Continue in Myanmar?” available at https://www.researchgate.net/publication/307863293_WHY_THE_MILITARY_RULE_CONTINUE_IN_MYANMAR

Bunte, Marco (2014), “Burma’s Transition to Quasi-Military Rule: From Rulers to Guardians?” in Armed Forces & Society 40(4), pp.742-762.

Chaturvedi, Medha, (2012), “Myanmar’s Ethnic Divide: The Parallel Struggle” in Special Report, Institute of Peace and Conflict Studies. 

Shakila Devi, Konsam (2014), “Myanmar under the Military Rule 1962-1988” in International Research Journal of Social Sciences, Vol. 3(10), pp. 46-50.

Yhome, K. (2019), “Myanmar’s constitutional reform imbroglio” in available at https://www.orfonline.org/expert-speak/myanmars-constitutional-reform-imbroglio-57868/.

Websites and Newspapers: The Irrawaddy, The Hindu, The Diplomat, The Economic Times, BBC news.

* (Author: Dr Priyanka Mallick is a PhD holder from School of International Studies, JNU, New Delhi. She has numerous publications. Currently working as a Guest Faculty in Bengaluru City University)

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