By: Sneha Kandalgaonkar (‘21)
Over the past month, national headlines have been dominated by the COVID-19 vaccine and Joe Biden’s appointments. Under those titles are a few headings that have been recurring for two months, receiving significant attention from the rest of the world but going largely unnoticed in America: Coup in Myanmar, Aung San Suu Kyi Charged, Protests in Myanmar.
So, what exactly is happening in Myanmar? The answer is complex and requires awareness of the country’s history, government, and demographics.
Myanmar, formerly called Burma, is a country in Southeast Asia surrounded by China in the north, Laos and Thailand to the east, and Bangladesh and India to the west. The country houses over 135 ethnic groups and three major religious groups—a majority Buddhist population followed by Christian and Muslim minorities.
The country’s diversity has been a source of contention since its creation, the most pronounced being the oppression of the Rohingya Muslims in the majority Bamar Buddhist country. This escalated in a fight between the Arakan Rohingya Salvation Army (ARSA) and Myanmar security forces in 2016, leading to the Rohingya refugee crisis that exists to this day.
While the current coup in Myanmar is not a result of the Rohingya refugee crisis, it is representative of the military’s insistence on fostering a strong Burmese identity and order, often requiring silencing dissenters and political opponents. The most renowned is Aung San Suu Kyi.
Aung San Suu Kyi, daughter of Myanmar’s freedom fighter, the late Aung San, lived most of her early life abroad before settling back in Myanmar. After witnessing the public’s mass protest of the military state, she started organizing pro-democracy rallies and demonstrations and soon became the face of Myanmar’s pro-democracy movement. Myanmar’s population rallied behind her and her political party, the National League for Democracy (NLD).
The ruling military power suppressed her demonstrations and jailed her 1988. In 1990, the military held an election which the NLD won, but they refused to hand power over to Suu Kyi and her party. And so started the ongoing cycle of Myanmar’s people voting for Suu Kyi, the military refusing to hand over power, and Suu Kyi being jailed. In 2010, Suu Kyi was appointed to office, but her party still could not make its democratic reforms as the military was given a quarter of the seats in parliament. Aung San Suu Kyi had been State Counsellor since 2010 and her party, the NLD won reelection by a landslide last November.
But then the military's vicious cycle resumed.
Citing election fraud and other small offenses, Myanmar’s military imprisoned Aung San Suu Kyi again along with forty members of the NLD on February 1. The country fell back under the power of the military junta which was in power for fifty years before Suu Kyi’s government.
With their power regained, they started silencing protestors and censoring the media. Although Suu Kyi again won by a landslide, securing 80% of the vote, the military demonstrated the fragility of public opinion and its hair-trigger response whenever the opposing party gained significant influence. Their coup is representative of how the NLD never really had the power to make any substantial change—the military was always ready to strike down their operations whenever democratic institutions went against their will.
Peaceful protests began shortly after Suu Kyi’s arrest. Millions marched down the streets of Yangon and Mandalay in hard hats and sacred pendants protecting them from the police force. Security forces opened fire on protestors across the country. Wednesday, March 3 marked the worst day of violence as dozens were shot and the total death count reached thirty-three. The people have taken to other methods of protest, such as banging pots and honking every night to create noise as a form of civil disobedience.
Still, it is unsure whether these protests will be effective. Myanmar’s people had seen a glimpse of hope with the appointment of Aung San Suu Kyi and the NLD in 2015. It begs the question, what changed between the election in 2015 and the election in 2020? Why did the military hand over power to the NLD in 2015 but stage a coup when they won again in 2020?
Mrs. Samantha Saldanha-Kuncharam, who teaches Comparative Government and Politics at South Brunswick High School, explains why the NLD was allowed to stay in power in 2015 but could not in 2021: “Even though the NLD won in 2015, they never truly ruled as the military ‘co-ruled’ with the parliament. The military junta allowed the election results to stand because Myanmar's economy had been crippled by economic and trade sanctions since 1989. President Obama lifted the sanctions in 2016 since the US no longer considered Myanmar's military government a threat to national security and felt that by allowing democratic elections, the military would stop some of its human rights abuses. What changed in 2020 was the increase in popularity of the NLD. The party gained an even bigger majority in the 2020 elections, which threatened the military's power. The military had backed an opposition party and hoped that this party could win and be used as a puppet for the military. Of course, that didn't happen and the military claimed voter fraud as its rationale for taking back power.”
It is apparent that the military has always had the power and only uses the NLD when it conveniences them, placing the public under the illusion that democratic reforms are underway.
Mrs. Saldanha-Kuncharam added that while Suu Kyi and the NLD did have influence in the government starting in 2015, they were always in a tricky situation, having to balance “pushing for democratic reforms without provoking a coup”.
If the international community places proper condemnation on the junta’s actions, there could be hope for the people in Myanmar. At the end of the day, the military did cede some power to the NLD because the country’s economy suffered, so perhaps when economic sanctions are reinstated the military will hand power to the NLD. President Joe Biden has already frozen the accounts (amounting to around one billion dollars) of generals responsible for the coup. Other countries are soon to follow.
The vast majority of Myanmar and the world is on the NLD’s side, and hopefully they will be powerful enough to overthrow the military’s regime and break their cycle for good.