Myanmar Political Crisis: What Is Happening And Why

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Myanmar, India’s eastern neighbor, has garnered international attention over the past month following an authoritarian overthrow of its government by the nation’s military on February 1st. This led to the removal and detention of its Nobel Prize-winning Counselor of State, Aung San Suu Kyi, and elected president, Win Myint. The development is unsurprising as Myanmar’s fragile democracy stands on a foundation of its colorful past, fraught with military coups and dictatorships.

Lady Justice cosplayer in Myanmar Military Coup Protest

Mainstream media has covered the issue episodically, since Myanmar is an ally and not an adversary like Pakistan or China. So here is a comprehensive analysis of the recent development.

What has happened?

The current crisis has arisen as a result of the rivalry between the pro-democratic movement spearheaded by Aung San Suu Kyi’s National League for Democracy (NLD) party and the Myanmar military, called the Tatmadaw. Though the NLD won the national elections of 2020 by a sweeping majority, the army nullified the election by claiming electoral fraud. It imposed an year of emergency rule on the country, after which elections may be rescheduled.

Widespread protests have erupted across Myanmar against the alleged suppression of people’s mandate, but the military has also attempted to vehemently crush the uprising. March 27, specifically, witnessed the bloodiest day of violence, with almost 90 reported civilian casualties, since the army takeover.

Despite the Tatmadaw’s allegations, several international agencies have declared the November 2020 elections as mostly fair.

What triggered the dispute between state and military?

Myanmar had been under military rule from 1961 to 2011. The committee of military leaders at the helm of the administration is called the ‘junta‘. The NLD party, founded in 1988, participated in elections in 1990. But the army refused to forfeit power and the pseudo dictatorship regime of the military continued.

Following years of civil protests and demonstrations, a constitutional referendum was held in 2008. The new Constitution thus instituted by the military established a ‘discipline-flourishing democracy’ or ‘disciplined democracy’.  It also guaranteed a 25% reservation in parliament for the military.

Of the 664 member bicameral parliament or Pyidaungsu Hluttaw, elections are held only for 498 seats, while the rest are allocated to the military.

In 2010, national elections were held with the participation of multiple political parties. And in 2011, the NLD party, led by Aung San Suu Kyi, swept to power. In 2015, her party won a majority in the election again, but her vocal advocacy of reforms to empower democracy in the country displeased the military.

Though constitutional and formal, the military junta wielded the real power in Myanmar as in most military-controlled nations. In such countries, it is common practice to install a figurehead leader of the state to appease the public. But if the nominal leader refuses to comply with the army’s will, he or is either exiled or executed.

A wall poster of Aung San Suu Kyi in strife-ridden Myanmar
Aung San Suu Kyi’s Errors and Junta’s Dominance
  • Aung San Suu Kyi proclaimed that if voted to power again, she would amend the constitution to gradually reduce the number of reserved seats for the army in the parliament from 25% to 15%, to 10% in 2025, and to 5% after 2030. So the junta perceived her attempts as detrimental to their position in the government. The army wished to maintain the status quo. The military permitted the existing arrangement in the country following global pressure against its authoritarian regime.
  • The Union Solidarity and Development Party, the main opposition in parliament, and the army’s political arm suffered a humiliating defeat by winning just 33 seats. Following this setback, it had been raising demands for an election rerun.
  • The acting army chief, Min Aung Hlaing, extended his tenure by 5 years to maintain his clout within the administration. He also feared that once retired, he would be answerable for crimes against the Rohingya minority in the Rakhine state.
  • The army insisted that the election was rigged, even though international agencies certified it as fair. The junta maintained a front of activists to advertise their accusations to the public. Consequently, it ordered the arrest of Aung San Suu Kyi and General Min Aung Hlaing took over control. The acting president was also removed and another military leader was appointed in his place.
General Min Aung Hlaing
The Rise of Myanmar’s Political Military

Like other Asian countries, Myanmar (or Burma) has had an oppressive history of British colonization.

Located between India and China, and home to varied ethnicities, Myanmar’s cultural roots have a strong connection with both countries. Its predominant religion, Buddhism, originated in India. The influx of colonizers began with an eye on India and Burma initially served as just an outpost on India’s eastern frontier.

But following three Anglo-Burmese wars, the country became part of the British empire. By 1937, Burma had become a separate colony of the British empire. In order to combat the British regime, an alliance of communist leaders, in association with the Japanese, formed the Burmese Independence Army (BIA). But after defeating the British, the Japanese refused to hand over power to the Burmese. The BIA then transformed into the Patriotic Burmese Force (PBF) and sided with the British to fight the Japanese.

Post-independence, the PBF became the official military of Burma. Since they had tasted power once, they refused to give it up and hence the tussle between authoritarianism and democracy continues to this day in modern Myanmar.

Significance with Respect to India

India has close strategic, economic and cultural ties with Myanmar. Given China’s despotic designs in the region, it is imperative that India maintain its friendly relationship with Myanmar. The prominent areas of concern for our country include:

  • Myanmar will play a pivotal role in the upcoming Trans-Asian roadway project.
  • Most insurgent groups of north-east India have their base in Myanmar. While the country has cooperated with us in bringing those to justice, it will be difficult to incorporate such entities into our national mainstream without Myanmar’s cooperation.
  • But the most significant aspect lies in India’s maritime relationship. The maritime oil trade route from the Gulf to China traverses the Malacca Strait, which is a choke point and not always reliable. China is scouting for an alternate route through Myanmar to ease trade and increase its dominance in the maritime zone surrounding India.
  • As an extension of its String of Pearls policy, China has also set up ports in smaller neighbouring nations to use as outposts and dockyards for its military submarines. In light of festering Sino-India tensions, cultivating a cordial association with the conduit nation of Myanmar is indispensible.

To strengthen its ties, India supplied military hardware including a retrofitted naval submarine to Myanmar. More recently, India provided it with 1.5 million doses of the COVID-19 vaccine and has agreed to keep supplies open even during this time of political instability.

International Reaction to the Myanmar Crisis

Western nations like the US, the UK, and France have condemned the violence and human rights violations underway in Myanmar. However, China has referred to the change as a mere reshuffling of positions in the cabinet and Russia has echoed similar sentiments. Both nations have a close relationship with the military generals in Myanmar. So any concrete sanctions imposed on the nation will be difficult without the approval of Russia and China, two permanent members of the UN Security Council.

However, sanctions in the past have done little to address the burgeoning political crisis in Myanmar. A balanced mix of incentives and international pressure though could compel the junta to turn things around and reinstate some form of democracy.

As the state of affairs persist, the global community, civic activists in collaboration with the UN and friendly allies like India must join hands to help rebuild a state founded on people’s mandate in Myanmar.

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