Fear for the future of Myanmar

Former MP and Scottish Government Minister Margaret Curran, who worked with the UNDP in Myanmar and conducted several visits in the country, writes this week’s blog. She reflects on the recent events in Myanmar and their consequences for the future of its progressive forces. 

Those protesting in Myanmar deserve our support.

Despite the international fall from grace of Aung San Suu Kyi over the past five years, be in no doubt that the coup in Myanmar bodes ill for the future of progressive forces in the country. In what is being seen internationally as a coup d’état, the Tatmadaw, as the military is known, arrested Aung San Suu Kyi and President Win Myint, on the pretext of election fraud, imposed martial law in major cities and cut off the internet and social media platforms. Many arrests followed and the military lined the streets. The head of the army General Min Aung Hlaing announced a state of emergency and international and domestic TV channels went off air.

Myanmar’s democratic experience in the past ten years has certainly been incomplete and troubled. Attracting international condemnation, their actions in Rakhine have been labelled genocidal and whist there has been some liberalisation there has also been evidence of human right abuses. But this week’s strangling of democratic forces spells disaster for any hope of peaceful negotiations of ethnic rivalries. Furthermore, the hope of a fully functioning democracy and all that brings – scrutiny, accountability, plurality – was dealt a devastating blow on that early Monday morning. Progressive voices across the world recognised this with their immediate condemnation of the army’s actions.

But why now?

The MPs due to take their seats on Monday 1st February had been elected in November 2020. That election produced a landslide victory for the National League for Democracy (NLD), the party of Aung San Suu Kyi, with 397 seats out of a possible 476. The proxy party of the military, the Union Solidarity and Development Party (USDP) lost more than half their seats, taking a humiliating 7% of the vote. This strengthened the hand of Aung San Suu Kyi and the Tatmadaw felt threatened. Yet the military already has substantial powers enshrined in the constitution that was agreed in 2015. They are assigned 25% of the seats in Parliament and control the key ministries of Defence, Border Affairs and Home Affairs. The commander-in-chief ssentially appoints his own boss and to date, in combination with the USDP, they can veto any constitutional amendments proposed by the NLD. The extent of the majority for the NLD and the prospect of challenge to their authority seems to have triggered the reaction.

There are also, of course, financial and economic factors at play, as the army has huge economic interests throughout Myanmar.  Many commentators believe that is what drove their agreement to open up the country in the first place. Now, when they believe these to be under threat, they moved to assert their control. Amnesty International disclosed evidence recently of the army’s huge financial interests in mining, manufacturing, and trade. Members of the new military cabinet are reported to own gold and diamond shops, alongside the massive business empire the army is said to have developed.

Moreover, the political ambitions of the military leader Min Aung Hlaing may have been a factor. Due to retire in the near future, he had been expecting to assume a senior political role. Given his dreadful relationship with Aung Sun Suu Kyi and the extent of her victory, this was no longer a guarantee.

Protests and more

News emerged in the hours and days after the coup of more arrests and further crackdowns by the military. But resistance spread throughout Myanmar. The banging of pots and pans in the evenings signalled widespread discontent, many doctors and medical staff refused to work under a military government, and railway workers in Mandalay demonstrated in support of the protests. As the days passed, the resistance grew with large numbers in the streets of the main cities. Newly-elected MPs were televised signing their oaths of office in their accommodation blocks rather than in the national Parliament. These new MPs were determined to demonstrate their legitimacy and fight for their young democracy.

As I write the country remains on a knife edge. Protests are continuing to spread as the military responded with tear gas and water cannon. There are reports of shots being fired, with some protestors seriously injured. There is evidence too of police officers joining the protests. And the Biden administration has just issued an executive order introducing new sanctions.

Aung San Suu Kyi remains in custody on clearly trumped-up charges, and memories recall the brutal repressions by the military in the past. But the brave campaigns of protest show no signs of letting up with growing civil disobedience and students protest movements.

What happens now?

The military dictatorship has promised elections in a year. Many remain sceptical as to how the next period will develop. If the army cannot be stopped, their fears grow darker.

The failure to stand up to the generals and end the massacres of the Rohinga people severely tarnished the once-bright image of Aung Sang Suu Kyi, even if she reinforced her support amongst the Bamar majority in Myanmar. The plight of the Rohinga people should never be forgotten but many fear a military unencumbered by any political accountability, albeit profoundly weak.  Their favoured strategy in the face of ethnic conflict is brute force. It all spells disaster for any prospect of peaceful negotiations and a hopeful future for all the peoples of Myanmar. Democracy has been a work in progress in Myanmar. International voices must rally to condemn military forces in their attempts to sweep it aside so brutally  and supress the aspirations of its peoples.