Myanmar: A nation in turmoil

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Myanmar: A nation in turmoil

Sunday, 11 February 2024 | Makhan Saikia

Myanmar: A nation in turmoil

Myanmar's resilience amid adversity shines as diverse groups unite against the junta. Despite challenges, hope flickers through collective efforts for democracy, signaling a brighter future ahead.

The Tatmadaw (the Myanmar military) completed its third year of ruling the most impoverished country in the Southeast Asian region this month. The Government of National League for Democracy (NLD), led by Aung San Suu Kyi, has been out of power since February 2021. It was a silent coup by the junta to remove the popularly elected government from power. However, Myanmar, formerly known as Burma, is no stranger to military rule. Its people are accustomed to repressive regimes, widespread poverty, and decades of economic stagnation in the past. With Suu Kyi coming to power in 2015, the situation started to improve, but with the return of the military’s control, commoners see no end to their suffering. As the junta falters, Myanmar is moving towards uncertainty.

Democracy is deteriorating, as the Opposition is fragmented due to persistent military suppression. Young people are deeply frustrated by the ongoing chaos in the country. Investors, primarily from the West and advanced nations, are concerned about the future of Myanmar. Apart from China, all others, including major investors from Southeast Asian nations, are waiting for the military to relent. However, with Suu Kyi, Beijing swiftly established new connections and opened up new avenues for engagement. Thus, it can be clearly said that the military takeover in Naypyitaw directly impeded the significant projects initiated by Beijing during the tenure of the NLD Government.

Suu Kyi is under house arrest, and her NLD party is in disarray. Most of its top leaders are in hiding, but they are persistently fighting and seeking a path to return to power. The prosecution and inevitable conviction of Suu Kyi and former President Win Myint since the day of the current junta takeover simply indicate a show of strength and frustration. Tom Andrews, the UN Special Rapporteur on Human Rights in Myanmar, rightly pointed out by the end of 2021 that these two (Suu Kyi and Win Myint) are “hostages, not criminals.” Until their charges are proven, they cannot be labelled as criminals by the military. However, the fact remains that these two high-profile leaders have not been able to air their grievances to the international media and other sources. Indeed, the military’s strategy of conducting closed-door courtroom proceedings serves as a major obstacle for the global media to access them.

With ethnic militias and regional groups assuming control in China and some other pockets of the northwest of the country, it sends a worrying signal for the Army. It is evident that the junta is incapable of maintaining full control over the country. Unlike before, this time it is failing to combat the massive resistance forces emerging throughout the nation.

Can we anticipate a new dawn with the anti-junta forces and platforms like the National Unity Government (NUG)? Or can only ethnic rebels with breakaway factions of the junta ultimately restore democracy in Myanmar? While the NUG and other anti-junta forces may persist in their movements, displacing the junta from power seems unfeasible for now. The ethnic rebels may hold the upper hand in some border provinces, but it may not be adequate to prevent the military from initiating operations.

It is evident that the military Chief Min Aung Hlaing made a serious miscalculation by ousting the NLD Government from power in 2021. Despite having an elected government in power, the country’s military elites and the military in general hold an advantage over civilian administration nationwide. Under the amended Constitution of Myanmar of 2008, the military reserves 25 per cent of seats in Parliament. Additionally, crucial ministries such as Home, Border, and Defence Affairs are led by serving military officers. Furthermore, the military retains the power to appoint one of the two Vice-Presidents of the country. Considering these constitutional provisions, one can assert that the civilian government of Suu Kyi had limited power and influence within the country’s security architecture. Article 59 (f) of the 2008 Constitution prohibits Suu Kyi from running for the office of President due to her “allegiance to a foreign power” (i.e., she was married to a British citizen, and her children are also British citizens). Once more, Article 436 of the same Constitution grants the military the authority to veto any decision in Parliament. Consequently, unless both these articles are amended, Suu Kyi can never occupy the highest constitutional office of the country. Only if the Constitution is amended will she have an opportunity to become President. To achieve this, the civilian government requires support from 75 per cent of the members in Parliament, backed by a national referendum. So why were the generals concerned? It appears they were apprehensive about her increasing popularity and the electoral mandate she received from the people in the 2020 general election. This prompted the military to level allegations that the election was conducted fraudulently, which the country’s election commission vehemently denied. However, it is worth noting that this election office was operating under the control of the Suu Kyi government. Hence, they did not wait for another general election in which she could have potentially secured an even stronger mandate. These generals understand how to wield power, and they acted accordingly in unison.

Myanmar has a troubled history, characterised by conflicts, chaos, and military rule. The road ahead for protesters, ethnic rebels, and the military is equally challenging, with an uncertain future looming. Without external intervention, the junta is unlikely to yield. The 2021 military takeover has extinguished hopes for democracy, raising troubling questions about Myanmar’s future.

The central question remains: can Myanmar sustain its current situation indefinitely? It appears so, given the Tatmadaw’s steadfastness and resistance to change. Public outcry has little impact on the military’s architecture and strategies.

Now, “unite in solidarity” can guide all anti-junta groups in bringing democracy back to this troubled country. Thwarting the actions of the military may be challenging in the immediate term due to its dual sources of power — both civilian and military. Moreover, Opposition groups changing and occupying fringe territories may require more time to compel the Tatmadaw to relinquish power.

It is clear that the Generals’ sole agenda is “repression” and nothing else. They refuse to heed calls for peace, negotiation, or dialogue. General Hlain must not test the patience of his people any longer. Furthermore, he must no longer ignore the growing threat posed by ethnic rebels.

(The writer is a Senior Faculty at the Department of Political Science in the School of Liberal Education, Galgotias University, Greater Noida.)

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