Myanmar’s troubled transition to democracy

Last Monday, Feb. 1, Myanmar’s (Burma) military announced that it had declared a state of emergency, and that commander in chief Senior Gen. Min Aung Hlaing was now in charge. The new parliament elected in November was scheduled to convene that day. Instead, many of its members, including state counselor and de facto head of state Aung San Suu Kyi, were picked up in pre-dawn raids and held in detention.

The military claims there was massive fraud in the November election, which Suu Kyi’s party, the National League for Democracy (NLD), had won by a huge landslide. This outcome further marginalizes the military’s proxy party in parliament, even as it leaves untouched the military’s reserved seats, constituting 25 percent of parliamentary seats.

There is nothing new in this latest move by Myanmar’s generals. It is basically a repeat of their refusal to accept the results of the general elections of 1990, which the NLD also won by a landslide. That, too, was followed by the detention of Suu Kyi and the suppression of political parties.

It is difficult to understand this political behavior in the 21st century. What exactly do Myanmar’s military leaders think they are doing?

To gain some sense of what’s happening, perhaps one has to go back to Myanmar’s own struggle to form a nation out of the fragments left behind by British colonial rule. The Burmese military grew out of the revolutionary war against the British and later against the Japanese. In 1948, Britain handed Burma its independence—plus all the conflicts arising from the forced integration of various ethnic communities living within its borders, some of them thriving as small kingdoms.

Burma’s educated leaders had tried their best to create a modern nation-state out of this diversity. But it fell to the military to quell the intermittent ethnic and communist insurgencies, and to forge peace agreements with the different tribal communities that were demanding greater autonomy. The legendary General Aung, the father of Aung San Suu Kyi, played a key role in the country’s historic quest for independence but was assassinated just before Burma gained its independence. The Aung family therefore would be as close to a Burmese aristocracy as one could possibly have.

In 1962, Burma’s young democracy under Prime Minister U Nu came to an end when Gen. Ne Win seized power and declared a one-party socialist state. Burma under Ne Win practically went into isolation. Its economy went bankrupt after years of mismanagement and autarky.

The military junta that overthrew him in 1988 styled itself as the State Law and Order Restoration Council (SLORC). Its immediate goal was to open the economy to foreign investors that could develop the country’s untapped natural wealth. This selective liberalization spawned military cronies in business that have dominated Myanmar’s economy to this day.

The SLORC also made gestures toward opening the political space to new players. They introduced a multiparty system they thought they could control. The NLD’s unexpected landslide win in the 1990 election however proved them wrong. Suu Kyi’s charisma proved formidable, and they tried to stop her by putting her under house arrest. But this only made her more popular. In 1991, she was conferred the Nobel Peace Prize. The United Nations passed a historic resolution demanding her release from detention.

In 1997, the military junta changed its name from SLORC to State Peace and Development Council (SPDC), signaling a readiness to find new paths to development without having to share political power. This took the form mainly of a campaign to get the civilian population to join state-sponsored associations like the Union Solidarity and Development Association, which later became the backbone of the military-sponsored party.

But civil society organizing was also quietly taking place during this period, aided in no small measure by international donors. This gave direction and vision to the nonviolent protests against the excesses of military rule. In 2008, the military tried to appease this restive movement by promulgating a new constitution that laid down the parameters for the transition to civilian authority.

Suu Kyi sensed that the military would need her cooperation in this transition if it was to have any credibility. As she was still on house arrest, she opted not to participate in the 2010 general elections, which the military proxy party predictably won. A few days later, the junta released her.

Suu Kyi agreed to run in a by-election in 2012, which turned out to be a rehearsal for her party’s landslide win in the election of 2015. With 70 percent of parliamentary seats under its control, the NLD went on to form a new government in March 2016. Myanmar has since opened its doors to the world, causing its economy to surge. Conscious of the delicate nature of this power-sharing arrangement, Suu Kyi has taken care not to directly challenge the power of the military. In fact, she defended them from charges that they were engaged in ethnic cleansing against the Rohingya—a move that disappointed many of her global admirers.

So, what is behind this abrupt return to direct military rule? No one knows the answer better than Aung San Suu Kyi herself. In a speech before the European Parliament in 1989, she said: “It is not power that corrupts, but fear. Fear of losing power corrupts those who wield it, and fear of the scourge of power corrupts those who are subject to it.”