Myanmar—or Burma, as it was known—is a country with a troubled history. The latest example of this came to light in February 2021, when a coup d’état took place, enabling a group of military leaders (otherwise known as a ‘junta’) to grip the reins of power once again. The situation is tense and constantly evolving with the Tatmadaw, as the Myanman military is called, violently repressing any resistance. To understand how this coup came to pass and what events precipitated it, we must direct our gaze towards the past several centuries.
A historical perspective
Myanmar’s strife can be traced back to when the country was officially called Burma. That is, when it was actively warred upon by the British from the nineteenth century onwards. At that time, Burma—and Southeast Asia by extension—was becoming an increasingly strategic region in light of the British East India Company’s expansionary policies. Bouts of conflict known as the Anglo-Burmese Wars ensued until Burma fell under British rule and became one of their colonies in 1885.
After more than sixty years of British rule, Burma (renamed to the ‘Union of Myanmar’ in 1989 by a new military government) became an independent nation in 1948 and has been plagued by civil unrest in the decades since. Much of the conflict centres around ethnicity: the government actively aggravates and causes ethnic fragmentation in Myanmar through discriminatory policies. This is further amplified by seemingly perpetual cycles of protests and their subsequent violent repression.
Ethnicity: the root of Myanmar’s troubles?
Ethnicity has been a recurring topic on policymakers’ tables since at least British colonial times, where the country was first divided upon ethnic lines. Since then, it has been difficult to forge a sense of national unity, with citizens having closer ties to their respective ethnic groups rather than the nation as a whole.
In 1982, an unelected military government enacted a citizenship law which embedded ethnicity into the very heart of Myanmar’s legislation: only those members of ethnic groups having resided in Myanmar before 1823 qualify as ‘full citizens’, rendering a number of ethnic groups “effectively […] stateless”, according to the International Commission of Jurists, an NGO. Many ethnic groups are hence deprived of basic human rights, such as equal opportunity, education and healthcare.
An iota of democracy?
From 2011, more rights and freedoms were progressively given to the population. The then-ruling military junta dissolved, and in 2016 Myanmar held an election characterised as being “largely free and fair” by international observers. This enabled Myanmar to form its first civilian-dominated government in more than half a century. This indeed seems too good to be true at first sight. After decades of oppressive rule, were the people of Myanmar to be free?
As is emblematic of the convoluted and turbulent history of Myanmar, this was not to be the case. The Tatmadaw still wielded considerable power even under a mostly civilian government: according to Myanmar’s 2008 constitution (which came into force in 2011 and was preceded by a sham referendum), 25% of parliamentary seats are held uncontested and allocated directly to the Tatmadaw. According to Human Rights Watch, an international NGO, this “perpetuat[es]” military control of the country and “obstructs any steps toward a meaningful multiparty democracy that upholds human rights”.
The horrific toil of the Rohingya
Despite some democratic progress, Myanmar’s ruling class actively engages in eroding the rights and livelihoods of its own citizens. After a militant group claimed responsibility for attacks on military and police posts in 2017, the Tatmadaw engaged in what the UN Secretary-General António Gutteres described as “ethnic cleansing”. In one month, at least 6 700 Rohingya were killed, with the military allegedly opening fire on fleeing civilians and planting landmines in border regions. Much of the criticism Nobel laureate Aung San Suu Kyi, until recently Myanmar’s de facto ruler, has received was because she refused to criticise the military’s downright extermination campaigns on Myanmar’s Rohingya ethnic group.
According to a report published in 2019 by the the United Nations International Fact-Finding Mission on Myanmar (IIFFMM), the Tatmadaw has been carrying out operations with “genocidal intent”, causing a “human rights crisis” and inflicting “severe inhumane suffering” onto Myanman people, resulting in the displacement of more than one million refugees. The Rohingya are denied basic human rights, prevented from being able to vote or own land, are subjugated to restrictions on movement and denied humanitarian relief. Frequently, people and their property are subjected to pillaging, theft, murder, rape and a host of other violent actions.
Not an iota of democracy to be found
Against this ghastly backdrop, Myanmar held elections on November 8th, 2020. These were deemed to be “flawed” by Human Rights Watch, for lacking everything from media freedom to universal and equal voting rights for Myanmar’s ethnic minorities. However, the election took place without significant irregularities according to observers. The Tatmadaw’s proxy party, the Union Solidarity and Development Party (USDP), fared extremely poorly in this election, winning only 33 of 476 available seats, whereas Aung San Suu Kyi’s National League for Democracy (NLD) won 83%.
In light of the election’s results, the Tatmadaw alleged widespread electoral fraud and was subsequently dissatisfied with the election commission’s responses to its allegations. Before the first parliamentary session of the new government was due to start in February 2021, the Tatmadaw orchestrated a coup d’état, detained political leaders including Suu Kyi and declared a year-long state of emergency.
This coup has flushed democratic progress down the drain and reignited fighting between the Tatmadaw and Myanmar’s armed groups, with the military resorting to air strikes, forcing tens of thousands to flee for their lives. Recent protests against the unsolicited takeover have mostly taken the form of civil disobedience and candlelit marches, however efforts to organise these have been hampered by internet shutdowns ordered by the junta. According to the Associated Press, “virtually all independent accounts blame [the] security forces for initiating violence against unarmed protesters”, with martial law being declared throughout the capital city, Yangon. Myanmar now faces a bleak economic future, with countries including the EU, US and the UK imposing sanctions along with the United States terminating a trade agreement.
Myanmar’s situation is historically complex and grounded in ethnic conflict, which is and has been perpetuated by the ruling class since at least colonial times. To disentangle all the bloody knots this has created will require much national healing, reconciliation and a revamping of the governmental modus operandi. Hopes of democratic reform, of which there was some progress in the 2010s, seem to be dashed with the Tatmadaw’s latest coup. Strongly-worded statements are flying from countries and international organisations, with the United Nations declaring that the international community has a “responsibility to protect the people of Myanmar”. On the ground, the question remains: how long will it take to end the violence and needless deaths of civilians?