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Murphy ’23: In Myanmar, the return to military rule is 1990 all over again

The scene is as follows: Myanmar holds what is proclaimed by the military, known as the Tatmadaw, to be a free and fair democratic election. Then, in a landslide win, hugely popular political figure Aung San Suu Kyi’s pro-democracy party, the National League for Democracy, takes the lion’s share of the votes over Tatmadaw-aligned parties. This prompts a global sigh of relief: Progress is projected to have won the day. Then, several months later, the Tatmadaw suddenly prevents any transfer of power from taking place, arresting top NLD leaders, declaring martial law and shutting down the free press. Protests occur but are futile; in the process, several civilians are killed. The result is clear: Myanmar is to continue military junta rule and the democracy initiative is abolished.

Despite its shocking similarities to the events of the past week, this scene does not describe the 2021 military coup — rather, this was the reality Myanmar (then known as Burma) faced in their elections in 1990. Although there are three decades between the two elections and their subsequent coups, very little has changed: the Tatmadaw still hold the same level of power and influence. If Myanmar’s long history of continuous conflict and the strength of military rule are an indication of what is to come, there is little chance for democracy to take root again in the near future. To change the status quo, it is not the United States that needs to act, having nearly exhausted its potential to change Burmese politics. (The United States placed substantial sanctions and applied intense diplomatic pressures on Myanmar from 1988 to 2012 in pursuit of this same goal.) Rather, meaningful developments will only be sparked by a change in tune by Myanmar’s closest neighbors, most notably the countries belonging to the Association of Southeast Asian Nations. 

Since its annexation by the British in the 1850s, Myanmar’s history has been plagued by foreign conquest and violent internal disputes. British colonial rule, officially implemented in 1852, arbitrarily forced “historically and culturally different” ethnic groups and “geographically separate” regions into a single state. This set the stage for ethnicity-based clashes that persist to this day, most recently demonstrated in the genocidal expulsion of the Rohingya from Myanmar's Rakhine state in 2017. Decades under British oppression (which lasted until 1948), as well as Japanese occupation during World War II, have left the Tatmadaw deeply suspicious of the outside world and the imposition of foreign values.

Democracy has always had a losing record against the might of the Tatmadaw. Conflicts between communist and nationalist factions, and between ethnic minorities and the majority-Burman government, have destabilized the state since its conception. This reality has prompted the Tatmadaw to sincerely believe that they are the only entity that can keep the state from imploding into chaos, thus justifying their hold on the state and regular coups. While the Tatmadaw have at times allowed for some democratic reform, after being swayed by factors such as fear of uprisings and a desire to develop economically, most of Myanmar’s political history are cycles of continuous coups. 

The junta first took power in 1962, deposing the civilian government and installing an authoritarian regime that implemented socialist-nationalist policies. The result was economic failure, which prompted mass protests in 1988, catalyzed by frustration with lack of political freedom. The ‘888’ (named for the major strike on 8/8/1988) uprisings of that year were met with a severe crackdown — military forces killed 3,000 activists — and an official coup two years later, following the NLD win in the 1990 elections. The Tatmadaw ruled with an iron fist for two-and-a-half decades, until what many saw as a miracle opening. In 2015 Aung San Suu Kyi ascended to a position of leadership after the Tatmadaw created a framework for democratic elections — albeit one that ensured the Tatmadaw remained the most powerful institution in the country. With the onset of the coup last week, this foray into democracy has proven to be nearly as fleeting as the one in 1990. Today, the Tatmadaw retains such a deeply entrenched position in the political, economic and social framework of the state that democracy is unlikely to return any time soon. 

Around the world, leaders are grappling with the implications of this most recent coup. Many Western thinkers are now proposing responses intended to help stabilize the nation once again. These proposals hold little ground against reality. 

Some idealists have suggested that coordinated protests and political organizing in response to the coup could challenge new junta rule. However, a central factor in today’s coup is that the military has ostensibly grabbed power that it never actually lost over the last decade of ‘opening’ following Aung San Suu Kyi’s ascension. The past six years of democracy have been merely a house of cards. The Tatmadaw drafted its 2008 constitution to explicitly guarantee its power, despite democratic elections, by allowing the military to govern itself and control three key ministries (Defense, Border and Home Affairs) as well as one of two Vice Presidential positions. Most crucially, it forbade changes to its constitutionally-mandated rule. The constitution mandates that the Tatmadaw maintain 25 percent of seats in Parliament and also requires the approval of over 75 percent of Parliament to amend the constitution. 

At present, U.S. President Joe Biden, British Foreign Secretary Lisa Nandy, the United Nations special rapporteur on Myanmar Tom Andrews and many other foreign leaders have indicated that placing sanctions on Myanmar may be needed to try and solve the crisis. In fact, just yesterday President Biden announced that the United States will be placing economic sanctions on the military leaders who initiated the coup. However, this calculation is misguided. The Tatmadaw, having survived decades of restrictive international sanctions, have developed massive sources of internal and illegal funding, rendering outside pressure almost useless. Their economic conglomerates, Myanmar Economic Holdings Limited and Myanmar Economic Corporation, have business ventures in sectors such as mining, tobacco and banking that have long enriched top generals. Furthermore, the illicit military economy of wildlife and human trafficking, drug cultivation and illegal logging earns revenue that sanctions cannot reach. Overall, sanctions from the West only serve to slow down the legal economy, harming regular citizens, while generals maintain their own sources of funding and move towards Chinese economic aid.

Individuals within the United States have also proposed that, by speaking out against the situation in Myanmar, President Biden and American allies will be able to shame the state into submission. However, what is most often neglected by well-meaning human rights activists is that the Tatmadaw’s top leaders are psychologically impervious to change and global pressures. After a history of foreign conquest and what the Tatmadaw sees as a record of unfair UN condemnations, no number of denouncements from the West or international bodies will sway the opinion of the new junta. Under the leadership of Senior General Min Aung Hlaing, a man driven by incredible ego and a disregard for human rights, the opinions of the United States and other world leaders will carry little weight. Min Aung’s intense desire to avoid term limits and finally take the role of President supersedes any apprehension toward being the subject of Western condemnation.

The future for Myanmar is decidedly dark, and it is unlikely that the elections the Tatmadaw have said will be held next year will occur. A shift in the Tatmadaw’s actions will have to come from pressure from Myanmar’s closest neighbors, China and especially the ASEAN nations, who have sizable influence there. China is Myanmar’s biggest trading partner, supplies 60 percent of the army’s weapons and funds major infrastructure projects; an outcry from Beijing would be more influential than all of Europe combined. As for ASEAN, membership in the organization provides Myanmar with legitimacy and “opens Myanmar’s) doors to trade, investment, tourism and development assistance,” giving them more weight than even China. Member states could potentially provide election observation, sever Myanmar’s right to serve as ASEAN chair or threaten trading sanctions as recourse. What is required by ASEAN is, for the first time in the association’s history, a strong condemnation of anti-democratic actions from a unified Southeast Asian front. However, the chance of any of these actors protesting the coup is incredibly slim. So far there has been no pushback from these key regional players: Chinese state media described the takeover as “a major cabinet reshuffle,” and ASEAN members Cambodia and Thailand said it was an internal matter not warranting international involvement. 

With regional players remaining silent and Washington out of options, it seems the Tatmadaw is here to stay. From Naypyidaw to Yangon, the ‘90s may be back for good.

Meghan Murphy ’23 can be reached at meghan_murphy@brown.edu. Please send responses to this opinion to letters@browndailyherald.com and op-eds to opinions@browndailyherald.com.



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