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16 February 2021updated 28 Jul 2021 7:05am

How will democracy be defined after Myanmar’s military coup?

The democratic inclusivity of the country’s anti-coup protests mark a departure from its recent past.

By Francis Wade

Myanmar’s anti-coup protests, now in their third week, have gone country-wide. Triggered by the military’s putsch of the civilian government on 1 February, the demonstrations have spread from central cities to remote towns. Despite threats of police violence, crowds have continued to grow, drawing in myriad ethnic and religious communities and divergent political groupings. In a nation riven by deep social divides, where only three years ago many were championing the military’s cleansing of Rohingya Muslims, the coup has produced something wholly unexpected: a show of democratic inclusivity by a populace that, over the past decade, has shown a pointed hostility towards that principle.

In the display of cross-party and cross-interest unity on the streets of Yangon, Naypyidaw and elsewhere, the Myanmar military will have realised — if it didn’t know it already — the depth of public loathing directed towards it. Although now in control of the formal institutions of power, it will also know that its hold on the country isn’t total, and nor is it secure. Ethnic armed groups active in the border regions will have been fired up by the coup, while a long and rich tradition of subversion and resistance to state overreach has reawakened in the broader population.

But for all the ideological cohesion on show in the protests, there is also reason to be concerned about their spirit of inclusivity. The protestors’ key demands — that the military reverse its actions and put Myanmar back on course to a democracy, and that Suu Kyi and others be allowed to steer that process — mask a number of uncomfortable truths.

First, Suu Kyi has shown herself not to be the democratic figurehead many once thought. Indeed, she, along with her immensely popular National League for Democracy party, may ultimately hinder the work required to build wider acceptance of genuine democratic norms. Second, the decade-long experiment with democratisation which the coup ended showed that, even within Myanmar’s nebulous “pro-democracy” movement, notions of democracy are fiercely contested, and sometimes lethally so.

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To take the first point, during her five years as State Counsellor, Suu Kyi centralised the power available to a civilian leader, and in the process tightly curtailed the autonomy of fellow MPs. Arrests of journalists and dissidents, including those who criticised Suu Kyi, rose sharply under her watch, but she repeatedly declined to petition the courts for their release. International investigators who denounced her party’s record on human rights faced restrictions on their movement inside the country. Additionally, the NLD resisted demands for greater autonomy for ethnic minorities — a point of tension that has fuelled longstanding conflict between the military and ethnic armed groups. Indeed, numbers of armed groups — and their constituencies — came to view the peace process she spearheaded less as a means to end war, and more as a way for the central state to extend its reach into contested border regions. Among communities in those regions who have seen no benefits from a decade of liberalisation, the coup has reportedly been met with some indifference.

During its decades as a grassroots oppositional movement, the NLD had been a forceful advocate of democracy in Myanmar. Once in government, however, its commitment to that system appeared thin. So too did it become evident that many in the so-called “pro-democracy movement” had only a selective interpretation of what democracy meant in practice.

When, in 2017, battalions of soldiers drove three-quarters of a million Rohingya into Bangladesh in a two-month frenzy of violence, the military was met not with outrage, but with broad public support. Rohingya, with their darker skin and Islamic faith, are viewed by a seeming majority as Bengali interlopers who pose a material and existential threat to the Buddhist majority. In the years preceding the cleansing, I’d spoken to numerous people, including officials, monks and civilians, who justified the Rohingya’s treatment —internment in camps; a ban on voting; restricted access to education and healthcare — as a means to protect the fragile gains made by Buddhist communities during the transition against the claims of these scheming immigrants. The military’s campaign, executed in a context in which democratic privileges are seen as zero sum, was therefore viewed as something approaching a democratic enterprise — it would protect the political and economic rights of those who truly deserved them, and rid the country of a community that might seek to steer the transition in a direction antithetical to the Buddhist majority.

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The coup appears to have at least prompted a reckoning among some with the chauvinism alive in Myanmar society. In one photo posted to Twitter, a young man is seen holding a placard that reads: “I really regret abt Rohingya crisis,” while some Rohingya protesters have felt confident enough to openly identify as such — something unthinkable even a month ago.

Whether or not this newfound spirit of inclusivity endures remains to be seen. Myanmar’s socio-cultural divisions run deep, and the military, now in control, knows how to manipulate tensions over ethnic and religious identity so that responsibility for disenfranchisement is seen to lie not only with the state, but also with one’s neighbours. Powerholders come and go; the psychological reflexes of a long brutalised society will take longer to break.

The anti-coup protests demonstrate the bravery of a population that knows only too well how ruthless the military can be. Yet only time will tell how true their “pro-democracy” branding is. As Suu Kyi and her party have illustrated time and again in recent years, the stance that individuals and movements take against authoritarian systems doesn’t necessarily illuminate what they stand for. Just as there are many communities working for a more equal and all-encompassing political culture in Myanmar, so too are many regressive nationalist forces agitating against that. Trimming the military’s political power and installing a civilian government would be a major step towards realising a basic conception of democracy in the country. Much work would be required to deepen the endeavour beyond that.

Francis Wade is the author of Myanmar’s Enemy Within: Buddhist Violence and the Making of a Muslim ‘Other’.

[See also: Letter from Myanmar]