Myanmar’s generals have long set the terms for the country’s democratic process and by spreading its economic cards among rivals, the military might just have the upper hand. But can they bring an end to the political career of their biggest democratic threat, Aung San Suu Kyi? And is the new US administration prepared to handle its latest foreign policy test?
Monday, February 2, was supposed to be a landmark day in Myanmar’s democratic process, with the country’s newly elected parliament set to hold its first session following the November 2020 general elections. But it turned out to be a grim milestone in the country’s undemocratic history, with the junta jailing the election winners and seizing power in a military coup.
The announcement followed days of speculation that the country’s military chief, General Min Aung Hlaing, had a power grab plan up his sleeve based on election fraud allegations that had as much substance as Donald Trump’s “Stop the steal” conspiracy.
But unlike the US political system, Myanmar’s democracy never stood a chance because government of the people, by the people and for the people was never enshrined in the country’s constitution.
The 2008 constitution – adopted after a referendum described as an “insult” by international rights groups – was a military venture that instituted a form of tutelage democracy with the military playing national caretaker. The 213-page document includes several articles enshrining the military’s “right to take over and exercise state sovereign power” in case of an emergency.
Monday’s scrapping of the constitution was, in effect, constitutional.
Myanmar’s military, known as Tatmadaw, has long adopted slogans to explain their governance system to the people. During the Cold War, it was “the Burmese Way to Socialism”. When the generals decided the old way needed an upgrade to keep up with the times, a new “disciplined democracy” was instituted in 2008, granting the military 25 percent representation in all legislative bodies and control of three key ministries.
The November 8 parliamentary elections, however, broke the discipline. Aung San Suu Kyi’s party, the National League for Democracy (NLD), won a landslide 83 percent of the seats in the upper and lower houses. The military-backed Union Solidarity and Development Party (USDP) suffered a humiliating defeat, leading the military to allege electoral fraud, claims the country’s election commission dismissed.
Suu Kyi and other NLD leaders – including the country’s civilian president, U Win Myint – were arrested early Monday. In its statement announcing the takeover, the Tatmadaw detailed “failures” of the Union Election Commission, appointed by the president, and cited article 417 of the constitution, which permits a military takeover in emergency situations.
“The original sin goes back to 2008, when the new constitution was introduced. For the military, that was all that was going to happen in terms of democracy whereas for the people in the National League for Democracy, that was to be the beginning, that eventually the constitution needed to be changed and the military’s role in political life would be reduced,” explained David Camroux, from Paris-based Sciences Po university, in an interview with FRANCE 24.
Constitution shunned and adopted in a storm
The 2008 constitution was a military project that took a long time in the making and an even longer time to convince the NLD of its democratic credentials.
Approved with an improbable 92 percent “Yes” vote in a referendum that was conducted just two weeks after Cyclone Nargis, the worst natural disaster in Myanmar’s recorded history, the constitution was initially shunned by the NLD.
Suu Kyi’s party boycotted the first election under the new constitution in December 2010, which enabled the country’s then military chief, Than Shwe, to proceed with his legacy project of instituting a “disciplined democracy”. The military-backed USDP swept the polls, realising the Tatmadaw’s vision of elected politicians and technocrats opening the resource-rich country to foreign investment while the junta wielded the real power.
In 2011, with the Arab Spring revolts jolting the junta and sparking a rare admission by a senior general that “we do not want to end up like the Arab dictators”, concessions – such as the release of political prisoners – were made.
With the Obama administration urging reform and international engagement – with an eye on China’s growing investments across its southern border – the NLD accepted the constitution. The party has since won every election, increasing its leads and the military’s disquiet.
The NLD’s sweep at the November 2020 polls brought the Tatmadaw’s fears to a head. “The military was definitely concerned about the civilian leadership gaining popularity and support, and they reacted with the only means they know best, the use of force,” explained Nehginpao Kipgen, executive director at the Center for Southeast Asian Studies at the Jindal School of International Affairs in India.
In its six-point notification of the latest takeover, the military declared an indefinite state of emergency, at the end of which “a free and fair multiparty general election will be held”.
But there were no details of a framework for the promised “free and fair” election. In the absence of a clear idea, Kipgen speculated that “it’s possible that the military could use the emergency period to repeal or amend parts of the constitution”. The provisions most likely to attract reexamination include the powers of the Union Election Commission and the president’s authority to appoint commission members, according to Kipgen.
‘The beginning of the end’ for Suu Kyi
The morning after the coup, an uneasy calm descended on Myanmar, according to reports from inside the country. But after sundown, car horns and banging pots were heard across the commercial capital, Yangon.
A detained lawmaker, who spoke to the Associated Press on condition of anonymity, said he was allowed to speak to fellow parliamentarians under house arrest inside their official residential compound in the capital, Naypyitaw, and to make phone calls. But they were not allowed to leave the complex.
Suu Kyi’s whereabouts and condition have not been made public, but an NLD official told Reuters the country’s elected leader was “in good health”.
The 75-year-old Nobel Peace laureate is no stranger to military detentions. Over the past three decades, Suu Kyi has spent around 15 years under house arrest.
Suu Kyi’s last period of house arrest ended in November 2010, to enable her to "organise her party" for the next elections. She did. In the 2012 by-elections, the NLD won 43 of the 44 seats it contested.
This time, however, not everyone is sure Suu Kyi will be allowed to make a political comeback. “As far as I can see, the military is never going to let Aung San Suu Kyi hold any office ever again,” Maung Zarni, a London-based Burmese human rights activist, told the FRANCE 24 Debate show.
Referring to her official title as “state counsellor” – a role the NLD invented when Suu Kyi was barred from the presidency – Zarni noted that “her position was never a part of Myanmar’s constitution. The generals felt they had been outfoxed legally by Aung San Suu Kyi and her lawyers. I think this is the beginning of the end of Aung San Suu Kyi’s political career. No matter what happens to the NLD, the generals have decided that every time they attempted to play this so-called democracy game with Aung San Suu Kyi, she always beat them".
While Mynmar’s “Ignoble Laureate” has fallen from international grace over her defence of the military against genocide accusations against the Rohingya minority, the November 2020 poll results show that the daughter of the nation’s founding father remains popular in her home country.
“The more the criticism from the international community, the more popular she gets. Many Burmese believe Aung San Suu Kyi is the only person who can stand up to the military and criticisms from the international community,” explained Kipgen.
Sanctions and ‘Burmese capitalism’
In a return to the bad old days, the US and its allies are back to demanding Suu Kyi’s release while threatening sanctions against Myanmar’s military rulers.
US President Joe Biden has called the coup “a direct assault” on Myanmar's transition to democracy and in a statement warned that, "The United States removed sanctions on Burma over the past decade based on progress toward democracy. The reversal of that progress will necessitate an immediate review of our sanction laws and authorities, followed by appropriate action."
On Tuesday, the US officially designated what happened in Myanmar a “coup”, setting the stage for sanctions. Humanitarian assistance to Myanmar’s people would not be affected by whatever penalties the US decides on, a State Department official said.
During the 1990s, Western sanctions on Myanmar severely limited investment, jobs creation and borrowing opportunities in the impoverished Southeast Asian nation. But while hurting the country’s poorest, they enriched the junta’s kleptocracy through its network of monopolies and opaque deals in what Thant Myint-U, the author of several books on Myanmar, calls “Burmese capitalism”.
“The new Burmese capitalism mutated over the years as Western sanctions became harsher. Heroin production and the felling of virgin forest became a road to riches. Millions of acres were confiscated from locals and leased or sold to former black marketeers, warlords or cronies of the generals, all of whom were now hailed as ‘national entrepreneurs’. By the 2000s, the mining of jade for sale to China was producing billions of dollars in profits,” noted Myint-U in a London Review of Books essay.
Biden’s ‘North Star’ in a region backsliding on liberal democracy
Following the lifting of sanctions in 2011, the country opened up for business with bilateral trade increasing between Myanmar and Singapore, Japan, Australia, India and Thailand. In a bid to balance its dependence on China, Myanmar’s authorities reached out to a number of countries, including Russia. But Beijing, with its massive China-Myanmar Economic Corridor, remains a leading investor eyeing geostrategic gains in its regional backyard.
The UN Security Council is holding a special meeting Tuesday on the situation in Myanmar. But Zarni is not optimistic about much progress at the UN’s highest body. “Burma enjoys double veto from China and Russia. China is not the sole protector of the Burmese military,” he explained. “The Burmese military has never put all its eggs in one basket – Russia or China or the West – and the Security Council will never be able to take any action,” he predicted.
Barely two weeks after Biden came to office promising democracy and human rights as a “North Star” of his foreign policy, Myanmar’s latest crisis provides the new US president an opportunity to flex his international moral muscle.
But it also exposes the limits of American power faced with a rising, pragmatic China in a region where a number of countries such as Thailand and India are backsliding on liberal democratic principles.
“Much as I respect the Biden administration vis-à-vis the former White supremacist, far-right Trump regime, I think American words are going to sound hollow. We’re looking at a region where democracy is not a distinct feature. Look at the ASEAN [Association of Southeast Asian Nations] countries – only two can be called nominally democratic: Indonesia and Malaysia. The rest of the bloc, including Singapore, have different types of authoritarian regimes,” said Zarni. “Democracies cannot count on the US whereas dictatorships, authoritarian or autocratic regimes can count on the support of Beijing or Moscow.”