The last weeks have seen mass protests in Myanmar against a military coup aimed at reestablishing the armed forces’ hegemony over power in the country, which has only enjoyed less than six years of democracy after the first openly contested general elections in decades happened in 2015. Myanmar’s military operated a brutal authoritarian regime that enriched the pockets of its generals at the expense of their development from 1962 until that year, one of the longest running military dictatorships in world history.
The country, even prior to the election, did not have what was considered a full democracy, and the military ensured that their power would be cemented in the new constitution drafted during the transition period.
“A quarter of the seats in both houses [of the legislature] are reserved for the military and filled through appointment by the commander in chief of the armed forces. Military members of the legislature have the right to nominate one of the three presidential candidates, and the elected members of each chamber nominate the other two. The candidate with the largest number of votes in a combined parliamentary vote wins the presidency; the other two candidates become vice presidents, ensuring that a military nominee is always either president or vice president” (Freedom House 2019 Myanmar Report)
Like the 2014 coup in Thailand, the military regime who executed the coup claimed to be doing so to preserve the integrity of the democratic process. Their initial claims of election fraud and a desire to provide fairness were exposed to be completely false when in the initial days post-coup, they showed no interest in holding new elections in any time in the immediate future.
In analyzing their actions, it seems that they watched the usurpation of power that had taken place in Thailand during the slow redrafting of the constitution and the re-embedding of military power in their government with the veneer of democracy, in addition to the total lack of consequence and impunity in the international space that they operated in, and decided that they could get away with doing the same. The muted international reaction to the initial coup reinforced this idea, and the protests began much in the same way as they did in Thailand, before being met by brutal opposition by the security forces who wanted to ensure that they kept power, regardless of the human costs.
Myanmar differs from Thailand though in that there is no royalist faction splitting the loyalties of the population, and every ethnic group in Myanmar from the majority Bamar, to the countless minorities including Rohingyas, Shan, Kachin, and Karen who have all been persecuted or fought insurgencies, all despise military rule. There is therefore a strong consensus that they can not let the status quo stand.
The brutality over the last few days with daily body counts in the dozens, and the sheer persistence of the protesters who keep coming out despite the risk, show that they are likely going to persist for the long haul. The question is how long the military is prepared to essentially execute a political genocide to maintain their power.
It seems like there are a few root causes to the current stalemate.
The first is the relative lack of international action, particularly American, on the issue of democratic regression or allegations of genocide across the world, but crucially across Asia, essentially since the Obama administration. The Syrian civil war, the 2014 Thai coup, the Yemen crisis, the Rohingya crisis, the Xinjiang crisis, the fall of Hong Kong, and now the fall of Myanmar’s democracy, the common thread is a total lack of international action, except for by a handful of exploitative malevolent actors who seek to cement their own positions in these countries, i.e. Russia and China, the latter of which has been providing support to the Burmese military through allowing them to spread death threats with impunity through TikTok, a Chinese Communist Party linked app owned by ByteDance in Beijing.
There are several solutions that could be tried to break this impasse
The simplest of these small solution would be ordering the a temporary ban on TikTok from the Google and Apple online platforms to pressure Bytedance to censor such content, as well as signal to the Chinese Communist Party that allowing such behavior in their outward facing media will trap them into isolation.
Second would be moving forward with stalled International Criminal Court (ICC) proceedings against those involved in the Rohingya crisis, but also making it clear on a cooperative international basis that the brazen unabashed murder of civilians is a crime against humanity, and that not only the higher generals who give such orders will be prosecuted, but making it crystalline clear that individual officers and soldiers who are found to have participated in violence agains their own civilians will also be held fully responsible for their actions and tried for their violent treason when the military government does eventually fall.
Third would be international action against states and military contractors who provide arms and support to the Burmese military to pressure arms sales to stop, some of whom are based in American ally countries, such as India, Israel, the Philippines, and Ukraine. They could also engage in international sabotage of others, including those military supplies flowing from Russia, China, and even North Korea.
Last is a counter to the constant repetition of the lie that the military junta is interested in free elections. To expose this lie, the international community should announce a formal offer to supervise and assist in the counting of ballots, and failing this, labelling Myanmar, and Thailand for that matter, for what they really are: failed states, brought down by the very people charged to protect civilians, their treasonous militaries, bloodthirsty, power hungry national traitors.
Staff writer: Ari B