In the early hours of Monday, February 1st, members of Myanmar’s military detained the country’s leader, Aung San Suu Kyi, and other leading parliamentarians of the National League for Democracy (NLD). Later, the military issued an official statement declaring a one-year state of emergency and that they had officially seized power. Roadblocks have been established across the country, internet and cellular services have been disrupted, and Facebook has been “temporarily” banned.
While immensely disheartening, Myanmar’s coup was no major surprise. For months, the military has been making false and grandiose claims of voter fraud in an attempt to discredit the NLD’s landslide victory in the November 2020 parliamentary election. Meritless claims of voter fraud effectively undermine democracies and can be extremely dangerous, as they are often used to encourage and justify violence. While Myanmar’s political system is far from perfect, the recent coup represents a major setback in terms of democracy and will likely have devastating effects on the country’s many persecuted minority groups.
Background of Myanmar’s politics
Myanmar’s political history is nothing short of complex and turbulent. The country was under British colonial rule from 1824 to 1948, and the British colonizers employed tactics of ‘divide and rule’ to stoke tensions along ethnic and religious lines. The colonial era set the stage for many of the existing conflicts and animosities that exist within the country today, including the ongoing genocide against the Rohingya.
After Myanmar gained independence in 1948, the country became a parliamentary democracy until a 1962 coup placed the military in charge of the country for around 50 years. This period saw mass crackdowns on dissent and worsening oppression of the country’s minority groups, as conflicts raged on in the country’s peripheries. The country’s bumpy transition to democracy began in the early 2010s with the leadership of Aung San Suu Kyi. Aung San Suu Kyi is the daughter of Aung San, a pro-democracy revolutionary whose assassination in 1947 positioned him as a martyr. Aung San Suu Kyi was placed under house arrest from 1989 to 2010 under military rule and gained widespread popularity among pro-democracy activists and was even awarded the Nobel Peace Prize. As Myanmar began to democratize, she was seen as a beacon of hope for Myanmar, whose people had suffered under oppressive military rule for decades.
But Myanmar’s transition to democracy was turbulent and flawed. Many of its ongoing problems stem from the fact that it was never really democratic. The military, who reluctantly agreed to democratize amid international pressure and internal unrest, still wielded a massive amount of control over the country’s institutions. Additionally, the constitution, which was written by the military, asserts that 25% of the seats in parliament must be reserved for unelected military officials. This serves as a major hurdle for other political parties hoping to enact substantial change or reform and makes it nearly impossible to amend the constitution, which requires a 75% parliamentary vote.
Meanwhile, under democracy, the country’s ethnic conflicts and human rights abuses persisted and worsened. Within years of the democratic transition, hundreds of thousands of Rohingya refugees began to flee the northern Rakhine State to escape the mounting violence and persecution; to this day, the military continues to commit genocide against the Rohingya through murder, rape, forced labour, and the burning of villages. Aung San Suu Kyi’s refusal to halt, condemn, or even acknowledge the genocide against the Rohingya is utterly disappointing, tarnishing her international reputation as a benevolent leader. It’s likely that Aung San Suu Kyi’s actions (or lack thereof) regarding the Rohingya reflect her interest in staying friendly with the military, cognisant of their looming power and potential threat.
Voter fraud accusations and the implications for democracy
On November 8, 2020, Myanmar held its general parliamentary elections. This was the country’s second democratically-held election since the military’s 50-year rule ended a decade ago. The NLD won with a sweeping victory, earning 396 out of 476 seats, meaning they would form the government for another five years. The military-backed Union Solidarity and Development Party won an inconsequential 33 seats. Immediately after the election, the military and its supporters claimed that the election had been fraudulent due to an alleged mismatch between electoral voter rolls and the votes cast. While it’s inevitable that the election likely had some flaws, claims of widespread voter irregularities have been repeatedly rejected by the nonpartisan Union Election Commission.
In the week leading up to the newly elected parliament’s first session, the signs of an impending coup were everywhere. Military supporters had begun to take to the streets, protesting the election results and beating up civilians. Many of the demonstrators were seen wearing earpieces, which have been interpreted as signifying calculated cooperation and potential links with the military. Meanwhile, the military alluded to a potential takeover, threatening to “take action” if their voter fraud claims were not addressed.
Baseless accusations of voter fraud are classic symptoms of a flawed democracy. This tactic has been used throughout history to attempt to undermine elections and manipulate the workings of democracy. They lead to a frightening push towards authoritarianism and sow seeds of distrust amongst civilians. Under the right conditions, they can destabilize new and weak democracies like Myanmar. While Myanmar’s democratic political institutions were far from perfect, this coup set the country back decades.
This method of manipulating democracy is not unique to Myanmar. There are deeply uncomfortable similarities with the rhetoric used by former U.S. President Donald Trump claiming the election was “rigged” and “stolen”, culminating in a violent attack on the Capitol that left five dead. The rhetoric employed by Myanmar’s military alleging election fraud is eerily similar to that used by Donald Trump and signaled the same intention – to delegitimizing the democratic process instead of accepting defeat. It’s incredibly alarming to see the US, a country that so many people across the world look up to as a global democratic leader, resort to this sort of rhetoric. It sets a frightening precedent of normalizing this behavior across the globe. This is not to say that the US directly catalyzed the Myanmar coup – the military has had its eyes set on assuming power for a long time – but it certainly fanned the flames of the fire and provided a slightly larger sense of legitimacy.
This rhetoric is dangerous. It can infuriate fringe figures, as we saw in the US, and incite people to violence by falsely making them feel marginalized as if they’re the ones being threatened. Whether or not this will happen on such a large scale in Myanmar remains uncertain. At this point, as this coup was a top-down phenomenon, it seems that the people are widely unconvinced by the military’s antics – evidenced by how poorly the USDP performed in the election.
The military and ethnic conflict
Beyond politics and democratic ideals, let us not forget that this coup has the potential to be devastating and lethal for millions of individuals belonging to Myanmar’s many persecuted minority groups. The military remains at the helm of the Rohingya genocide, continuing their campaign of systematic murder and rape to forcibly displace hundreds of thousands of people with impunity. While Aung San Suu Kyi and the NLD are wholly complicit in perpetuating these atrocities, the mere presence of a somewhat democratic system served as a slight glimmer of hope. With the military in charge, it’s anticipated that their campaign against the Rohingya will worsen.
In a statement from the Karen Human Rights Group, they write “decades of experience tells us that there will be no peace for ethnic minorities in Myanmar under a military dictatorship. The fear that has gripped the country, the conflict in ethnic regions, and widespread violation of human rights, will not only continue, but worsen.”
Aside from the Rohingya, Myanmar is home to many other ethnic groups who have been persecuted by and are at odds with the military. For instance, ethnic conflict with the Karen, Shan, and Kachin have persisted since the country gained its independence from Britain in 1948. More than 100,000 Karen refugees live in refugee camps on the Thai-Myanmar border that have existed for upwards of 40 years, while many more remain internally displaced within Myanmar or resettled in third countries such as the US and Canada. While conflict between ethnic armed groups and the military has more or less stagnated in recent years, largely thanks to a 2015 ceasefire signed between the military and eight insurgent groups, violence has persisted. Myanmar’s peace process has been flawed at best, as hundreds of thousands of people are still displaced, landmines remain embedded in the ground, and the military continues to terrorize villagers.
While it’s too soon to say what the coup means for Myanmar’s future, it undeniably represents a major setback in terms of peacebuilding and justice for the country’s persecuted minority groups. The international community bears a responsibility to condemn the recent coup and refuse to give credence to the manipulation of voter fraud accusations to uphold democracy worldwide.