By: Vaishnavi Verma, Research Analyst, GSDN
Over its decades of independence, Myanmar has undergone a turbulent history marked by military authority, civil conflict, inadequate administration, and terrible poverty. Political unrest has plagued Myanmar since the military took control of the nation on February 1, 2021. However, this kind of upheaval is nothing new. Myanmar has had a sporadic democratic transition.
Following the Saffron Revolution in 2007, Myanmar enacted its third constitution in 2008, granting the military 25% of the seats in both chambers of Parliament as well as authority over the ministries of home affairs, defence, and border affairs. The constitution went into effect in 2011, and the National League for Democracy (NLD) won elections in 2015.
A major watershed moment happened in February 2021, when a military coup dashed Southeast Asia’s expectations for democratic transformation. The Tatmadaw, Myanmar’s military, staged a calamitous putsch two years ago, plunging the nation into further turmoil and economic disaster.
The second anniversary of the military “coup” in Myanmar, which occurred on February 1, 2023 was the NLD’s abortive attempt to retake power after winning a landslide victory in the November 2020 elections (which followed the first in 2015) under the 2008 constitution drafted by the military.
Following the coup, the military imposed a one-year state of emergency, detained, arrested, and ultimately sentenced to lengthy prison terms on pretences President Win Myint, State Counsellor and leader of the NLD, Daw Aung San Suu Kyi, and other opposition figures. They also established a State Administration Council (SAC) to manage the day-to-day operations of the nation.
The democratic “transition” that Senior General Than Shwe, Senior General Min Aung Hlaing’s politically astute predecessor, started with his seven-stage “road map” towards a “discipline-flourishing democracy” and which was ostensibly “fulfilled” with elections that brought the reformist, military-backed Union Solidarity and Development Party (USDP) to power in 2010 has been effectively reversed together with subsequent developments.
Despite the military’s use of force against peaceful protestors and a widespread Civil Disobedience Movement, launched by government doctors in Yangon, and then against spontaneously proliferated new ‘People’s Defence Forces’ (PDFs) in Bamar and ethnic areas, as well as several long-standing ethnic armed organizations (EAOs), the situation has not been stabilized.
The violence has led to thousands, if not tens of thousands of arrests, four judicial executions (including one involving a member of parliament), and an estimated 1.5 million people displaced in Myanmar and abroad (including an estimated 50,000 refugees in India). The military’s use of arson, artillery, airpower, and scorched earth policies has also caused widespread armed resistance and retaliation from the populace.
The Association for the Assistance of Political Prisoners (AAPP) has documented close to 3,000 deaths, with other estimates placing the number as high as 30,000.
After two years, the situation in Myanmar remains unresolved. Images of nonviolent protestors giving the three-fingered salute still accompany many news stories and opinion pieces about the nation, but they no longer adequately capture the political unrest that exists there. Instead, it seems like a bleak tapestry of political violence, with photos of bullet-riddled dead, burned-out communities, and uprooted families. The Tatmadaw has utilized its indiscriminate “four cuts” technique on the same people it claims to protect; the horrific methods that were previously used with impunity in ethnic minority areas have now been unleashed on the Bamar heartland.
Practically speaking, it is a war waged by the Tatmadaw (the name given to the Myanmar military as the leaders of Burma’s independence movement) against its people, free from the stigma associated with being classified as “majoritarian,” “sectarian,” “ethnic,” “religious,” “minority,” “left,” “right,” or “communist,” and, on the other hand, a “people’s war” that primarily employs guerilla tactics against the Tatmadaw. Even those EAOs that have traditionally disagreed with the Tatmadaw and rejected their peace proposals have been excluded from the fight for tactical or political reasons.
Following the coup, the political opposition established the National Unity Government (NUG), which is supported by the wider National Unity Consultative Council (NUCC), a committee consisting of deposed elected lawmakers, the Committee Representing the Pyidaunsu Hluttaw (CRPH), a Federal Democratic Union charter, a Defence Ministry, a military “high command,” and an announcement of a “defensive war” against the armed forces.
The state has designated the NUG as a ‘terrorist’ group, but the ‘people’s war’ is more than simply a fight for democracy, a federal union, or a civil conflict. It is now more accurately described as a brutal war for freedom.
The above figures do not include the uncounted tens of thousands who died during the Covid-19 third wave, as well as deaths from preventable or treatable diseases as a result of a weakened health system, the toll among displaced and refugee communities, and rising suicides amid the country’s mental health crisis.
According to the United Nations Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs (OCHA), 17.6 million people, or about a third of Myanmar’s population, need humanitarian assistance, and around 1.3 million have been displaced since the coup.
These astonishing figures do not include the approximately 330,000 internally displaced people from conflicts before the coup.
They do not include the 1 million Rohingya refugees who have been languishing in Bangladeshi camps for the last five years, having been ignored by the world community and preyed upon by their former protectors.
Myanmar’s economy continues to struggle after falling dramatically in 2021. Overall macroeconomic indicators seem to have stabilized, but they are hampered by falling productivity, foreign current and import permission limitations, insecurity, rolling blackouts, and rising inflation, all of which are exacerbated by heavy-handed SAC policies that change without notice.
Businesses are balancing between the junta and its adversaries, fearing crackdowns, bloodshed, and social humiliation.
Because of mismanagement, speculation, and rumours, the kyat has plummeted by half versus other currencies since the takeover. Those who still have money have hurried to acquire real estate and gold to protect against the kyat’s volatility. The financial sector looks to have stabilized as well, albeit it is still constrained.
Nonetheless, despite a recent December 2022 United Nations Security Council Resolution 2669 (its first on Myanmar since 1948, on which Russia, China, and India abstained), Myanmar remains in the shadow of international and domestic media attention, with political resolution largely left to the ASEAN alliance, of which Myanmar is a member and its April 21, 2021 five-point consensus.
The Association of Southeast Asian Nations (ASEAN) has been unable to impose pressure on Myanmar due to disagreements on its approach to the country. Following a secret trial, Myanmar killed four pro-democracy campaigners in July of this year. The act was deemed “reprehensible” by ASEAN.
ASEAN, of which Myanmar became a full member in 1997, had asked the Army Chief Min Aung Hlaing to attend the ASEAN conference in Jakarta in 2021 when a five-point consensus—a road plan to cease violence, talk with pro-democratic activists, and return to democracy—was developed. Myanmar’s contempt for this agreement was evident when it refused to let an ASEAN special envoy meet with Aung San Suu Kyi and other imprisoned leaders.
ASEAN declined to allow General Min Aung Hlaing to attend the biennial ASEAN Summit in October 2023, stating that only “non-political” bureaucrats or officials may participate, and Myanmar refused to send a representative.
Despite worldwide censure, ASEAN remains divided on its engagement with Myanmar. Both India and China, who are striving for power in Myanmar, are still engaging with the Tatmadaw. Russia and Pakistan continue to send weapons to Myanmar’s military.
The refugee movement demonstrates the geographical effect of the military coup and the resulting unrest and bloodshed. In an act of ethnic cleansing, Myanmar displaced around 7 million Rohingyas from the Rakhine state during the 2017 conflict.
Even though Bangladesh was inundated with Rohingya migrants long before the coup, the violence has worsened. Other ethnic groups, like the Chins and other pro-democracy activists, have left the military crackdown and sought asylum in Myanmar’s neighbouring nations, India and Thailand. Myanmar has never had complete control over its borders. The violence is altering border regions, causing ethnic fragmentation and deepening fault lines. Political splintering will make it impossible for the nation to stay together, with major consequences for the area.
All of these tragedies are the result of an unjustified coup that ended Myanmar’s imperfect democratic experiment. The whole situation is man-made and could have been avoided. In contrast to other nations, Myanmar currently has two factions claiming to be its true government, but neither is willing to pursue a peaceful political settlement.
Whoever “wins” will discover a burnt environment, impoverished people, and a future in ruins. As a result, in addition to guaranteeing an open political discussion, ASEAN is responsible for providing humanitarian help to those in need. While isolating the nation will not restore normality, a comprehensive strategy is required to enable an open discourse. Military authorities in Myanmar must be pressed to engage in consultative engagement with all stakeholders, particularly the NUG and key EAOs, to restore peace and stability.