Interviews | Politics | Southeast Asia

Myanmar Mire: Democracy Under Fire

Insights from Jane Ferguson.

Myanmar Mire: Democracy Under Fire

Anti-coup protesters stage a sit-in protest after riot policemen blocked their march in Mandalay, Myanmar, Wednesday, Feb. 24, 2021.

Credit: AP Photo

Trans-Pacific View author Mercy Kuo regularly engages subject-matter experts, policy practitioners, and strategic thinkers across the globe for their diverse insights into U.S. Asia policy.  This conversation with Dr. Jane Ferguson –  senior lecturer in Anthropology and Southeast Asian History in the School of Culture, History and Language, College of Asia and the Pacific, at the Australian National University,  and the author of the forthcoming book “Repossessing Shanland: Myanmar, Thailand and a Nation-State Deferred” – is the 263rd in “The Trans-Pacific View Insight Series.”

Explain the key factors that prompted Myanmar’s military coup.    

Even with the facility of hindsight, major events and processes in Myanmar are difficult to reduce to unitary “key factors” or “causes.” Instead I tend to see a perfect storm of economic interests, political culture, power grabbing, and some aspects of coincidence to how major events unfold. That said, however, since the 1962 coup, the Tatmadaw has consistently sought to assert itself as a major player in the economy (a role that resonates with that of the Thai military), in balance or collusion with other armed groups which controlled certain territorial sectors. Aung San Suu Kyi and the National League for Democracy (NLD) were readily working with numerous powerful players, local, regional, and international, so maintaining the majority of the economic pie surely was an important motivating factor for a coup.

Many have wondered why a coup when the military had drafted a constitution that entrenched its own power. But, the Tatmadaw has always held the power to interpret its laws and selectively enforce them, such as negating the 1990 election, or coming up with odd claims such as Aung San Suu Kyi’s possession of unlicensed walkie talkies. These kinds of bogus claims are a standard part of the military’s playbook to suppress political enemies.

Identify core characteristics of the 1988 uprisings that might provide indicators as to how the current crisis could unfold.

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The 1988 uprising and this year’s Civil Disobedience Movement (CDM) had very different sparks: The former was years of war, poverty, political suppression, and demonetization by the government; the latter was years of war, a decade of watching political and economic hopes dashed, months of economic slump, and then the sudden negation of a democratically-elected leader whose party had the parliamentary majority for five years. The sudden release of thousands of prisoners is an identical tactic to one used in 1988. Many have suggested it was done to make space for thousands of new political prisoners, but there is another possibility that it was a tactic to create chaos.

Another important point is people’s level of anguish and poverty after several months of COVID-19, not just the frustrating lockdowns, but the deep economic consequences. Millions of households in Myanmar depended on the remittance income of a family member working elsewhere, especially in Thailand, where not only did many migrants lose their jobs (with families back in Myanmar losing remittance income), but Thailand has its own broad-based social movement against a military dictatorship. There are contingents of Myanmar protesters joining the protests in Thailand, and Thai activists are very much in solidarity with those in Myanmar.

Describe the strategic calculus of General Min Aung Hlaing and Aung San Suu Kyi in preserving their leadership and key miscalculations that could threaten Myanmar’s fragile democracy.

“Fragile democracy” is a misnomer. The constitution was drafted by the military and the military controlled veto power in parliament. Further, the military expanded its power during the past decade. I think Min Aung Hlaing underestimated people’s outrage at the prospect of a return to military rule. The police’s violent crackdowns have only made people more steadfast in their opposition to and hatred for Min Aung Hlaing.

Analyze the impact of Myanmar military’s social media suppression and human rights violations on the country’s pro-democracy constituents.  

Scores of unarmed protesters have been killed, hundreds have been detained. Planes have been used to drop tear gas on protesters. People are rightly horrified, the images and stories of the unarmed protesters shot killed by police are heartbreaking. On the other hand, the protesters are creative in their tactics and these crackdowns galvanize the movement.

Identify the two challenges and opportunities for the Biden administration in managing U.S.-Myanmar relations. 

The United States’ claim to be an international beacon of democracy is increasingly tarnished, especially in recent years. The Myanmar military has never taken much heed from Western platitudes about democracy or human rights, and Aung San Suu Kyi similarly defended the Myanmar military at the International Court of Justice last year. The Myanmar Tatmadaw is no stranger to economic sanctions, and I am very concerned that already hurting economic sectors will only fare worse. On the other hand, a major goal of the CDM is to put economic pressure on the military, and so many sectors and workplaces across the country can shut the country down. There is the big question of whether the military and the police will continue to follow orders.

In terms of U.S. intervention, I recall talking to some people in Myanmar in the early 2000s who expressed hope that George W. Bush would intervene to overthrow the State Peace and Development Council (SPDC) government. I have heard echoes of this sentiment calling for international intervention in Myanmar today, but the widespread demand is clear: that Min Aung Hlaing step down and allow the elected NLD government take office. The CDM is gaining momentum and uniting groups across ethnic lines and calling for a new constitution entirely. Many have expressed sentiments far beyond a return to the former status quo.

In terms of what the Biden administration could do: There are still hundreds of thousands of Rohingya refugees languishing in camps in Bangladesh, the camps on the Thai border still exist, and the situation for migrant workers is dubious. Providing increased humanitarian aid to them, offering resettlement to those refugees or to Myanmar activists and other people at risk would be important concrete ways to help. Supporting the regional economy is key, with so many migrants potentially having precarious visa status. There is already logistical supply chain disruption and meanwhile many Western countries have been guilty of “vaccine nationalism.” If the Biden administration can make a difference, it would be by using its aid to provide for the health and safety of refugees and civil society in Myanmar.