Almost as soon as news spread of the Myanmar military’s brazen coup on February 1, we began hearing calls for a “reversal” of the coup. Now, the international community’s efforts have focused on restoring the pre-coup status quo, as evidenced by the recent (and failed) ASEAN emergency summit.
These proposals and initiatives ignore the persistent demands from protestors and ethnic groups for a radical and fundamental shift in Myanmar. Perhaps most importantly, they fail to acknowledge that the rapidly deteriorating situation in Myanmar cannot be resolved with a return to the precarious pre-coup balance of power because it’s precisely this unsustainable framework that led to the coup in the first place.
Without a recognition of the need for a complete restructuring of the underlying political and legal system so that it grants ethnic groups a meaningful role and assures justice for the military’s past and present crimes, history will keep repeating itself and the people of Myanmar will continue to suffer.
It’s clear that a root cause of the putsch was the shaky foundation of the quasi-civilian government, which had to contend with the military’s continued iron-clad grip on power, unchecked power to amass financial resources, and ability to commit horrific human rights violations with impunity.
Part of this unsustainable power imbalance stemmed from the bifurcated sovereignty established by the military-drafted 2008 Constitution, which allowed the military to continue to control all its own affairs, including by granting the commander-in-chief authority to make “final and conclusive” determinations regarding all military matters. It also provided blanket amnesty for certain actions carried out by military personnel. This impunity allowed the military to, among other things, continue unchecked its campaigns of violence and brutality against ethnic groups. Most notably, this included war crimes and crimes against humanity against ethnic groups in eastern Myanmar and genocide against the Rohingya in Rakhine State.
The 2008 Constitution also embedded the military into civilian political affairs, allowing it to exercise control over crucial ministries and a quarter of all parliamentary seats, which enabled the military to veto all constitutional amendments. Moreover, parliament was handicapped by military factions and the notoriously weak judiciary was prevented from developing fully into a moderating force. While certainly a step forward from total military rule, without traditional checks and balances the situation as of January 2021 was far from a true democracy.
As the callous killings of children and peaceful anti-coup protesters show, the military, despite its rhetoric of protecting the “national” interest, is motivated solely by a desire to maintain its own autonomy and serve its own interests. Attempts at constitutional reform were branded as “discrimination” by the military, which issued ominous warnings of “undesirable consequences.” Given its tenuous and limited hold on power, the civilian government had to tread a delicate balance between exercising authority and placating the military.
The military’s political autonomy was reinforced by its vast web of economic interests, which expanded over the last decade as the military was cloaked in democratic legitimacy. Foreign direct investment increased and businesses flocked to one of Asia’s last frontier markets, developing business ties with the military across a variety of industries, including energy, industrial products, and real estate. The funds generated by military business entities were used to finance heinous human rights abuses and purchase arms that are now being used in the brutal campaign against the people.
Another fundamental shortcoming of the 2008 Constitution was that it left little room for federalism and input from ethnic minorities, many of whom have been fighting for greater autonomy for decades. The military never seriously committed to peace, playing factions off of each other and convincing international donors to fund a peace process it had no intention of seeing to fruition. Efforts to decentralize power were also largely rejected by the National League for Democracy government, which declined to put forward constitutional amendments proposed by ethnic groups to grant them more independence.
This house of cards collapsed when the military seized power, and there should be no appetite to reassemble a structure that would be as susceptible to manipulation as it was on and before February 1. Instead, any resolution of the current crisis must be premised on jettisoning military autonomy, ensuring accountability for past and current crimes, and the inclusion of all ethnic voices.
On April 1, the Committee Representing Pyidaungsu Hluttaw, composed of deposed parliamentarians, joined with protesters and ethnic groups to put forward a federal charter that, while far from perfect, sets out a vision for a truly federal, multiethnic Myanmar. This coalition established a National Unity Government on April 16 and disavowed the 2008 Constitution, demonstrating unprecedented cooperation and indicating that the people of Myanmar have soundly rejected the idea of merely turning back the clock.
Moving forward will also require accountability and justice for the military’s brutal, disproportionate, and indiscriminate violence against democracy protesters and innocent civilians. According to the Assistance Association for Political Prisoners, since February 1 the military has killed more than 780 people and detained 4,800. Women’s rights groups have documented particularly brutal violence targeting female protesters. Justice for these crimes can never be served within the scope of the prior political and legal landscape.
The international community must follow the Myanmar people’s lead by refusing to allow the military to return to its pre-coup power base and by securing adequate justice for current crimes as well as decades of unchecked human rights abuses. The U.N.’s Rosenthal Report, which dissected the many missteps and miscalculations that failed to stop the Rohingya genocide, indicates the dangers of turning a blind eye to the military’s actions and provides a cautionary tale for future engagement.
By focusing on returning civilians to power under “the government that was previously established under the 2008 constitution,” the international community, thus far, has ignored those lessons and been completely ineffectual in dealing with the crisis. The U.N. Security Council has been unable to agree on a formal resolution, issuing weak statements that appeared to blame “all parties” for violence, deferring to ASEAN and refusing to take further action, such as an arms embargo. The ASEAN summit, with only Commander-in-Chief Min Aung Hlaing representing Myanmar, resulted in a five point “consensus,” which failed to call for the release of political prisoners, urged all parties to “exercise utmost restraint,” but lacked any red lines, enforcement mechanism, or timeframes for achieving progress, and was subsequently disavowed by the military.
By meeting Min Aung Hlaing on his terms, and focusing on “restoring” democracy under the fundamentally-flawed 2008 Constitution, the international community will never resolve the current crisis and is obscuring the reality that only fundamental changes will bring peace and stability.
The people of Myanmar realize that now is the time to remove the cancerous military from power, once and for all. They are laying down their lives every day for this cause. To ensure that victims’ suffering has not been in vain, it is imperative for the international community to reject unequivocally military rule and follow the lead of the Myanmar people. Only radical reimagining of the legal and political system will move Myanmar forward as a peaceful, stable, and secure nation.