A return to form in Myanmar

If the world has, as Freedom House reports, experienced a “democratic backslide” in 2020, the new year promises to be no different.

On 1st February, Myanmar awoke to find that it had just joined that trend. The armed forces arrested the State Counsellor Aung San Suu Kyi alongside her cabinet, as military vehicles began a show of force throughout the country’s major cities. Despite intermittent shutdowns of the Internet and a night-time curfew, they were unable to prevent the type of mass protests that have taken place in the past few days.

Why, however, did the coup happen in the first place? The coup leaders claim to have acted out of necessity to “protect” democracy, after a November election that they allege was full of irregularities and voter fraud. The NLD (Aung San Suu Kyi’s party) won that election with roughly 70% of the vote—numbers seldom seen in Western democracies. At face value, one might even believe that the military may have a point.

However, face value is where the military’s argument ends. While such crushing numbers would understandably arouse suspicion in any democratic society, international monitors reported seeing no evidence of widespread voter fraud. One must also further consider that the main alternative to the NLD was the political branch of the military (the USDP), representing the very kind of repressive dictatorship that Myanmar had just freed itself from. When one adds all these factors together, the kind of total victory that the NLD achieved becomes easier and easier to believe.

Of course, one might also argue that Aung San Suu Kyi’s popularity ought to have been damaged by the events of her time in power. Not only did the State Counsellor fail at breaking the military’s grip over the political system, but she also, most notably, did nothing to prevent the military-led ethnic cleansing of the Rohingya Muslim minority, likely in an attempt to appease the army—making the recent coup taste all the more bitter. 

As shown by opinion polls before the election, however, this did not seem to damage her internal standing in any significant way, whether due to lack of public interest, being viewed as the only alternative to the military, or something else. It falls upon the military to present proof that the November election was falsified; thus far, they have presented nothing.

What happens next is anything but certain. Protesters have thus far been met with water cannons and rubber bullets, as well as Internet shutdowns and threats of 20-year prison sentences. The future of Myanmar will ultimately be decided by the resilience of its protesters.

However, there is cause for cautious optimism. It is notable that the last major coup in 1962 was met with no major opposition by the common people. The contrast with the current scenes on the street could not be more apparent. Perhaps there is still hope.

Thomas Whithorn

Image source: Flickr