The video published by the BBC reporting on the protests in Myanmar is accompanied by a trigger warning about the use of violence.
Only seconds later, the video shows the picture of a 19-year old girl holding a protest banner. She is wearing a shirt that says “everything will be okay”. Another second later, you see her covered in her own blood, killed by a headshot. Through the eyes of social media, the world watches how a peaceful, nation-wide rebellion is crushed with brute force in the Southeast Asian country of Myanmar. It seems like the decade long experiment in democracy in Myanmar has come to an end.
At the beginning of February, the nation’s civilian leader Aung San Suu Kyi was removed from power by the country’s military after winning a landslide victory in the general elections last November. The leader of the civilian government, who had spent more than a decade in detention before, has now been detained by the military, again. According to the New York Times, an unknown number of elected political leaders and members of the pro-democracy party in Myanmar have been arrested right after the news about the detention of Aung San Suu Kyi had spread. The communication lines in the country have been disconnected. Undoubtedly, the military is back in power.
For most people in the world, the history of Myanmar is closely connected to one woman; Aung San Suu Kyi. She is both considered a heroine for her fight for democracy, and a villain for her defence of the military’s ethnic cleansing of the Rohingya, a Muslim minority group. As the daughter of a famous independence hero fighting against the British, Aung San Suu Kyi was born into political and military nobility. She left the country after the first military coup in 1962. In the following 50+ years of direct military rule in Myanmar, she studied at Oxford and worked at the United Nations on budget matters. However, in 1988 Aung San Suu Kyi returned to her home country and joined the national protests against the military rule. She founded the National League for Democracy (NLD) which became the main opposition group for the decades to follow. However, according to the BBC, this made her a threat to the military generals in power. After her party won the elections in 1990, the generals refused to hand over power, and she was placed under house arrest multiple times. In total, she spent more than 15 years in detention. During her detention many people took her as an example, as she didn’t give up her fight for democracy and freedom. According to the New York Times, her endurance became an anchor of hope.
In 2010, Aung San Suu Kyi was released from detention. The military had established a hybrid civilian-military system with the facade of democracy. As reported by The Guardian, the Generals had hoped that this system would neutralize Aung San Suu Kyi’s political power. However, after the first free elections in 2015, the national league for democracy won a landslide victory and Aung San Suu Kyi became the de facto leader of a civilian government in Myanmar. She became the world’s darling, having achieved a rare example in history of generals peacefully handing over power. CNN even described her as the Nelson Mandela of Myanmar and in 1991, she was awarded the Nobel Peace Prize.
Having said that, this democratic honeymoon came to an abrupt end. In 2017, the military in Myanmar stepped up its decades of persecution of the Rohingya Muslims. As reported by the New York Times, thousands of Rohingya left their homes in Myanmar after the military had burned down their homes and unleashed slaughter and execution. Half a Million Rohingya fled to Bangladesh or stranded as refugees with limited or no access to food and water.
During that time, the political narrative of Aung San Suu Kyi shifted. Instead of condemning the ethnic cleansing, the human rights icon excused the actions taken by the military. In 2019, after the International Court of Justice had started to investigate for genocide against Myanmar, Aung San Suu Kyi stated that the accusation she faced by the court painted an “incomplete and misleading factual picture of the situation” in Myanmar. According to the BBC, in Myanmar, the Rohingya are considered illegal immigrants and denied citizenship. Although the consequences overseas were disastrous, Ann San Suu Kyi grew in popularity across the political spectrum at home. As reported by the New York Times, even convinced nationalists who originally supported the military, now saw their interests promoted by the political leader.
However, this ever-growing popularity made her more and more dangerous to the military, who was still holding significant political power even as the country had moved towards democracy. As the BBC reports, her relationship with the military commander-in-chief Min Aung Hlaing is said to be frosty as she refused to foster any public relationship with him. Moreover, she denied any conversation about him becoming president. In 2020, after the National League of Democracy had won the elections with an even greater victory than in 2015, the military under the control of Min Aung Hlaing took action.
Now, Aung San Suu Kyi is back in detention and the country resembles a battlefield. However, the people of Myanmar don’t remain silent. Taking Aung San Suu Kyi’s most famous essay “freedom of fear” as an example, the protestors peacefully raise their fists and voices. Even though they face an army equipped for war, there is no sign of giving up. During another video clip published by the BBC, one can the crowd shouting ” “Military dictator, fail, fail; democracy, win, win“.
Despite the deadly mass protests, the developments in Myanmar have so far failed to cause global solidarity. The UN Security Council (UNSC) called upon the military to respect “human rights and the rule of law” in Myanmar. However, as reported by the BBC, it failed to call the events in Myanmar a coup in the face of objections for China and Russia. Although the stabilization of Myanmar is a common goal for the West and China, there is no sign of cooperation because of the systemic and geopolitical competition between them. Meanwhile, some of Myanmar’s Southeast Asian neighbors like Indonesia called for an immediate end to the violence, as several members of the Association of South East Asian Nations (ASEAN) remain silent sticking to the principle of non-interference. According to the BBC, ASEAN will not approach the crisis with sanctions or a condemnation of the junta.
It remains to be seen how much pressure this international response will be able to put on Myanmar’s military.
Header image credit: Ann Wang/Reuters