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Myanmar’s Path From Junta Rule to Democracy and Back

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Having reclaimed power in Myanmar after a brief period of limited democracy, the military continued to clamp down on civilian leader Aung San Suu Kyi and her party. On Dec. 6, state TV said Suu Kyi would be detained for two years after a court found her guilty of the first two of about a dozen charges filed against her. She and other civilian leaders had been detained in February following her party’s emphatic victory in general elections that the military disputed, then annulled. The arrests set off street protests that were met with deadly force. In turn, some of the regime’s opponents have taken up arms. The turmoil has devastated the economy in a country that was already struggling with the Covid-19 pandemic. 

1. What’s happened with Suu Kyi?

She and Win Myint, who served as president in the last civilian government, were found guilty of inciting dissent against the military and flouting Covid restrictions while campaigning for the November 2020 elections, and a court sentenced them to four years in prison. The State Administration Council later halved their sentences and said they could serve them at an undisclosed location outside prison, according to a statement carried by state TV. If convicted of the other charges against her -- including corruption and violating the Official Secrets Act -- Suu Kyi could still spend the rest of her life in jail. The head of her legal defense team, Khin Maung Zaw, has described all the allegations against her as groundless. Election workers appointed by the junta have not said clearly whether they will dissolve Suu Kyi’s pro-democracy party, the National League for Democracy (NLD). She has vowed that it will continue its work “for the people.”

2. What came out of the election?

The NLD won 83% of the parliamentary seats at stake in the vote, an even better performance than its 2015 landslide. The election commission and international observers called the vote fair. But the military alleged that the NLD had interfered in the electoral process. In February, it said it was seizing power for at least one year. Six months later, it set a new deadline for elections -- August 2023 -- and said army chief Min Aung Hlaing would head a caretaker government in the meantime. On Sept. 11, the junta dropped the reference to a caretaker government and said it was now a “union government” tasked with carrying out state duties more effectively. 

3. What’s been the reaction?

Violence flared after the coup as Suu Kyi’s supporters demanded her release and the restoration of the elected government. Soldiers have killed more than 1,300 people, according to the Assistance Association for Political Prisoners (Burma), a human rights group, which reports that more than 7,700 have been detained. According to the United Nations’ Human Rights Council, ill-treatment and torture have resulted in deaths in detention. Some supporters of the previous government have constituted what they call the National Unity Government, forming armed units known as the People’s Defense Forces; they’ve allied with ethnic insurgent groups that have long battled the military. In September, the NUG declared a “people’s defensive war,” urging civilians to rise up against the junta. The tactics of the resistance forces include assassinations, clashes with army troops and attacks using improvised explosive devices. As of mid-September, the NUG claimed resistance forces had killed more than 1,700 junta soldiers. 

4. What’s the history?

After World War II, Burma, as it was then known, emerged from British colonial rule and plunged directly into civil conflict. Ethnic minorities make up a third of the population of 55 million and occupy half the land, including areas where valuable resources such as jade, gold and teak are found. A deal providing them with greater autonomy fell apart after Suu Kyi’s father, Aung San, who was slated to become the country’s first leader, was gunned down in 1947. A coup led by army chief Ne Win in 1962 started a half-century of military rule, during which the country descended into desperate poverty. Troops viciously suppressed pro-democracy protests in 1988. Two years later the army annulled an election that Suu Kyi’s party had won by a landslide. Under house arrest for much of the next 20 years, she was awarded the Nobel Peace Prize in 1991.

5. How did she get into government?

The junta began a transition to civilian rule with a new constitution in 2008 that reserved 25% of parliamentary seats for the military -- enough to block any amendments to it. Still, Suu Kyi’s party took part in by-elections in 2012 after the government agreed to the release of political prisoners, the freedom to assemble and an opening to foreign investors. Her party then swept to victory in the first full elections in 2015, defeating the ruling party by a margin of nearly 10-to-1. The constitution bars Suu Kyi from serving as president because her children are U.K. citizens. Thus, in 2016 she became state counselor, a newly created role akin to prime minister, as well as foreign minister.

6. How did the first term go?

Her administration liberalized banking, insurance and education and curbed inflation. But about a third of the population was living in poverty and businesses remained mired in red tape. The military continued to control the defense, home affairs and border affairs ministries. Its forces have been accused by United Nations investigators of practicing “ethnic cleansing” and “crimes against humanity” with “genocidal intent” in driving more than 700,000 Rohingya people over the border to Bangladesh since 2017. (Among Myanmar’s Buddhist majority, prejudice against the Rohingya -- Muslims castigated as illegal immigrants and stripped of citizenship -- remains fierce and widespread.) Amid the opprobrium, foreign direct investment fell to $2.3 billion in 2019 from $4.7 billion in 2017.

7. Why the coup?

The military operates almost as a state within a state, and its allies still control vast swaths of the economy. The scale of Suu Kyi’s victory may have prompted fears among the generals of new efforts to chip away at their privileges, after their exceptionally poor electoral performance. They turned on her even though she defended them in 2019 at the International Court of Justice against the genocide allegations -- increasing her popularity at home at the expense of her international reputation. In its statement on the day of the coup, the military said it was necessary to act in response to alleged voter fraud before the new parliament sessions began later that week. 

8. How have other countries reacted?

Western countries responded to the coup with new economic sanctions, just five years after many had been lifted, although it’s unclear how much impact they will have. China, Myanmar’s most important trading partner, has rejected calls at the UN for an arms embargo and has affirmed support for the regime. Japan and India worry that tough measures against the junta only risk increasing China’s influence there. Prime Minister Lee Hsien Loong of Singapore, Myanmar’s biggest foreign investor, has said sanctions would only hurt Myanmar’s people. They look set to suffer anyway: The World Bank predicted that the turmoil in the country combined with the Covid crisis would double the share of people living in poverty by the beginning of 2022, compared with 2019 levels. 

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