The sentence in the illustration accompanying today’s column, originally photographed on a sign board in Mandalay, speaks a thousand words. During a visit to Myanmar to retrace my father’s journey as an eight-year-old, who, along with his family, walked from northwestern Myanmar to Dimapur in Nagaland (India) over a period of nearly 40 days as refugees of the Second World War, this sign captured my interest the most. Both my grandfathers worked for the British administration in Burma and I grew up hearing of the travails they encountered on the journey.
My father’s attempts to revisit his childhood home proved futile from 1980s onwards as Myanmar passed from one military regime to another, till the reform process started in 2010, allowing us an opportunity to visit it in 2014. What began as an academic exercise turned into a memorable homecoming experience that I shared with my 80-year-old father. The sentence in the signboard “The tatmadaw shall never betray the national cause” however, underlines the reality of Myanmar’s politics even as the country has been plunged back into military rule following the coup d’etat that took place on 1 February 2021.
This statement was a grim reminder even during Myanmar’s democratic hiatus that the military (tatmadaw) was not far away; it was still present and could return if deemed necessary. The details of the August 1988 revolution, the emergence of Aung San Suu Kyi’s leadership, the 1990 elections that led nowhere and her intermittent bouts under house arrest are too well known to be highlighted here. However, from 2010 onwards, Myanmar embarked on crucial political reforms, when the military leadership ensured a top-down approach to political change by highlighting its so-called ‘seven-step road map’ to democratic transition. The ‘road map’ was unchartered at best, with ambivalent indicators and limitations.
The first of the four positive indicators was the 2010 elections that ushered in a sense that a real shift was likely as it led to the release of Suu Kyi. Second, in 2011, President Thein Sein, who had retired from the military and was considered the first ‘non-interim civilian’ president, publicly announced the release of the 1988 generation of pro-democracy leaders and political prisoners. Third, in the by-elections of April 2012, Suu Kyi’s party, the National League for Democracy (NLD), participated and won 43 of the 45 seats in Parliament, heralding for the first time the right of political participation across a wider spectrum. Fourth, the opening up of controls over the press and media was crucial.
Regardless of incidents when press freedom was curbed even in 2014, Reporters without Borders placed the Myanmar press on a higher ranking compared to those of other Southeast Asian countries such as Cambodia and Laos. It also highlighted the authoritarian structures of several Southeast Asian countries, giving some hope for the reforms underway in Myanmar. The limitations of these changes were directly visible when democratic reforms were held hostage by not allowing Constitutional amendments that could ensure the consolidation of the transition phase. This revolved around two key clauses—one relating to the right of individuals who could be elected to the Presidential office.
Article 59(f) ensured that anyone married to a foreigner or having children who were foreign citizens could not hold the highest office of the country, thereby guaranteeing that Suu Kyi would never become the president of the country. The other clause that critically undermined the democratic transition was Article 436, which had two facets to it. First, passing any constitutional amendment required more than a three-fourths majority. Second, with the military reserving 25% of the Parliamentary seats, this ensured that no constitutional change was possible.
Both the 2015 and 2020 elections saw an overwhelming majority for the NLD in the upper and lower houses of Parliament, weakening the military-backed Union Solidarity and Development Party’s (USDP) position considerably. The military coup prevented the formation of the new government even as it was to take office, on contestable claims of electoral fraud. However, two factors have pushed the coup d’etat this time. First is the systematic reduction in the number of seats won by the USDP in Parliament indicating the overwhelming shift, which today is visible even as the political protests are into their fourth week. Second, as in the case of all military regimes, the tatmadaw too has vested economic interests in retaining its hold on political power.
A September 2019 report of an Independent International Fact-Finding Mission on Myanmar conducted under the auspices of the United Nations Human Rights Council has clearly highlighted the levels of entrenchment the military has in the economic affairs of the state. In several of the ethnic regions that are rife with conflict, the military’s conglomerates and private firms are collaborating to keep their business interests at the forefront, leading to crony capitalism. The report further states clearly that both Senior General Min Aung Hliang, who led the coup d’etat, and his deputy General Soe Win have credible holdings within these conglomerates. The report highlights the nexus between foreign companies and state-owned enterprises that have linkages to the military conglomerates, implications of which violate international humanitarian law, particularly in the Rakhine province, bringing the military under scrutiny for its activities. The report clearly highlights that this time round, the tatmadaw has betrayed the national cause.
Shankari Sundararaman (firstname.lastname@example.org)
Professor at School of International Studies, JNU, New Delhi