Understanding the Struggle Underway in Myanmar

Tatmadaw supporters driving through Yangon

Myanmar has long been in a state of turmoil. Myanmar, also known as Burma, for many years was under the jackboot of an oppressive military junta. According to its discontents, the regime violently suppressed dissent and stood accused of gross human rights abuses, until a general liberalization process went underway beginning with the first multi-party elections in 1990.

Just recently, the military has staged yet another coup and detained state counselor Aung San Suu Kyi along with other top leaders of the state. Declaring that state power has been transferred to the commander-in-chief, general Min Aung Hlaing, a state of emergency has been imposed on the county for one year. The United States, Britain, and Australia, along with the United Nations and the European Union, have condemned the military coup. White House spokeswoman Jen Psaki has said they will “take action against those responsible” if recent events are not reversed.

Detention of Aung San Suu Kyi 

The detention of Aung San Suu Kyi and other senior politicians is an unprecedented move, having been accompanied with the massive internet shutdown and crackdown on air travel. The army has claimed their actions are in response to allegations of election fraud following the November elections that Suu Kyi’s party allegedly won in a landslide.

Aung San Suu Kyi is best known for her role as an activist in challenging the military regime, having been praised by the western media as “an outstanding example of the power of the powerless.” Winning the Nobel Peace Prize in 1991, she was named “one of the most extraordinary examples of civil courage in Asia in recent decades.” Although later rebuked by the west for pursuing her own independent policies, to this day, she remains hugely supported by her country’s Buddhist majority.

The Reasons for the Coup

The military, known as the Tatmadaw, is instigating this coup on the cusp of the latest session of parliament, which was set to meet shortly. Tensions between the National League of Democracy and the Tatmadaw have been mounting since November’s vote, which gave Suu Kyi’s NLD 396 out of 476 seats in the bicameral parliament. The military-backed Union Solidarity and Development Party only secured 33 seats. The Tatmadaw claimed that it identified 8.6 million irregularities and inconsistencies in voter lists in 314 townships.

Brigadier General Zaw Min Tun, spokesman for the ruling council, has publicly said that after reviewing voter lists, the objective of the coup is holding a future election, and announced at a news conference that 40 million of Myanmar’s 53 million population supported the coup.

As of now, it is difficult to ascertain who has the upper hand in Myanmar. In the words of the Communist Party of Burma, “It is not yet clear how the battle will end, but the world knows exactly how it started.” 

Violence Amid Protests

On February 26, 100,000 Tatmadaw supporters organized demonstrations in the Mingala Taungnyunt Township to voice support for the government, and thousands more held rallies across cities in Myanmar. Violence between Tatmadaw supporters and pro-NLD protesters is now a regular sight in the streets. Despite security forces repressing the violence, it has all but faded.

On February 28, we saw 18 protesters shot dead by the military, and over 30 wounded as protests raged throughout major cities including Yangon, Dawei and Mandalay. Another 38 were killed during riots and protests on March 4. Activists say in April, 80 people were killed in the city of Bago. It is being alleged 765 civilians have been killed since the start of the coup. Protestors have said 1,700 people have been detained, and at least 3,000 have been arrested, including through night-time raids. Meanwhile, the junta claims minimal police force is being utilized against demonstrators, even as we see airstrikes, tear gas, flash bangs, stun grenades, and rubber bullets being used to quell congested and rowdy crowds.

The military is in a position now to legalize and justify violence, and this is a dangerous development. How the mass struggles and popular expressions of anger and defiance will adapt to the new situation is not clear. It is moving ahead, but the institutional and social ramifications are being debated. Ni Aung Wai believes that “Since the ratification of the constitution, the 2008 by-elections have been rigged.”

Protesters rally in the streets of Myanmar

A Potential Constitutional Crisis

As a matter of fact, it was just in 2016 that Myanmar’s military agreed to “power-sharing” with elected civilian leaders, but only after being guaranteed key seats of political power. This marks a continuation of the power monopoly by the military which has ruled for more than 50 years.

Reaffirming quasi-military rule, the 2008 revisions to the constitution failed to respond to the demands of the people, instead guaranteeing vital control of state departments and power to the Myanmar armed forces. Talking about the coup, Senior General Min Aung Hlaing used the constitution to rationalize the event: “The state of emergency is effective nationwide and the duration of the state of emergency is set for one year, starting from the date this order is announced in line with article 417 of the 2008 constitution.”

“The next thing to think about is that as long as there is a 2008 constitution,” says Phoe Than Chaung, “the junta will do what it wants to do.”

Why These Events Concern Us

The curious reader may question why this event concerns them. Why should American students care about the upheaval of workers, peasants, and youth in a country within Southeast Asia?

The fact is, events in Myanmar matter because it has prompted global reaction and therefore impacts our lives. International sanctions do not happen in a vacuum; what is going down in Myanmar should be watched very closely by everyone. That the people of Myanmar are making their voices heard is relevant to world affairs. Ignoring the reality of people, even if they’re distant or foreign, would be a big mistake. In sum, we are witnessing world history in the making.

Thinking of Tomorrow

The people of all countries should have the right to determine for themselves their own way of life, without interference or intervention from others. Safeguarding peace in Myanmar means not only supporting the efforts of the people, but also stopping the schemes of war instigators that seek to exacerbate the situation for their own gain.

Myanmar has the right to decide their own course of national transformation and development. It is necessary to condemn the repeated attempts to intervene and attack Myanmar’s sacred sovereignty, independence, and geographical and territorial integrity, so that a society that builds on equality, unity, justice, democracy, and harmoniousness can soon be realized.

The U.S. Secretary of State vowing to take “firm action” against the Myanmar government is not a statement that affirms peace and tranquillity, but instead intervenes in the internal affairs of an independent peoples. In order to enhance the Myanmar struggle and relieve the plight they’re facing, we should let the people and the people alone decide for themselves how best to build political institutions and grounds for political maturity.

On this, no one knows better than the people of Myanmar.

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