Democracy in Myanmar – Is the country on the brink of Civil War?

Almost three years on from the coup that overthrew the first truly democratic government the country had seen since the 1960’s Myanmar and its ethnic minorities seem to be on an unstoppable path to all-out war. What though can be done to avoid this and will there ever be democracy in Myanmar?

Walking around Yangon, visiting the temples and the markets you’d be hard-pressed to know this was a country not only embroiled in one of the longest civil wars on the planet but also an invasive military dictatorship. 

Yet once the drinks start flowing and people feel comfortable they are not being listened to people’s true opinions come out “We were honestly shocked when the coup happened because the military still had power” says Ethan, a travel agent and pro-democracy activist in the country (not his real name). 

And he is not wrong, quite simply no one expected the coup, because the military was for all intents still in control. Not only had they crafted a constitution that gave them veto power on almost everything, but they also controlled key ministries, such as defense as well as most businesses within the country.

So, why the coup?

The Yangon Spring

After spending almost half a century as a backward autarky the military of Myanmar not only initiated democratic reform but also and more importantly for the West opened the economy.

Sanctions were of course dropped (before) there was democracy and Western, as well as Eastern companies moved in en-masse. You can now for example enjoy KFC, before retiring to your room at the Hilton, two huge benchmarks for the Western view of democracy. 

Yet whilst it moved slowly, the country was indeed moving towards democracy, with Aung San Suu Kyi and her National League for Democracy taking over the country and there finally being press freedom. 

As Ethan put it “For a time we could protest in a way you could not even get away with in Singapore, Thailand, or Cambodia. In some respects we were the most democratic country in ASEAN.”

And for the most part, people were not only happier but also making money as investment rained down on the country, which made people actually respect the military again “The military would show up for events and be showed the utmost respect, now they do not go near the people again for fear of what might happen”.

The spring though was not to last forever, with the omnipresent military with hindsight clearly waiting in the wings.

Elections in Myanmar

Prior to the move towards democracy, the military had set up the proxy Union Solidarity and Development Party (USDP), technically a “nationalist” party, but in essence, a big tent party of power, whose sole role was to keep the Tatmadaw in power. 

This worked during the first election, which was boycotted by the National League for Democracy (NLFD), but would fail as the NLFD slowly reintegrated themselves into the political landscape.

Aung San Suu Kyi would become State Counsellor of Myanmar, the defacto president of the country in 2016, while in the 2020 elections, her party would win an absolute landslide taking 256 seats in the House of Representatives, and 138 in the upper House of Nationalities. This was as opposed to 26 and 7 for the army’s USDP.

Yet despite international election observers declaring the vote largely free and fair the army claimed irregularities and vote rigging, baseless allegations that would in some part at least lead to the coming coup and the end of any form of democracy in Myanmar. 

The 2021 Myanmar Coup

Following on from their standard playbook the Myanmar military took control in February 2021 and arrested the main leaders of the NLFD, declared a state of emergency for one year, and as per normal stated there would be “new elections’ that have yet to come at the end of this. 

Since the coup, it is estimated that almost 2000 people have been killed as a direct result of it, as well as up to 10,000 people being arrested for political activities. 

Most worrisome though perhaps is that it largely ended the tacit peace between the central government and insurgents throughout the country, essentially reigniting the civil war. 

Reasons for the coup

While many theories for the coup have been put forward in the minds of the citizens of Myanmar the reasons for it were extremely clear, it was about power, money, and because they knew they could get away with it.

Suu Kyi whilst extremely popular at home had upset her former Western backers by allegedly facilitating war crimes against the Rohingya, but more importantly, perhaps by not pivoting foreign policy towards the West, something the coup leaders have hinted they may do. 

The military was also essentially confident that their actions would receive little to no international reaction. Just two days before the coup the International Monetary Fund (IMF) gave a $327 million aid package), with no strings attached and Myanmar remained “open for business”.

And it is this respect where many citizens of Myanmar feel duped by the West, as one NLFD member put it to Eastern Angle “We thought the West really cared about democracy in Myanmar, but all they cared about was that our economy was opened to them.”

And it is for this reason that the junta knows full well that so long as they keep the markets open and don’t do anything silly to shoot people in the streets they can do what they like. The US and its allies merely use democracy as a buzzword, with countries from Vietnam to Thailand  and most recently Ukraine being able to be as dictatorial as they like, so long as they bat for the right team. 

Yet while the junta might think this and while foreign actors might turn a blind eye to the people it is about more than just money and trade with Ethan defiantly stating “In the next year we will either have democracy in Myanmar, or war”. We can only hope they get the former.