Is democracy in Myanmar dead?February 16, 2021
Since the military seized power on February 1, I have felt overwhelmed watching both the empowerment of a new generation of young protesters and a continuing failure of political leadership. I am torn between nostalgia and the urgent need for a concrete strategy.
Thirty-three years have passed since the 8-8-88 Movement, a nationwide uprising in 1988 that called for the end of military dictatorship and the restoration of democratic governance; I was 14 years old, a student, and I discovered political activism then. Today, I find myself in the streets again, marching alongside a new generation that is waging the same battle.
The junta detained Daw Aung San Suu Kyi, the country’s de facto leader, and key members of her party, the National League for Democracy (NLD.), on the morning they were preparing to begin their second term in office after a landslide re-election victory in November. The army chief, Senior Gen Min Aung Hlaing, has declared a state of emergency for a year. He has cited election fraud as the justification for the takeover and has promised a new election. Public outrage is growing by the day.
In the aftermath of the military takeover in 1988, I spent eight years in hiding to evade arrest and then 16 years in exile. I wasn’t allowed to return to Myanmar until 2013, after a previous military government announced a move toward democratisation. I hope the protesters today soon realise what we learned then: Public pressure alone cannot lead to a genuine political transition. Without a sound strategy for achieving concrete goals, we will always end up, sooner or later, on the receiving end of repression and under some form of military rule.
On the streets, I have been running into dozens of 1988 activists — we look into one another’s eyes with sadness. Many of them have said to me things like, “We are back at square one” or, “We all have failed this new generation.” They also said they were protesting against our new dictators rather than for Ms Aung San Suu Kyi.
Many young protesters I have talked to say the military takeover will lead the country into “a dark age” and destroy their future, much as the 1988 coup did to my generation. The Tatmadaw, they say, didn’t only stage a coup; it also declared war against the youth of Myanmar. They see the current face-off as the final battle between democracy and dictatorship.
The coup makers’ immediate objective seems to be to prove voting fraud, or improprieties on the part of the NLD government, in order to invalidate the results of the November election, as well as to crack down only modestly on protesters. The idea is to simultaneously quiet and quell political unrest, and to ride it out. That may be difficult to achieve given public sentiment, but the Tatmadaw knows that a widespread crackdown, especially if it brought bloodshed, would be costly for it, too.
Illustration: Binay Sinha
The military’s plan longer term is a classic divide-and-conquer approach that preys on the NLD’s shortcomings. Instead of trying to build a pro-military coalition, as it did after the 1988 coup and again after the beginning of political liberalisation in 2010, it seems intent today on creating a kind of anti-Aung San Suu Kyi coalition.
The pro-democracy camp is divided, partly of the NLD’s own doing. Many ethnic political parties and ethnic armed groups, and even some Bamar political groups, have felt marginalised and alienated by what they see as Ms Aung San Suu Kyi’s insensitive majoritarianism. Some leading figures of the democracy movement set up alternative parties ahead of the November election.
The junta has already begun co-opting some of these players. The new cabinet comprises not only members of the military but also, for example, Thet Thet Khine, once a member of Parliament for the NLD, and Padoh Mahn Nyein Maung, a former political prisoner and the ex-leader of the Karen National Union. The junta, even as it holds on to the numerous prerogatives and expansive veto powers it has under the 2008 Constitution, is likely to look for ways to lure smaller political players away from the NLD. It may well begin electoral reforms ahead of the next election, abandoning the first-past-the-post (or winner-take-all) system, which typically favors major parties, to endorse some version of proportional representation.
In the face of that, what can the pro-democracy camp do? Several foreign diplomats I have spoken to in recent days who are willing to act as mediators said they weren’t sure what to say on the NLD’s behalf because the party’s leaders didn’t seem to have a plan.
Yet democracy advocates must quickly rally to develop a strategy to foil the Tatmadaw’s. Rather than making rhetorical demands (like, “restore power to the people”) or demands that the military simply won’t accede to at this point (like endorsing the results from the November election), they must use the current protests as leverage to obtain, via international negotiators, that the Tatmadaw won’t disband or otherwise sideline the NLD.
The all-out exclusion of Ms Aung San Suu Kyi’s party, no matter its failings, would strip future elections of any semblance of legitimacy, disenfranchise large swaths of the population and set back even further civilian-military relations. It would be a dead-end. And a major crackdown would only bring more international sanctions, in turn encouraging a siege mentality among the generals.
Short of some mediated compromise soon between the Tatmadaw and the NLD — or defections among the military top brass or, the least likely option, a counter-coup to restore the party to power — I fear a dangerous escalation.
Min Zin is a political scientist and the head of a policy think tank in Yangon.
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