Myanmar, a large country from mainland Southeast Asia has seen decades of intense conflict, protests, violence, anti-military demonstrations, and political upheaval since its Independence in 1948.
From Independence to Coup
The Father of Modern Myanmar, Aung San was assassinated just six months before he could finally realise his dream of a free Burma (as Myanmar was previously called), wrested away from the talons of the mighty British Empire.
Aung San’s assassination left a distressed political stage in the newly-formed nation. U Nu, a friend of Aung San’s became the country’s first Prime Minister, however, a gravelled path stood ahead in front of the former student politician.
The first fourteen years of Myanmar saw the emergence of a couple of insurgencies under various banners. While the Kuomintang and the Communists seemed to spread their wings, the government was put under a lot of pressure by the then Military General, Ne Win. And so began an autocratic rule lasting nearly 50 years under Ne Win and his successors marred with ethnic conflicts, ruthless suppression of dissent, and anti-government demonstrations, far from what the founding fathers had envisioned the country to be.
False Hope of Democracy
In 2008, the military regime promulgated an ordinance, ‘Roadmap to Discipline-flourishing Democracy’ with the intent to ensure military control at all levels in the garb of democracy. The prime challenger to then Military General, Than Shwe, Aung San Suu Kyi, daughter of Aung San was imprisoned just months before the polls and the junta refused to meet all demands made by Suu Kyi’s party, National League for Democracy (NLD).
As a result, NLD boycotted the elections and the military-backed Union Solidarity and Development Party emerged victorious after they claimed 80% of the total votes polled. However, opposition leaders and the international community including the United Nations (UN) and the United States of America (USA) alleged election fraud, but to no avail. A nominal civilian government was then formed, with retired general Thein Sein as President.
New Economic Reforms
With the new so-called civilian democratic govt in place, Myanmar saw its first round of economic reforms since Independence. While experts have speculated the reasons behind the adoption of these reforms by the junta, widespread criticism by neighboring countries as well as the US and crippling economy seem to be the direct causes.
As part of these reforms, media censorship was abolished, electoral laws skewed to keep the junta in power were abolished and Aung San Suu Kyi was released from house arrest, just weeks after the election. Moreover, political prisoners were granted amnesty, and a National Human Rights Commission was established.
After a resounding win in the 2012 by-elections, NLD led by Suu Kyi swept to power in 2015. Suu Kyi took over a troubled state with internal conflicts as well as a less powerful but intervening military. While a large number of reforms were stalled during this period, Suu Kyi enjoyed considerable clout at home.
‘The Lady’, as she was called by the people of Myanmar ruled with an iron hand, clamping down hard on dissent, doing little about growing intervention by the junta but she received the maximum flak for her handling of the Rohingya Crisis. Not only did Suu Kyi cast a blind eye towards the plight of the minority Muslims of the Rakhine state, but some also say she even appeased the Buddhist community who were deemed to be the oppressors. This period also saw Suu Kyi softening her stance towards the junta.
Towards the 2021 Coup
Enjoying wide support, Suu Kyi contested and won the 2020 elections with a thumping majority, even greater than what was achieved in 2015. However, the military junta cried foul over electoral fraud and poll rigging after the junta-backed USDP performed rather miserably at the elections.
As Suu Kyi stood her ground, the junta called for re-election and alleged over 8 million irregularities in the electoral process. After the election observers including the Union Election Commission rubbished off all the concerns over voter fraud and irregularity, NLD declared Suu Kyi’s return as the State Counsellor.
2021 Coup and Consequences
With all its claims of electoral malpractice laid to rest, the Tatmadaw, Myanmar military led by General Min Aung Hlaing launched a coup against Suu Kyi. On February 1, 2021, the junta detained Suu Kyi, overthrew the government, and declared an emergency for one year restricting communications nationwide. Since then, Myanmar has seen continuous anti-coup demonstrations across all the states. The protesters came from all walks of life and escalated their resistance against the junta gradually, with some demonstrations witnessing massive violence and the use of bombs and guns. As enraged pro-democracy protesters hit the streets and called for the release of their elected leader and the formation of a new democracy, the junta left no stone unturned to crack down on them and ensure their continuance. The forces and police used all means at their disposal to suppress and quell these episodes. As per a report by the Office of the United Nations High Commissioner for Human Rights (OHCHR), over 11,000 Myanmarese were detained in the year-long demonstrations and over 1500 were killed. Meanwhile, Suu Kyi was found guilty of inciting dissent and breaking COVID-19 rules. To make things worse, the 76-year-old was convicted of three criminal charges and she is on trial for nearly a dozen cases that carry maximum sentences of more than 100 years in prison.
Nations eye Myanmar
China and Russia have emerged as the strongest international supporters of Myanmar’s junta. While Moscow has boosted military and economic cooperation with Naypyitaw, China has bolstered trade and diplomatic terms with the military via its Belt and Road Initiative. Arguably, the two countries have utilised the country’s resources and relations to keep other international and regional powers such as US and India at bay.
On the other hand, the Association of Southeast Asian Nations (ASEAN) has refused the junta access to the bloc’s key meetings. However, some of the ASEAN members such as Thailand are close to the Junta.
India’s ‘Deep Concern’
India has expressed its ‘deep concern’ over the situation in Myanmar. However, the stakes are too high for New Delhi to act unilaterally and impulsively. Myanmar shares over 1600 kilometres-long border with four North-Eastern states of Arunachal Pradesh, Nagaland, Manipur, and Mizoram.
While the support of Myanmar’s Arakan army is instrumental in countering the armed insurgencies in Nagaland, the state is vital for India’s geopolitical interests owing to the Kaladan Multimodal Transit Transport Project and the Trilateral Highway project with Thailand. Furthermore, a strong diplomatic agreement with Myanmar will also help New Delhi counter the inroads made by China as part of its One-Belt-One-Road (OROP) project.