Several weeks ago, Myanmar’s military abducted David Stanley’s uncle. “Hopefully he’s still alive,” Stanley said. Stanley, a Yale sophomore raised in Myanmar, fled the country as a child in 2007. He and his family hid in Malaysia for two and a half years before receiving asylum in the United States through the United Nations. “He is an artist, so he used his platform to speak out against the military junta,” Stanley said. “And we haven’t heard from him. And we’re very nervous.”
On February 1, Myanmar’s military, known as the Tatmadaw, seized power from the country’s democratically-elected leadership after baseless claims of election fraud. Though the coup itself was bloodless, the military crackdown on democratic protests in its wake has killed and wounded hundreds. After just a decade of nascent democracy, pre-coup leader Aung San Suu Kyi and her National League for Democracy (NLD) party remain immensely popular.
The return of military rule represents a disastrous step backward to the merciless pre-democracy junta government Burmese remember all too well.
“I remember talking to my dad, he was just distraught because he remembered how awful living under the previous regime was,” said Stanley.
Many members of the old junta compose the new government, and the military’s bloody attacks demonstrate that the Tatmadaw is as brutal as ever. “It definitely seems like it’s the same people running things as before,” said Elliott Prasse-Freeman, a Myanmar scholar at the National University of Singapore. According to Prasse-Freeman, members of the military take pride in the fact that they have never split.
For the protests to succeed, soldiers would likely have to defect en masse. But this doesn’t seem probable, despite the overall popularity of the democracy movement. Soldiers remain committed to the military cause—or at least fear the military too much to defect, according to Prasse-Freeman.
“Over 600 people have been killed,” Stanley said. “It really hurts me. There are some nights where I just can’t sleep just thinking about people who are in my situation who have such bright futures and now it’s ruined.”
The return of harsh autocratic rule erased the hope that democratization brought many Burmese people—but even during the past decade, the benefits of democracy were never evenly shared. Persecuted ethnic minority groups, including the Muslim-majority Rohingya, faced intense discrimination which escalated into ethnic cleansing.
Though some young protesters have called for trans-ethnic solidarity during the recent protests, exclusivist Buddhist nationalists will likely dominate government for the foreseeable future. The ethno-nationalist Tatmadaw will undoubtedly continue to mercilessly persecute minority Burmese. Even if protesters can reestablish democracy against the odds, history has shown that Myanmar’s democratically-elected leaders often rally around a majoritarian ethnic identity. Any realistic democratic future offers little hope for persecuted minorities like the Rohingya.
After decades of activism and protest, democracy in Myanmar is synonymous with Aung San Suu Kyi.
Suu Kyi is “just like our mother,” Stanley told The Politic. In the eyes of many in Myanmar, she embodies selflessness. “She’s been fighting for this her whole life,” Stanley explained.
The daughter of Myanmar’s independence hero General Aung San, Suu Kyi once commanded both immense domestic and international respect. After studying at Oxford University in the 1960s and living abroad for the following two decades, Suu Kyi returned to Myanmar in 1988 to care for her sick mother. While there, she emerged as a national icon amid the student-led campaign of peaceful pro-democracy protests known as the 8888 Uprising.
A one-party military government had ruled the nation since 1962. Their ideology, the Burmese Way to Socialism, devastated Myanmar’s economy and transformed it into one of the poorest nations in Asia. By 1988, many Burmese people had tired of the regime’s disastrous rule. Yet just weeks after millions marched for democracy, the military seized exclusive power over the government and rapidly suppressed demonstrations. State security forces killed and tortured thousands of protesters and eventually placed Suu Kyi under house arrest in mid-1989.
What is now Myanmar had been for generations called Burma. Military leaders, desperate to improve the country’s reputation, suddenly discarded its name—seen as a scrap of its colonial past—in favor of Myanmar in 1989. The government claimed the new name would better represent ethnic minorities. But in the Burmese language, “Myanmar” is simply a formal version of “Burma.” There was little change beyond mere symbolism: Myanmar’s government represented the diversity of its people in name only.
To bolster their credibility, the junta agreed to hold parliamentary elections in 1990. They expected to win an easy victory, given major barriers to opposition participation. Nonetheless, Suu Kyi’s NLD won more than 80 percent of seats contested. The military refused to relinquish power and annulled the results.
In 1991, the Nobel Prize committee awarded the Peace Prize to Suu Kyi, lauding her non-violent efforts to enact democratic regime change and her bravery in the face of a brutal dictatorship. Between 1989 and 2010, Suu Kyi was kept under house arrest for 15 years. For years, it was a crime to utter her name. During her brief years of freedom, her political activities and movements were heavily restricted. Because she would likely be denied reentry if she left, Suu Kyi remained in Myanmar.
In 2010, the military allowed the first parliamentary elections since 1990 under the 2008 military-drafted Constitution. According to Prasse-Freeman, there is no consensus on why the Tatmadaw enacted this democratic transition. Perhaps the junta expected to retain their de-facto power and status while reaping the economic benefits of liberalization. One theory posits that the coup was always intended to occur after the economic boost provided by democratization.
Critically, the junta effectively barred Suu Kyi from participating in the election by charging her with a crime and enacting a targeted law barring convicted criminals from electoral activities. In protest of the junta’s restrictions on fair elections, the NLD refused to re-register as a party, dissolving the organization. Without a viable opposition, the military’s party analog, the Union Solidarity and Development Party (USDP), achieved a massive electoral win amid accusations of voter fraud.
Despite the longstanding efforts to hamper Suu Kyi’s activism, just six days after the 2010 elections, the government released Suu Kyi and lifted many of the restrictions on her political activities.
With widespread international praise, Suu Kyi was elected to Myanmar’s parliament in 2012. And, for the first time, Myanmar’s 2015 general elections were largely free. Despite state media control and a law mandating that 25% of parliamentary seats must be held by unelected military representatives, Suu Kyi’s reinstated NLD managed to again win 80% of contested seats for a clear majority. This time, the NLD was allowed to take power.
Although her party had won, Suu Kyi remained barred from the presidency due to a technical formality in the constitution. In response, the newly empowered NLD created a new role, State Counsellor, which allowed Suu Kyi to rule by proxy. Her parliamentary ally Htin Kyaw assumed the office of the presidency.
The international optimism surrounding Myanmar’s first liberal democratic government soon faded.
In a bid for popular support, Suu Kyi and the NLD embraced majoritarian nationalist sentiments, isolating Burmese minorities. “In Myanmar, what emerged out of democratization was a kind of an accommodation between the military regime and the Aung San Suu Kyi’s civilian government,” said David Simon, Director of Yale’s Genocide Studies Program, in an interview with The Politic. “What they agreed upon was this majoritarian view, in which minorities did not deserve equal standing. And in other words, it was okay to persecute minorities,” Simon explained.
Burma is highly diverse, with well over 100 recognized ethnicities. Almost 70 percent of the nation belong to the Bamar group, who are almost universally Buddhist. In all, nearly 90 percent of Burmese practice Buddhism.
The Muslim-majority Rohingya are Myanmar’s most visible minority group. They have for years suffered appalling institutional and societal discrimination along ethnic and religious lines.
After gaining independence from Britain in 1948, Burmese nationalists drew from the majority Bamar ethnic identity and a long history of Buddhism to fashion a Burmese identity to unify their fractured former colony. But they excluded minorities who did not fit that ideal, forging a political narrative that the Rohingya—who were geographically isolated in the western part of the country—were foreigners.
In 1982, the government formally stripped the Rohingya of their citizenship. Though Rohingya have lived in Myanmar for centuries, nationalists continue to claim they are illegal immigrants. Today, laws restricting “marriage, family planning, employment, education, religious choice, and freedom of movement” constrain the Rohingya.
After a series of attacks by Rohingya militants on police stations on August 25, 2017, anti-Rohingya sentiments flared. Though the military had attacked Rohingya villages as early as 2012, the weeks and months following the 2017 attacks brought new levels of violence. Aided by irregular militias, the Tatmadaw mounted a ruthless and deadly campaign against Rohingya civilians. According to estimates from Doctors Without Borders, at least 6,700 Rohingya, including 730 children, were murdered between August 25 and September 24, 2017. Rohingya villages were burned, and the military carried out widespread atrocities against women and children. Soldiers opened fire on fleeing civilians, planted land mines at border crossing areas into Bangladesh, and engaged in widespread sexual violence. In total, around 24,000 civilians were killed.
“The violence against the Rohingya in Myanmar rises to the level of genocide,” Simon said. “The motivations for violence against the Rohingya may have been to clear them out of the land. The intent for the violence was to cause bodily harm, to kill, and force relocation.”
According to UN estimates, these attacks drove more than 742,000 Rohingya to flee their homes in the western Rakhine State, most of whom arrived at Bangladeshi refugee camps within three months of the crisis. They joined more than 150,000 refugees already present in overcrowded and dangerous living conditions. More than 40 percent of the refugees are under the age of 12. Children have no access to education in the camps, and the population is at serious risk of disease. Around 60 percent of the water supply across the camps is contaminated.
The actions of Myanmar’s military received swift international condemnation. A September 2018 UN report describing the severity of the atrocities described “genocidal intent” and recommends that “named senior generals of the Myanmar military should be investigated and prosecuted in an international criminal tribunal for genocide, crimes against humanity and war crimes.”
Stanley questions whether Suu Kyi had the power to stop the military’s attacks. “I know where Aung San Suu Kyi is coming from. If you say anything they will kill you,” Stanley said. “I understand that people are accusing her of [contributing to] the Rohingya situation,” he continued. “But when you think about it, it all started because of the military.”
The political strength of the military—even after the installation of Suu Kyi’s civilian government—was safeguarded by constitutional clauses which guaranteed military control over home affairs, defense, and border affairs.
Yet Suu Kyi actively defended the military. “She was willing to sell out these people,” said Prasse-Freeman. “In order to look good to nationalists and to outflank, to out right-wing, the military.”
Suu Kyi’s pandering reached its pinnacle in her highly publicized 2019 appearance before the International Court of Justice in The Hague, becoming the first head of state to testify as an alleged genocide occurred. Her decision to attend surprised even Myanmar’s military.
In The Hague, she doubled down on claims that the Tatmadaw was simply addressing an internal conflict with brutal Muslim militants. In her half-hour speech, she refused to mention the Rohingya by name, in what was perceived widely as a refusal to recognize the group’s legitimacy.
Though Suu Kyi’s personal defense of Myanmar’s atrocities was met with international scorn, her popularity rose at home, and her NLD party handily won a majority of seats in the November 2020 elections. Yet, unlike in 2015, the military-backed opposition party disputed the results, accusing the government of election-rigging and calling for a re-run.
Khing Hnin Wai spent the morning of February 1, 2021 dancing to techno music along the Yaza Htarni Road leading to Myanmar’s parliament in Naypyidaw. Wai, an online aerobics instructor, was filming a workout video for a fitness competition. As the surreal video unfolds, her neon exercise clothing and energetic moves soon contrast with an intimidating stream of dark military vehicles cruising toward parliament. Unwittingly, Wai had captured on film the bloodless February coup that stunned the world.
Three months ago, the day before new members or parliamentary were to be sworn in, the Tatmadaw deposed the government. Declaring a year-long state of emergency, the military cut phone lines and blocked internet service. Soldiers arrested Suu Kyi and NLD leadership under charges later revealed to include the violation of COVID-19 guidelines and import restrictions on foreign communications equipment—including walkie-talkies—found in her villa. Suu Kyi could receive a total of six years in prison.
Though rumors of a coup had circulated internationally in the days before the power grab, the military’s actions shocked some proponents of democracy. “Everyone was just in disbelief because we thought we’re past that stage,” Stanley recalled. “It didn’t even take two days until things just escalated.”
Soon after the coup, hundreds of thousands of protesters took to the streets in cities across the country. Burmese of all generations and professions attended. As in 1988, young people spearheaded the movement known as the Civil Disobedience Movement.
In response to coordinated work stoppages to protest the coup, the military announced a suspension of Burmese civil liberties on February 13, allowing for indefinite detention and warrantless police raids. The next day, the military moved armored vehicles and thousands of soldiers into cities across the country in a significant show of force. State security forces shot protesters with rubber bullets and water cannons, while vehicles surrounded the homes of dissenting government officials.
Organizing through social media and messaging apps, the decentralized protest movement continued to grow, despite an extensive military firewall and internet blackouts. The streets of major cities overflowed with protesters.
In response, the military turned to a time-honored tactic: indiscriminate violence. On February 28, the military began a more drastic approach. On the bloodiest day since the coup, troops fired on hundreds of people, killing 18 protesters in Yangon, Mandalay, Bago, Dawei, Myeik, and Pakokku.
Over the course of March, the violence escalated. In total, security forces have killed more than 600 protesters.
“I don’t understand this narrative that Myanmar is on the brink of civil war. It is a civil war,” Mary Callahan, a University of Washington professor, told NPR.
The violence of the military shocked the Burmese public. “Two days ago, my hometown was raided. Now they’re using RPGs,” Stanley said. “There’s no sense of humanity left in them.”
The outlook for the Rohingya is as precarious as the democratic future of Myanmar. Many minority Burmese, some watching from refugee camps in Bangladesh, view Suu Kyi’s fate as just deserts for her betrayal of minority Burmese.
Perhaps the violence that the military has unleashed on pro-democracy protesters may lead the general public to recognize the extent of the government’s cruelty against the Rohingya, and thus, draw greater sympathy to the persecuted minority. Ronan Lee, a scholar with the International State Crime Initiative, told Voice of America that some protesters have now begun to question their silence when the military brutalized Rohingya civilians. Continued active resistance against the coup, he argued, may create an opportunity for the country to firmly eject the military from its position of political power.
“No one wants the military in place,” Stanley highlighted. “So under that same umbrella, I think they can definitely unite all of us.”
Some Rohingya have openly joined the protests, while other non-Rohingya have held signs supporting the Rohingya cause. Unlike previous protests, many are using signs, memes, and chants to promote inclusivity—messages explicitly designed to influence other protesters. “While the protests are directed at a common enemy, they’re really a horizontal communication with other potential democrats,” said Prasse-Freeman.
“First they came for the Karens [an ethnic group] and we didn’t speak out. Then they came for the Rohingya and we didn’t speak out. Now they are coming for all of us,” one sign read.
Though this nascent trans-ethnic movement offers some promise, the future looks less hopeful. Some young protesters want to reimagine Myanmar’s politics entirely to make the nation more pluralistic. Yet this fundamental transformation would require a rejection of Suu Kyi’s mainstream conception of liberalism.
Simon is not confident this change can occur. “The experience of the Aung San Suu Kyi regime leaves me pretty pessimistic about the ability of democracy, as it has been practiced in Myanmar off and on for the last 50 years, to protect the rights of minorities.”
He points to their history as a bleak indicator for future change: “If they succeed in getting the military out, the next step will be to consolidate power.” He continued, “In the past, when that’s happened, the political forces that have risen to the top have been this majoritarian anti-pluralist version of politics.”
Prasse-Freeman highlighted the precarious situation for democracy supporters who are minorities. “The position that ethnic groups and people are finding themselves in is that they’re wondering if, as one person put it, ‘when things become okay for the Bamar, will they just forget us like they did before?’”