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Myanmar’s path from junta rule to democracy and back

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After regaining power in Myanmar after a brief period of limited democracy, the military continued to crack down on former leader Aung San Suu Kyi, who at 76 faces the prospect of spending the rest of his life in prison. She and other civilian leaders have been detained since February 2021 following her party’s emphatic victory in parliamentary elections, which the military contested and then annulled. The arrests sparked street protests that were met with deadly force. In return, some of the regime’s opponents have taken up arms. The unrest has devastated the economy of a country already struggling with the Covid-19 pandemic.

1. What happened to Suu Kyi?

She has mostly been in jail. She and Win Myint, who served as president of the last civilian government, were first found guilty of inciting disagreement with the military and overriding Covid restrictions while campaigning for the November 2020 election. In January, she was convicted of another round of charges, including illegal importation and possession of unlicensed walkie-talkies. The verdict will soon be handed down for more serious charges, including corruption and violation of colonial-era law on official secrets. Already sentenced to six years in prison, she could risk nearly two centuries in jail if she is found guilty of the rest and given the maximum sentence. Her legal defense team has described all the charges against her as unfounded. Electoral workers nominated by the junta have not said clearly whether they will dissolve Suu Kyi’s pro-democracy party, the National League for Democracy (NLD). She has promised that it will continue its work “for the people.”

2. What came out of the election?

The NLD won 83% of the parliamentary seats at stake in the vote, an even better performance than its landslide in 2015. The Electoral Commission and international observers called the voting fair. But the military claimed the NLD had interfered in the election process. In February, it said it would take power for at least a year. Six months later, it set a new deadline for the election – August 2023 – and said that army chief Min Aung Hlaing would lead an interim government in the meantime. On September 11, the junta dropped the referral to an interim government, saying it was now a “union government” tasked with performing state tasks more efficiently.

3. What has been the reaction?

Violence flared up after the coup when Suu Kyi’s supporters demanded her release and the restoration of the elected government. Soldiers have killed more than 1,800 people, according to the Assistance Association for Political Prisoners (Burma), a human rights group that reports that more than 13,300 have been detained. According to the UN Human Rights Council, ill-treatment and torture have resulted in deaths in detention. Some supporters of the former government have formed what they call the National Unity Government, and formed armed units known as the People’s Defense Forces; they have allied themselves with ethnic rebel groups that have long fought against the military. In September, the NUG declared a “people’s defense war” and called on civilians to rise up against the junta. The tactics of the resistance forces include assassinations, clashes with army troops and attacks using improvised explosive devices. In mid-September, NUG claimed that resistance forces had killed more than 1,700 junta soldiers.

After World War II, Burma, as it was then called, emerged from British colonial rule and plunged directly into civil conflict. Ethnic minorities make up a third of the population of 55 million and occupy half of the country, including areas where valuable resources such as jade, gold and teak are found. An agreement that gave them greater autonomy fell apart after Suu Kyi’s father, Aung San, who was to become the country’s first leader, was shot down in 1947. A coup led by Army Chief Ne Win in 1962 started a half-century of military rule. , where the country went down in desperate poverty. Troops viciously suppressed pro-democracy protests in 1988. Two years later, the army canceled an election that Suu Kyi’s party had won by a landslide. Under house arrest for much of the next 20 years, she was awarded the Nobel Peace Prize in 1991.

5. How did she get into government?

The junta began a transition to civilian rule with a new constitution in 2008, reserving 25% of parliamentary seats for the military – enough to block any changes to it. Still, Suu Kyi’s party participated in a by-election in 2012 after the government agreed to the release of political prisoners, freedom of assembly and an opening for foreign investors. Her party then swept to victory in the first full election in 2015, defeating the ruling party by a margin of almost 10-to-1. The constitution prevents Suu Kyi from serving as president because her children are British citizens. Thus, in 2016, she became Minister of State, a newly created role related to the Prime Minister, as well as the Minister of Foreign Affairs.

6. How did the first semester go?

Her administration liberalized banking, insurance and education and curbed inflation. But about a third of the population lived in poverty, and companies remained stuck in bureaucracy. The military continued to control the Ministries of Defense, Interior and Border. Its forces have been accused by UN investigators of practicing “ethnic cleansing” and “crimes against humanity” with “genocidal intent” by driving more than 700,000 Rohingya across the border into Bangladesh since 2017. (Among Myanmar’s Buddhist majority, prejudice against Rohingya majority – Muslims who have been convicted as illegal immigrants and deprived of citizenship – remain violent and widespread.) Amid the suspicion, foreign direct investment fell to $ 2.3 billion in 2019 from $ 4.7 billion in 2017.

The military functions almost like a state within a state, and its allies still control large parts of the economy. The scale of Suu Kyi’s victory may have given rise to fears among generals of new efforts to cut off their privileges after their unusually poor election results. They turned against her even though she defended them in 2019 at the International Court of Justice against the accusations of genocide – which increased her popularity at home at the expense of her international reputation. In its statement on the day of the coup, the military said it was necessary to act in response to alleged voter fraud before the new parliamentary sessions began later in the week.

8. How have other countries reacted?

Western countries responded with new economic sanctions, just five years after many had been lifted, though it is unclear how much influence they will have. A year later, US President Joe Biden warned that “additional costs” will be imposed as long as the junta does not hold elections. But China, Myanmar’s main trading partner, has rejected calls on the UN for an arms embargo and has reaffirmed its support for the regime. Japan and India are concerned that tough action against the junta only risks increasing China’s influence there. In January, Cambodia’s Prime Minister Hun Sen became the first foreign leader to visit the country since the coup. Prime Minister Lee Hsien Loong of Singapore, Myanmar’s largest foreign investor, has said sanctions will only hurt Myanmar’s people. They seem to be suffering anyway: In early 2022, the World Bank described Myanmar’s “critically weak” economy as about “30% smaller than it could have been” without the coup and the Covid-19 pandemic. It said the proportion of people living in poverty is likely to double over the period.

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