The people of Myanmar always chose democracy. But the generals who had monopolised power for decades never really gave it up; they only ceded a portion of it to civilian authorities, holding on to a quarter of seats in parliament by decree and key ministries. Now, after another landslide victory for the National League for Democracy in November’s election, they have decided even that was too much.
Following this week’s coup, the detained leader Aung San Suu Kyi has been charged with the possession of illegally imported walkie-talkies, while the president, Win Myint, is accused of breaching coronavirus laws by meeting people on the campaign trail. A courageous campaign of civil disobedience has already begun. People are frustrated. The military has claimed widespread fraud at last year’s polls, though international observers were satisfied. The true problem was that the result sealed the fate of the experiment in power sharing. The generals have presumably realised that their aspirations to cultivate a home-grown version of the Thai model are doomed to fail.
They would also have feared that the 80% of seats claimed by the NLD would mean renewed efforts to rein in their enduring power, though previous attempts have been unsuccessful. This time, the majority was set to be enough to satisfy the high bar for constitutional change. Another factor may lie within the Tatmadaw; Min Aung Hlaing, commander of the armed forces since 2011 and now the country’s de facto leader, was due to retire shortly. Extending his tenure would have required the assent of the woman he has now arrested.
Suu kyi’s decision to personally defend Myanmar in the genocide case at the International Court of Justice destroyed the last remaining vestiges of moral authority she retained in the face of the horrific crimes committed by the military against the Rohingya in Rakhine state – the price of which is also borne by Bangladesh, along with a million or so refugees stranded here. To be clear, the worst sufferers of the ‘Rohingya crisis, are the Rohingya – not even we who are burdened by sheltering them. Obviously therefore, the degree of interest in the developments next door are of grace significance in Bangladesh. Already, a high-level technical joint committee meeting between the two sides has been shelved. Suu kyi, in her role as state counsellor, has been criticised for her intolerance of critics, including within her own party, and the failure to allow a new generation of leaders to rise. The lives of the poor saw little improvement. Violent ethnic conflict has intensified – and 1.5 million ethnic minority citizens were excluded from November’s elections, in addition to the disenfranchised, stateless Rohingya. While the restrictions imposed upon Suu Kyi have played the greatest part in her failures, her own limitations have been evident too.
Whereas a belief in almost beatific qualities in her always inspired a hope for Myanmar in the past, this time the outlook is more grim.