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A Deep-Dive Into Myanmar’s Military Coup And The Future Of Democracy There

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The military coup in Myanmar (February 2021), with its many atrocities inflicted on Rohingya Muslims, highlighted the dire situation in our neighbour country.

To learn about the current developments, what led to the coup, and the resistance movements that are paving the way forward, a special lecture was organised on “Myanmar’s coup, Rohingya genocide and failed democratisation”.

The #WebPolicyTask was hosted by the Centre for International Relations and Strategic Studies (CIRSS) of IMPRI (Impact and Policy Research Institute), and Counterview.

The chair and moderator for the session, Dr Niranjan Sahoo, is a senior fellow at the Observer Research Foundation (ORF), New Delhi. Dr Sahoo asked Dr Muang Zarni to explain the present situation in Myanmar, especially over the last three months, since the coup in February when thousands of people were killed, by the brutal, Burmese military.
A woman holds up a placard against the military coup in Myanmar
The common people of Myanmar want to live in a functioning democracy, and not a military dictatorship. Photo credit: Wikimedia Commons.
The massive protests in the country reflected the resistance of the people; and they represent an inflection point for Myanmar. Dr Sahoo asked what the future for the democratisation of Myanmar is, as well as for the stateless Rohingyas in Bangladesh and India.

Unchecked Power Of The Military

Dr Zarni, UK—based fellow of the (Genocide) Documentation Centre, Cambodia; co-founder of; and the Burmese coordinator of the Free Rohingya Coalition, began his lecture by expressing his heartfelt concern for India, as it recovered from the second wave of the Covid-19 pandemic.
He echoed Dr Sahoo’s comments on Myanmar’s civilisational link to the Indian subcontinent. He said that the present condition in Myanmar went against any ancient philosophy that preaches community and peace.
According to him, the kind of behavior displayed by the Burmese military is on par with terrorism. Even the racist, Buddhist nationalists have dissociated from them due to their actions.

The Aung Sang Suu Kyi-led government has developed a working partnership with the military. Her rhetoric of peace was overcome by her culturally chauvinistic and nationalist beliefs.

The terrorism of the national army has grown to shocking levels, with teenagers being shot by uniformed military personnel in street corners, in broad daylight. The army even employed snipers to shoot protestors and conducted summary executions.

A group of five Burmese soldiers, seated.
The Burmese soldiers have crushed the people’s resistance using unimaginable violence. Representational image. Photo credit:

The Strategic Advisory Council, based in Seoul, aimed to give an international platform to the protestors in Myanmar, to ensure their voices are not drowned out. The council labeled the Burmese military an armed gang of terrorists.

The people of Myanmar have spoken about the blanket impunity enjoyed by the police and the military. There were multiple instances of the military barging into homes and shooting civilians, including children. More than four dozen children have been shot. The locals think that their country is being occupied by fascists.

Political Background And Motivations

To explain how the situation got so dire, Dr Zarni pointed at two main triggers: the coupon on February 1, 2021, with Min Aung Hlaing, the commander-in-chief of the defense forces, formed the State Administration Council (SAC); and Hlaing’s approaching retirement.

Hlaing was to retire in July 2021, as he turned 65, but he extended his term by five years by decree, to avoid prosecution from the International Criminal Court (ICC)—where there are cases of crimes against the Rohingyas enacted by his government.

Min Aung Hlaing, an army general who has seized power in Myanmar following a military coup.
Min Aung Hlaing is an army general who seized power in Myanmar following the military coup in February 2021. Photo credit: Wikipedia Commons.

It is expected that the ICC will issue an arrest warrant against him as the commander-in-chief, and other deputies and generals of the Burmese army, in the coming years. Dr Zarni compared Hlaing’s situation to that of Sudan’s Omar al-Bashir, who evaded an ICC arrest, by staying on as his country’s sovereign.

Dr Sahoo enquired how the Burmese military fared when compared to the situation in Thailand, and if there was any possibility of Aung Sang Suu Kyi taking measures against the military.

Dr Zarni explained that despite the unpopularity of the current Thai king compared to his father, there are still many people in Thailand who support the monarchy. There is a degree of legitimacy to the existence of the government. In Myanmar, however, the military is not even supported by the nationalist citizens.

He also said that Aung Sang Suu Kyi had attempted to defend the indefensible actions of the Burmese military in Hague. She expressed genuine affection for the military and talked of them as siblings since her father set up the military.

Aung San Suu Kyi
Aung San Suu Kyi drew ire from the international community after she refused to admit that Myanmar’s military had committed genocide. Representational image. Photo credit: NDTV.

This portrayal of the military is ridiculous, when it represents a deeply corrupt bureaucracy, headed by a commander-in-chief that runs over 90 companies. He has clearly chosen his economic interests over the future of 5.44 crore people in Myanmar.

Granting such an organisation an altruistic nationalist personality did not make sense. He compared the Burmese military to the militaries of India and the UK; and said that they too, enjoyed perks and privileges.

But, their powers are limited and the situation is not such that all military officers end up becoming the richest men in their respective countries.

Restoration Of Democracy In Myanmar

On democracy, Dr Zarni expressed surprise over the protest movement. Since 1962, this is the third generation living under a military regime. This time, it was not a mere street protest, but a total revolution.

It was a social phenomenon that had an “open and explicit aim of changing an entire system through violent and/or non-violent methods.” The limited democratic reforms such as lifting the Internet ban, have created an internet penetration of 80-90%.

This has raised a generation that has access to international information, despite the country’s poor educational system.

Doctors and nurses quit government hospitals, transport workers stopped trains, and government employees walked out of their offices. This has disrupted supply chains and affected the economy.

The military issued eviction notices to those in government housing, to force them to work for the government, but the resistance is so strong that many families have vacated government housing. Some of them are surviving by depending on support from their communities.

Even private entrepreneurs have shut shop, forgoing the profit motive, to join the revolution. Such a level of solidarity is unprecedented. The people have woken up to the reality of the military and its genocide of minorities.

The Buddhist nationalists have realised too, that it is not the Muslims or the Christians that threaten their way of life, but the army. They refused to reconcile with the army. The objective of the movement is to replace it with a coalition of different, armed, ethnic minorities.

An inclusive society is emerging, with state employees who are three years shy of receiving pensions, refusing to work for the military. Affluent neighbourhoods are feeding poor families that have been evicted.

Dr Zarni recalled an image of an Imam holding an umbrella for a monk, as they addressed protestors. This was a testament to the religious solidarities created in the resistance against the inhumane actions of the military.

Role Of The ASEAN And India

Dr Simi Mehta, CEO and editorial director, IMPRI, remarked that the Burmese military had delegitimised itself through its actions.

Dr Mehta asked whether there was anything that could have been done to prevent the coup in February, before it occurred. She also asked about the role of the ASEAN (Association of Southeast Asian Nations) and India in the conflict, which have been criticised by many.

Dr Zarni elaborated that the Burmese national army had been portrayed as being stronger than it is. There have been 20 different, armed, ethnic organisations over the past 60-70 years of civil war. The army, presently, is unable to control large parts of the country.

It is a war economy with gold-mining and jade-mining armies. The time for reform has passed. Aung Sang Suu Kyi’s strategy of slow reform, combined with a reconciliation of the military with the people, in the last decade, at the expense of majority-minority relations, has failed.

The Burmese have outgrown military brainwashing along the lines of how the minorities have ethnic aspirations of their own. Instead, the majority is looking at the minorities for the future.

He contrasted the situation with that of Yugoslavia’s dissolution, and said that in Burma, the majority Buddhists did not support the military. They know that majoritarian politics would land them in the same predicament, another decade down the line. They have identified the military as the main instrument of repression.

The ASEAN has been a complete and total failure at preventing or condemning genocides. In 1995-’96, when 30% of Cambodia’s population was killed, the ASEAN was lobbying for its seat at the UN, backed by the US and the UK.

The ASEAN’s attempted to downplay the genocide and it did not condemn the Burmese military as it should have.

This isn’t surprising, considering only two of the 10 member countries, Indonesia and Malaysia, have a level of a functional, democratic process; while others like Brunei, Vietnam and Laos, are either absolute monarchies or murderous regimes themselves.

The ASEAN hides behind its policy of non-interference in internal matters, even though the UN Genocide Convention encourages intervention to prevent genocides. It is to be noted that the Security Council failed to intervene in similar situations in Palestine, Syria and Tibet.

Myanmar does not expect a pro-democracy stance from China which itself practices genocide. It has been running horrifying reeducation camps where they are forcefully sterilising Muslim women, forcing them to give up Islam, eat pork, etc.

India, however, shares deep ties with Mynamar. Except for the caste system, there are innumerable cultural bonds. Dr Zarni felt that Prime Minister Narendra Modi had failed to use the opportunity to build ties with Burma.

The Modi government had shown an Islamophobic outlook and has been unable to act on its “Look East” policy. Dr Zarni said that Modi failed his own country by prioritising votes over lives during a pandemic.

He encouraged India to reform its perspective, as she would be building ties with Myanmar’s over 5 crore people. Helping Myanmar is going to aid her direct strategic interest.

How Has The West Responded?

Talking about the response of the west, Dr Zarni took up the lack of references to human rights or democratic interests, in an issue of the “Foreign Policy” magazine, based in the US.

Many western corporations paid billions to the Burmese military in taxes every year such as the Chevron and French oil companies. The US does talk of sanctions, but what is needed is that they shut these sources of revenue for the Burmese military.

On China changing its approach, he said that the Chinese government doesn’t care for the lives of the people in Myanmar, and was looking out for its economic interests. It is interested in Myanmar’s ports. However, China has miscalculated the power of the Burmese military, which was at its weakest since its inception.

Majoritarianism is always a possibility, but Dr Zarni said that he hoped the new generations, who have grown up on liberal values, will look beyond ethnic conflicts and racist ideologies.

He said that he had simplified the conflicts in Myanmar and that there existed conflicts within minorities too, such as the issues in the Shan state, where villages were burnt when ethnic groups took on each other.

These are disturbing trends and identity-driven politics always undermine the work towards an inclusive, multicultural society. Dr Zarni stressed that diversity should be seen as a strong foundation, on which a federalist democracy could be set up.

Dr Sahoo added that the current democratic protest is different from previous coups, also because the new generation of protestors refused to compromise on their freedom. The movement is Myanmar’s own and not influenced by external forces.

He said that it would lead Burma towards an inclusive society built upon secularism, federalism, and shared sovereignty.


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Dr Zarni concluded by pointing out that revolutions weren’t rational plans comprehensible to rational analysts. Their essence is in a passion for freedom and against injustice.

There is no rational explanation for teenagers and young people in their 20s, risking their lives, forgoing their youth, and giving up opportunities in search of greater shared freedom. One had to either accept this and think like a revolutionary, or expect the analysis to fall.

By Simi Mehta, Sunidhi Agarwal, Sakshi Sharda, Ishika Chaudhary, Mahima Kapoor

Acknowledgment: Sonali Pan is a Research Intern at IMPRI.

Featured image is for representational purposes only. Photo credit: EU Civil Protection and Humanitarian Aid, Flickr.
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