On Feb. 1, Myanmar’s military, the Tatmadaw, orchestrated a coup d’état to topple the democratically elected members of the ruling National League for Democracy party (NLD), alleging fraud in the November 2020 elections. The coup followed a landslide victory of the NLD in these elections, with the military-backed opposition party only attaining 33 seats out of 476 in the parliament, while the NLD won 396.
The military detained the State Counsellor and former Nobel Peace Prize winner Aung San Suu Kyi along with other political leaders and declared a year-long state of emergency. Following the takeover, thousands of civilians rushed to the streets, demanding the immediate restoration of democracy and release of Aung San Suu Kyi.
The Tatmadaw, however, answered the large-scale peaceful demonstrations with deadly violence using water cannons, rubber bullets and live ammunition. In just a few weeks, at least 55 protestors – many of them students and young activists – have been killed. And at least 1,790 people have been detained across the country as of March 7, according to The Assistance Association for Political Prisoners.
The struggle for democracy has been long and arduous in Myanmar, still officially referred to as Burma by the United States, since the country emerged as a parliamentary democracy after gaining independence from Britain in 1948. A little more than a decade later, however, the first military coup in the country’s history ended representative democracy in 1962 and started an era of military regime that would last 26 years.
The year 1988 saw the first mass scale civilian protests against military rule and the rise of Aung Sang Suu Kyi as the leader of the opposition. In response to these protests, the army “imposed” a major crackdown in August 1988 that killed at least three thousand and displaced a thousand more.
Aung Sang Suu Kyi played a key role in organizing protests throughout these years, and she led the National League for Democracy party to eventual victory in the elections of 1990. Not keen to accept the popular will and fall out of power, the military regained control and stayed in power until 2011 when it unexpectedly ceded its rule and instituted the transition to a civilian parliamentary system that saw its first elections in 2015.
Aung Sang Suu Kyi, the NLD’s leader, spent nearly 15 years under house arrest between 1988 to 2011. Her arrest captured international attention and resulted in her receiving the Nobel Peace Prize in 1991. Even though her international reputation has since been damaged over her government’s treatment of the country’s ethnic minority of mostly Muslim Rohingya people, she remained popular amongst Myanmar’s Buddhist majority.
Democratization has not been a linear process in Myanmar, and the most recent coup halted the short-lived democracy once again, prompting outrage from the public. The ongoing protests are now the largest in the country since the so-called Saffron Revolution in 2007, a movement ignited by a myriad of political and economic grievances under the rule of the national military government. The mostly peaceful protests continue to take place every day and the opposition remains “organised and determined” according to the BBC, despite the violent crackdown attempts from the ruling military government, also known as a junta.
As civilian protesters continue to face atrocities and repression, they call for a stronger international response and action to pressure the coup leaders. A recent article in BBC included a photo of the protests where three people held placards that read, “How many dead bodies are needed for the UN to take action?”
The U.S. responded to the coup and the junta’s escalating violence by imposing trade sanctions against the military. Following the deadliest day of protests in Myanmar on March 3, the Commerce Department’s Bureau of Industry and Security (BIS) implemented new export controls on Myanmar’s Ministry of Defense and Ministry of Home Affairs, which it deems “responsible for the coup,” along with restrictions on two major conglomerates owned and run by the Ministry of Defense. Myanmar is now subject to new rules that restrict the exports, re-exports and transfer of sensitive items intended for military use.
The military crackdown grows more brutal every day, and it’s unclear whether trade sanctions imposed by the U.S. or other international consequences, like Australia’s cutting of military ties, will stop the atrocities any time soon. Regardless of this uncertainty, the protestors keep pursuing peaceful methods to reverse the military’s takeover – the latest attempt being a nationwide strike initiated by Myanmar’s biggest trade unions.
The unions said the nationwide strike would continue until Myanmar receives its democracy back, Al Jazeera reported. “No one can force any Myanmar citizen to work. We are not slaves to the military junta now and we never shall be.”
Article thumbnail “Protest in Myanmar against Military Coup 14-Feb-2021” by MgHla is licensed under CC BY-SA 4.0.