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Myanmar's democracy movement 30 years on

Rodion Ebbighausen tko
August 7, 2018

In 1988, Nobel Peace Prize laureate Aung San Suu Kyi became the face of a popular democracy movement in Myanmar. Thirty years on, the Southeast Asian country has a democratic government, but there is much to be desired.

Myanmar's military chief Min Aung Hlaing with Aung San Suu Kyi
Image: Reuters/Soe Zeya

Thirty years ago, hundreds of thousands of people took part in protests across Myanmar, demanding an end to the one-party rule. The call for democracy became stronger and clearer when Aung San Suu Kyi became part of the protest movement. The masses were clearly against the authoritarian system and needed an economic relief.

The students who initiated and led the uprising rallied around Suu Kyi, the daughter of independence hero Aung San. In August 1988, Suu Kyi gave a famous speech to an estimated crowd of 500,000 people. Suu Kyi, who had lived abroad for decades, demanded democracy and a multi-party system in her country.

"In some ways, Suu Kyi had brought in the concept of democracy from the West," Hans-Bernd Zöllner, a Myanmar expert, told DW. "It was unclear at the time what democracy would mean for the country. What was clear was that people wanted to change the system," Zöllner added.

Myanmar Proteste Aung San Suu Kyi Rede Archivbild 26.08.1988
Aung San Suu Kyi delivers her famous speech on August 26, 1988Image: AFP/Getty Images

Two concepts of democracy

The dreams and hopes of the protesters ended abruptly when the military took control of the country on September 18, 1988. The armed forces crushed pro-democracy protests by using brute force. Thousands of people were killed and many were arrested. Many students fled to the neighboring countries.

A year later, Suu Kyi founded the National League for Democracy (NLD) party, which won a landslide victory in the 1990 election. But the military generals, who had established the State Council for Law and Order (SLORC), refused to hand over power to the NLD until a new constitution was drafted.

In the following years, both sides consistently spoke of democracy; however both meant something completely different. The military wanted a "disciplined democracy," in which the rules would be determined by the central government. Suu Kyi, on the other hand, had the concept of a popular democracy in mind.

Read more: Myanmar elects Win Myint as new president

Myanmar Proteste Armee Intervention Archivbild August 1988
Burmese soldiers used brute force against pro-democracy demonstrators in 1988Image: ullstein bild-Heritage Images/Alain Evrard

Military-style democracy

For the next 20 years, the military pushed through its "disciplined democracy" in the Southeast Asian country. In 2008, it finally adopted a new constitution, which stipulated that a quarter of all parliamentary seats would be given to the military. Constitutional amendments thus became impossible without the military's consent.

According to the constitution, the ministers for defense, border and interior affairs would be appointed directly by the army chief. This meant that the military and police remained under the generals' control.

"As they set the rules, it was safe to hold the election," said Bertil Lintner, a journalist and author who wrote one of the first books on the 1988 uprising, called "8.8.88," referring to the start of the movement on August 8, 1988.

The election finally took place in 2010. Suu Kyi's NLD boycotted the elections, rejecting the constitution as undemocratic. Meanwhile, the military generals took off their uniforms and presented themselves as civilian rulers, winning almost all seats in parliament.

Further reforms followed and finally, in 2015, the NLD agreed to participate in the general election under the same conditions as in 2010. As expected, the NLD won the elections and Suu Kyi became "State Councilor," an office as important as that of prime minister's.

The international media hailed the 2015 elections as a victory for democracy. Soon after the polls, the West lifted its sanctions on Myanmar. But analysts like Lintner believe that although the 2008 constitution opened up the country to some extent, the real power was never transferred to the elected government. "The NLD won the 2015 election but is not in power," he said.

Zöllner shares the same view, but says that most people in Myanmar, who supported the 1988 democratic movement, feel the situation today is better than what it was in the late 1980s and 1990s.

Read more:Amnesty: Myanmar Rohingya insurgents massacred Hindus 

NLD's 'retreat'

Lintner believes the NLD is not being assertive enough despite the fact that there is space for it to exert more pressure on the military.

"People expected them to do more than what they have done since they won the 2015 election. Instead, they retreated into a bubble, and it doesn't seem they will be able to come out of it," Lintner said.

To explain his point, Lintner cites the example of the ongoing Rohingya refugee crisis in Myanmar's Rakhine state. Last year, the military reacted to deadly attacks by Muslim insurgents by launching massive military operations in the area, which forced more than 500,000 Rohingyas to flee to neighboring Bangladesh. The United Nations described it as "ethnic cleansing" of Rohingya Muslims.

The NLD has remained largely invisible during the conflict.

Read more: Oxford withdraws Aung San Suu Kyi's 'Freedom of the City' award

Although Lintner is convinced that the NLD would not have been able to confront the military over the Rohingya issue, he says it could have at least responded to the humanitarian crisis. Also, Suu Kyi could have visited Rakhine and met with local politicians and those who were affected by the conflict. According to Lintner, this is just one example of the NLD's inability to govern the country.

Since the "perceived victory" of democracy in Myanmar, the West has also become more active in the country, enhancing development cooperation and promoting democracy. But both Zöllner and Lintner say the West's influence on Myanmar is limited.

"The West can preach democracy to Myanmar, but it will not change anything unless the impetus for democracy comes from within the country," Lintner said, adding that he does not see it happening anytime soon.

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