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No more illusions in Myanmar

Ebbighausen Rodion Kommentarbild App
Rodion Ebbighausen
February 1, 2021

Myanmar's military has staged a coup and detained civilian leader Aung San Suu Kyi. The country's democratic experiment has failed, says Rodion Ebbighausen.

An armed soldier stands in front of a military vehicle in Myanmar
Many initially wondered how much power Myanmar's military would really be willing to cede, now we knowImage: AFP via Getty Images

When Myanmar's military began withdrawing from civilian politics in 2011, one question was front and center — how much power would the military give up?

The skeptics didn't trust the generals, and only saw a military dictatorship in the guise of a democracy. Optimists, however, saw a genuine new beginning and opportunities for democratization.

Progress at first

Initially, positive signs prevailed. The military, led by Thein Sein, the former general and reformist president, got serious about opening up the country. Aung San Suu Kyi was released from house arrest, as were many imprisoned National League for Democracy (NLD) politicians. Restrictions on press freedom were also eased.

When the NLD won a landslide victory in the country's 2015 parliamentary elections, the military and its Union Solidarity and Development Party accepted defeat. There wasn't much risk involved in the move: According to the constitution, the military controls a quarter of all parliamentary seats as well as the ministries of defense, border security and the interior. Still, there were signs that the military was willing to compromise.

Electoral triumph, then setbacks

Legitimized in the 2015 elections, the NLD outmaneuvered the military and succeeded in making Aung San Suu Kyi a state counselor, a kind of prime minister in a position not provided for in the constitution.

The architect of this move, a lawyer by the name of Ko Ni and a vocal critic of the military, was shot dead in the street in front of the Yangon airport soon after. The perpetrator was caught, but the masterminds behind the attack were never identified. But it seemed that the military was sending a message to the NLD: Do not challenge us. The military, which sees itself as the guarantor of the country's stability and unity, did not want to accept that someone else would determine the rules of the game.

The NLD, however, continued to focus on confrontation. Rather than tackling reforms that would have benefited the population, it invested much energy focusing on unpromising constitutional changes — which were hindered by the military with the help of a blocking minority guaranteed by the constitution.

The relationship between Suu Kyi and armed forces commander-in-chief Min Aung Hlaing deteriorated visibly. Suu Kyi's controversial appearance before the International Court of Justice (ICJ) in The Hague, where she defended the country against accusations of genocide against ethnic Rohingya — which was also a defense of the military — did nothing to change that fact.

Elections were a turning point

In another landslide victory, Suu Kyi and the NLD won 83% of the vote in Myanmar's November 2020 elections. This time, the military disputed the results and argued the election was rigged. An election commission installed by the civilian government rejected the accusations. A lawsuit filed by the military before the Supreme Court of Myanmar is still pending.

Now, the military has staged a coup and wants to take the reins of government for a year in order to reform, among other things, the electoral commission. Article 417 of the constitution justifies the coup, allowing the military to take power if a state of emergency threatens the sovereignty or unity of the country. The military considers itself to be in the right. However, the coup amounts to the improbable principle of the military having to abolish democracy in order to save it.

And so, how much power is the military ultimately willing to give up? The unmistakable answer: none.

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