By Vandana Mishra
Myanmar underwent a serious political crisis on the wee hours of February 01, 2021 (Monday), when it was scheduled to have its first session of Parliament after the November 2020 elections. Myanmar’s military took over the reins of power in its own hand arresting de facto civilian leader Aung San Suu Kyi and President Win Myint and other senior leaders of the National League of Democracy (NLD).
Subsequently, the Military announced one-year state of emergency in the country and that 24 ministers and deputies have been removed and 11 replacements had been named including finance, health, interior and foreign affairs. A former General, Myint Swe, who was earlier Vice President is now an acting President. However, responsibility related to legislature, administration and judiciary stands transferred to Commander-in-Chief, Min Aung Hlaing. Thus, military which has ruled the country for nearly five decades once again throttled democracy within five years of its existence and has grabbed power in a coup.
Reason behind the Crisis:
Myanmar underwent general elections on November 08, 2020 to elect the members of the Assembly of the Union. It consists of 440-member House of Representatives (Lower House) and 224-member House of Nationalities (Upper House). One quarter of the seats in both the Houses are reserved for the Military as per 2008 Constitutions of Myanmar. It also controls most of the powerful ministries like Home, Defence and Border affairs. NLD got landslide victory in the elections which was rejected by the military demanding a re-run of the elections as it was unfree, full of fraud, voter-list irregularities, and widespread violations of laws and procedures. Military’s allegations were though not backed by the Electoral Commission.
NLD bagged 80% of the popular votes and 315 seats in the Lower House and 161 seats in the Upper House. Interestingly 70% of the voters defied the COVID-19 driven pandemic and exercised their franchise. More than 6,900 candidates were in fray belonging to 92 political parties and independents for 1,171 seats including the provincial legislatures. Military backed Union and Solidarity and Democratic Party (USDP) could gain only a fraction of the vote. Hence, it was near rout of the military that prompted it to tighten its grip over governance making it a pretext.
Second reason could be that Myanmar’s growing profile of international trade were perturbing for many inside Myanmar as they viewed outsiders as strangers and danger, owing to long-spell of closed economy during military rule earlier. Many such elements are pro-military and are celebrating now.
Third, reason must be the submissiveness of Suu Kyi to military pressure, rather than being accommodative in power sharing. Many experts call it as political jujitsu, which is different from appeasement. She was not communicating with the Army Chief for last one year as reported. It seems she failed to manage her relations with the Army. However, she was the last hope to strengthen democratic institutions in the country and she proved a failure, in her political knack.
The Impact of the Crisis:
First, this is the first test of President Biden outside US as to how he is going to manage this crisis for democracy. Many have asked for stiff economic sanctions against Junta.
Second, the military takeover has sent a shiver down the spine of most pro-democracy population in the country. Myanmar endured almost 50 years of rule under oppressive military regime before the move towards democratic rule in 2011. Thus, democracy-lovers are stunned with the development.
Third, Military takeover of power did not witness any violence in the immediate aftermath but as reported the mood of the democracy-lovers were aghast. Internet and phone services were disrupted. International and domestics TV channels were off air. All major roads in the capital were blocked by army, which also overtook all the major cities of the country.
Fourth, there indeed is ‘democracy deficit’ in Myanmar for now, with international powers criticizing the coup. UN has condemned the coup in strictest terms. US, UK and EU and others were quick to condemn the coup. China asked all sides to resolve the differences and opposed any outside interference. Military has promised a free and fair elections once the ‘state of emergency’ is over. For now lip service seems more prominent than quick actions.
Last and most important, Suu Kyi and her Party members have urged people to protest and must not accept the coup.
Implications for India:
Indian Foreign Ministry has expressed deep concern over the development and reiterated that it stands to help towards democratic transition in Myanmar and thus is closely monitoring the development.
India has its own set of challenges given insurgency in North-eastern states and its closer engagement with Myanmar’s military. Therefore, given India’s security and strategic imperatives India has no choice but to continue engaging with Myanmar’s Junta, in spite of the fact that Indian citizens have greater faith, trust and liking for Aung San Suu Kyi.
Suu Kyi also has a strong constituency within Buddhist monks and followers of Myanmar, which are in great majority with strong conviction against military. Though, they are also against Rohingyas. This creates a complex situation. However, Indian Buddhist would be more than willing to stand in support of Suu Kyi and democracy in Myanmar. India thus shares a cultural linkage with Myanmar which may raise expectations of Buddhists in Myanmar from India to make decisive interventions.
Myanmar is India’s “Gateway to South East Asia”. It is of tremendous importance for its Act East Policy, India-ASEAN Free Trade evolution’, India-Myanmar-Thailand Trilateral Highway, Kaladan-Multi Model Transit Transport Agreement, India’s inclusion in East-West Economic Corridor are some of the major projects that would discourage India to take a tough stand on Myanmar’s military regime, something on the lines of US.
Military actions undoubtedly are reckless and would take the country on a perilous path leading once again in isolation from outside world. It will have long term impact towards consolidation of fledgeling democracy in Myanmar. Undoubtedly, common citizens stand betrayed by the USDP and military.
Military will continue to prevail over government and would have tight grip over the polity till the controversial 2008 Constitution continue to exist, which was prepared and promulgated by Military. Amendment requires more than 75% support which is impossible given the fact that military has constitutional mandate of 25% in all legislatures. This dynamic needs to be changed in favour of democracy.
Myanmar is country where Army considers itself as “Father’ of the nation, whereas media addresses Suu Kyi as “Mother” of the country. Democracy and Suu Kyi has created a space for itself in the minds and spirit of Myanmar’s population. Present step of Military, thus may be contrary to itself: it had complete command and autonomy; sizeable international investment in its commercial interests; and political cover from civilians for war crimes.
Moreover, the step will discourage non-Chinese investment and economic engagement with Myanmar. It will also invite resistance from millions of Suu Kyi supporters. Under such circumstances it is bound to bring greater harm to Military regime as well as polity and people of Myanmar, with tremendous loss of face before the international community. Major powers and stakeholders must rise to the occasion and make judicious and benign interventions, for the cause of democracy.