The dream of becoming a fully democratic country is perhaps still a long way off for people in Myanmar. A coup or a seizure of power by the military has occurred, marking a sign of stalemate in the democratization process in Myanmar for the last decade. On February 1st, 2021, local news outlets and various international media reported that Aung San Suu Kyi as the state counselor and Myanmar’s de facto leader had been detained by the Myanmar military (Regan, Olarn, and Westcott, 2021). Not only Aung San Suu Kyi, President Win Myint, the leader of the government, and several other government officials have also been detained. In addition, the military also declared a state of emergency and took over power for at least the next year (DW, 2021).
The military claims that the arrests are related to an alleged fraud in November 2020 election. In the election, The National League for Democracy, a political party led by Aung San Suu Kyi, won a significant victory by obtaining 396 out of 476 seats in the combined lower and upper houses of Parliament. This victory is certainly a threat in itself, at least in terms military’s guaranteed 25% parliamentary seats (Shine OO, 2021). Although currently the conflict is still limited to the elite level, the impact of this struggle for power has begun to spread towards citizen of Myanmar with the broadcast disruptions of the Myanmar National TV station and Myanmar National Radio. It was also reported that there was internet network disruption in the capital Yangon on Tuesday morning with network connections dropping by 75 percent (DW, 2021).
The democratic crisis that occurred in Myanmar received strong reactions from various international actors. The United States threatened to take action and ensure that Myanmar’s military would get consequences if they did not comply with democratic principles. UN Secretary General Antonio Gutieress also criticized the incident, saying that it was a serious blow for Myanmar democracy. Various criticisms have also come from international humanitarian organizations such as Human Rights Watch and Amnesty International that have been calling for the release of Aung San Suu Kyi and denounced access to communications and internet networks (Al Jazeera, 2021).
Myanmar’s Pseudo Democratization Process
This recent event is certainly a major stumbling block for the struggle towards democracy in Myanmar. Optimism for the creation of a democratic civilian government must now be confronted with the existence of the military which has again shown its influence in Myanmar’s political struggle of power. Whereas, after the political reforms carried out by President U Thein Sein which was marked by changing the mode of government from a total military junta to a hybrid civil-military administration in 2011, optimism for the new face of democracy in Myanmar was getting bigger, both domestically and internationally. With various concessions granted in 2011 including commitment to democratic elections and loosening media control, political spaces that have been controlled by the military were becoming an open contestation for civilians to take part in politics. The peak was in 2015 when the National League of Democracy won the election with a significant number of votes. As a result, the NLD effectively took state legislative power from the military backed Union Solidarity and Development Party (USDP) and officially granted the reins of executive power to civilians (Ko, 2018).
Although it appears that there has been a marked development in the democratic process after the election of civilian leaders through democratic elections in 2015, the reality is that the democratic process in Myanmar is far from being successful and completed. It even tends to appear as pseudo democratization. The point of pseudo-democratization here is that although on the surface there was a power transition from military to civilian, there has never been any attempt to reduce military power either in any level of the government. In the 2008 constitution, which is still in effect today, for example, the military is automatically guaranteed to get 25 percent of seats in the Myanmar parliament. The same constitution also states that every legislative decision must get at least 75 percent of the members of the Myanmar parliament. With the automatic allotment of 25 percent of seats for the military, it means that all forms of Myanmar legislative decisions must be approved by the Military faction in parliament to fulfil the minimum requirement of 75 percent, and the Military has the opportunity to veto all decisions discussed in the legislative process (Miclat, 2020). Moreover, the 2008 constitution also gives the Military control to key ministries such as the ministry of defense, the ministry of border affairs, and the ministry of home affairs (Turner, 2011). In addition, the military still has a strong influence on Myanmar’s bureaucracy where 90 percent of public officials and 80 percent of ambassadors are ex-military personnel, so that a more democratic political climate will be difficult to create (Ko, 2018).
To further understand the democratization process in Myanmar, we must also look at the history of the political reforms that took place in 2011. Although during that period President Thein Sein received a lot of praise from international community for his decision to encourage political liberalization that has reduced repression and created avenues for civil participation in the institutions, the main motive of the reforms is still being debated. As summarized by Bunte and Dosch (2015), political scientists see that political reform carried out by Myanmar was a “survival strategy of the quasi-military government” to overcome the danger of factionalism and to increase regime durability by creating power-sharing institutions. Several other political scientists said that this strategy was a military effort to increase Myanmar’s legitimacy in the international world as well as to improve Myanmar’s worrying socio-political conditions with international sanctions and the post-Cyclone Nargis recovery conditions that ravaged the country in 2008 (Bunte and Dosch, 2015).
By looking from the history of the democratization process in Myanmar especially related to the 2011 event, we can conclude that in fact this political reform is the result of generosity from the previous military government, therefore it is very likely that one day the military government will take back the “gift” if something does not go according to their expectations. Moreover, the bureaucratic climate in fact, which is still controlled by many military elements, will certainly make it easier for the military to mobilize its strength to take over power in the future. In contrast to other countries, for example, such as Indonesia, which demilitarized post-reform political elements in 1998 by eliminating military dual function, efforts to reduce military influence in Myanmar politics were minimal, as evidenced by the persistence of the tight military control on the aspects of Myanmar’s political life both in the legislative sector with a 25 percent military quota in parliament, as well as the quota of three important ministries in the executive sphere, namely the Ministry of Defense which has authority over Myanmar Armed Forces, Ministry of Border Affairs which controls border affairs of the country, the Ministry of Home Affairs which is in charge of administrative affairs and control of the police, narrows the space for civil society in political affairs in the country so that their resistance to political crises such as a coup became very vulnerable (Prameswaran, 2020).
From this event we can see that this military coup is an attempt by the Myanmar military to take back what they consider to be their right – full power and influence in all aspects of the life of the Myanmar people – as well as preventing the possibility of developing an external power that can rival their existence. The NLD’s landslide victory in the Myanmar elections, as well as the decline in the votes obtained by the USDP as the party backed by the military (The Irrawady, 2020), certainly is a big enough blow to the military’s existence so that they must take certain steps to maintain their power by carrying out a forced takeover of power and alleging that election fraud has occurred.
For Myanmar’s civil society, they do not have much choice but to wait for the situation to subside and hope that political stability in their country can be quickly upheld. The absence of Aung San Suu Kyi and several other civilian political figures who were detained by the military would have been a major blow to the struggle of civil society because so far they have relied on Aung San Suu Kyi as a political mouthpiece for the majority of Myanmar civil society. The strong control in every aspect of society as well as the fear of persecution, intimidation, and the silencing of freedom of speech which was marked by the shutdown of television, radio and internet broadcasts in Myanmar became an obstacle to civil society’s resistance efforts to the political crisis that was happening on their homeland.
What Myanmar Coup 2021 means for the international community?
With the limited number of actions that civil society groups can take in Myanmar, there are currently great hopes placed on the international community to be able to take certain steps to save the democratic process in that country. Criticism has already been made, but of course this will not be enough without being accompanied by firm steps that will put great pressure on the existence of military forces in Myanmar.
The biggest challenge faced by the United States as a country that has been committed to promoting and ensuring the smooth running of the democratization process around the world. Moreover, this event is the first challenge for the new government under President Joe Biden who was appointed at the beginning of the year. After the resignation of Donald Trump, who tends to have an inward looking policy, the United States is currently required to show its hegemony as a leading country, especially in the democratization process which has been their commitment. But of course these steps will not be that easy. In Myanmar’s affairs, America must face China, which has a big interest in the country, especially in the economic sector related to oil and natural gas. In contrast to the United States, which immediately gave a strong reaction, China prefers to be more careful in responding to this case while calling on the warring parties to resolve the political crisis with a peaceful manner (Wintour, 2021).
ASEAN as a regional organization and the countries that are members of it, especially Brunei Darussalam, which has just been entrusted with the ASEAN Chairmanship starting January 1, 2021 also faced the challenge of being able to help resolve this political crisis. Even though there is the principle of non-interference that must be upheld, however, ASEAN countries must be able to play an active role in efforts to prevent potential conflicts. For example, ASEAN as an organization as well as certain ASEAN countries must be able to encourage and facilitate peaceful discussions between conflicting parties if needed. In this case ASEAN is required to be able to create a just, democratic, harmonious and gender-sensitive environment in accordance with the principles of democracy, good governance and the rule of law in accordance with ASEAN Vision 2025. But this will not be an easy thing for ASEAN. In fact, shortly after the event there were various reactions from its member countries. Brunei as chairman of ASEAN, followed by various countries such as Indonesia, Malaysia, and Singapore through an official statement, has raised their concern and urged that this issue can be resolved peacefully in accordance with applicable legal principles. Even so, several countries including Cambodia and Thailand chose not to comment further and considered that this matter was an internal Myanmar affair and they considered that they had no right to interfere either in the ASEAN framework or in the bilateral framework. It will be difficult for ASEAN to think of a multilateral framework that can help resolve this crisis if its members are not in one voice in responding to this issue.
Historically, pressure from the international community has proven to be able to push for policy reforms that are considered de facto starting the democratization process in Myanmar in 2011. In the current situation, when the people of Myanmar are again facing a political crisis caused by the excessive display of political power from the military, the role of the international community in giving pressure to the military action in Myanmar will be crucial in ensuring the political stability and the sustainability of the democratization process in Myanmar.
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Writer : Muhammad Indrawan Jatmika
Editor : Angganararas Indriyosanti