Global Affairs

Democracy or Autocracy – Who will benefit from Myanmar’s chaos?

Following the victory of Aung San Suu Kyi in Myanmar’s recent elections, the military seized control of the government on February 1st, declaring a year-long state of emergency, and detaining Ms. Suu Kyi alongside members of her party. Having sided with the opposition, their justification was the supposed fraud surrounding the elections, yet there is a lack of evidence to support this. Led by their commander-in-chief, Min Aung Hlaing, the military has said a new election will ensue after the one-year period. Nonetheless, this has caused outrage and a series of protests around Myanmar, as people continue to fight for democracy and the restoration of their rightful leader.

The past few weeks have witnessed various forms of protests around Myanmar. Doctors and nurses marched at dawn through Mandalay, Myanmar’s second-largest city, carrying posters of Suu Kyi. Other demonstrators placed protest signs in pot plants along the street. In the northern town of Kale, there was a candlelit protest and signs on the street asking the United Nations to intervene. Wednesday saw the people of Myanmar participating in a “silence strike”, where people were asked to stay at home and close all businesses for one day, before the protests resumed on Thursday. Pictures of deserted streets were featured around social media as a result.

While the protests began as a peaceful endeavour, they have been met with violent response by the military. So far, the youngest known victim was a 7 year old girl, shot dead while sitting on her father’s lap in their home. Save the Children also fear that more than 20 children are among those killed in the protests, while at least 17 remain detained, including an 11 year old girl. Many young students were also recorded to have been arrested or detained, facing inadequate treatment from lack of food. Worrying reports have also been received by the United Nations about sexual violence against detainees. However, on Wednesday, around 600 protesters were released from Yangon’s Insein Prison,  as the military seeks to appease the protesters. The majority seen leaving the prison were young people, flashing the three-finger salute of defiance. Some have seen this as a glimmer of hope amidst the chaos.

Regardless, the Myanmar military previously stated that the protestors brought this on themselves, attributing it to their so-called anarchical behaviour. Myanmar’s Assistance Association for Political Prisoners, or AAPP, estimates the current death toll at 286, while 2,906 protesters have been arrested or sentenced at one point for resisting the coup. Tear gas and rubber bullets have been deployed by the military against protestors.

The crackdown has expanded as far as the media outlets. In Taunggyi, Kanbawza Tai News, stated that its publisher and editor were among the staff detained on Wednesday night. Additionally, around 40 journalists have been arrested in total since the beginning of the coup, and at least five other news agencies were ordered to shut down, though they defied the order.

Although Washington, Brussels and the United Nations were among those who condemned the bloodshed in Myanmar, it has had little effect. As such, attention has turned towards two of its prominent neighbours, India and China. There have been records of police dissenters fleeing the junta to the North-Eastern Indian state of Mizoram, since they did not want to shoot at unarmed demonstrators. Initially, they were welcomed by Mizoram, as the Mizoram Chief Minister declared at a state assembly on February 25th. Yet last week, India’s home ministry ordered the officials of the four states bordering Myanmar to stop illegal migrants from coming through, initiating immediate deportation. New Delhi made sure to remind said states that it is not part of the 1951 UN Refugee Convention and its 1967 Protocol, hence its actions. Myanmar’s strategic importance to India’s plans for extending its economic relations around Southeast Asia puts their geopolitical relationship in a more difficult light when it comes to India’s potential involvement in the current protests.

China on the other hand, took more direct action and blocked a UN Security Council statement that condemned the coup. While China is against international intervention, it did support the return to democracy through the release of Aung San Suu Kyi from house arrest in 2010. Like India, China has strategic concerns in Myanmar, relying on the country for access to the Bay of Bengal. Arguably though, Beijing’s political and economic influence in Myanmar is greater than New Delhi’s . This puts into question to what extent these Asian powers will prioritise civil rights over other personal gains.

As elected leader Aung San Suu Kyi awaits her trial towards the end of the month, protests continue to grow across the country, as do concerns as to whether Myanmar’s future lies with its people, its government, or its neighbours.

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