On February 1st, Myanmar’s military orchestrated a coup against the ruling National League for Democracy (NLD) party, asserting that the recent elections in which the NLD won by a landslide were fraudulent. In response to the military coup and the house arrest of the extremely popular NLD party leader Aung San Suu Kyi, hundreds of thousands have braved violent crackdowns to take to the streets in protest. The international community has also asked the military to step down. Biden called for the military to “relinquish the power it seized and demonstrate respect for the will of the people of Burma”, and the Association of Southeast Asian Nations (ASEAN) issued an uncharacteristically strong statement calling for a return to normalcy.
For a country that Obama once hailed as a model of democratization for other authoritarian countries, Myanmar’s present situation is deeply disappointing. It seems unlikely that the military will deliver on its promise to organize free and fair elections in a year, and less likely still that the military will succumb to the domestic and international pressure imploring it to step down. Yet even in the latter best-case scenario, the recent turmoil in Myanmar demonstrates that the deeper undercurrents of violent ethnic conflict and entrenched illiberal values that have plagued Myanmar’s attempts at transitioning to democracy will continue to do so. Myanmar is not ready for real democratization—rushing this process has not and will not make it come any quicker.
In the decade since it emerged from military rule, and before this month’s coup, Myanmar has made significant strides towards democracy. Following a controversial constitutional referendum in 2008, the government implemented important initial reforms such as liberalization of the press and civil society groups, which coupled with the election of Aung San Suu Kyi’s pro-democracy NLD party, seemed to bode well for the future of democracy in Myanmar. Various nations lifted their sanctions on Myanmar and state leaders visited Suu Kyi as a symbol of normalizing relations.
Yet despite such promising signs, Myanmar never developed the fundamental human rights and legal institutions essential to real, lasting democracy. A 2013 law enabled the government to prosecute and arrest critics, and Suu Kyi’s government has consistently demonstrated widespread distrust for institutions created under previous regimes. In fact, Suu Kyi’s government has been described as “hollow” for its fixation on loyalty through its spoils-based civil service system, and more so for its shunning independent voices. For example, in early 2016 Suu Kyi restructured and downsized the previous regime’s Myanmar Peace Center, responsible for facilitating negotiation and demilitarization of ethnic armed groups. Shortly after this move, and perhaps because of the reduced capacity of the Peace Center, ethnic violence ramped up.
Myanmar’s already-shaky democratization could hardly afford such setbacks. The popular elections that have long been held as proof of Myanmar’s democratization remained fundamentally flawed: the constitution mandated one-quarter of seats in its parliamentary Assembly be held for the military-dominated party, and ethnic minority groups were still disenfranchised. In a 2018 report on the Rohingya crisis, UN investigators accused Myanmar’s military of being “above the law” and stated that “impunity is deeply entrenched in the State’s political and legal system”.
Some observers have claimed that Myanmar’s halfhearted political reforms seem to be the result of an unmotivated population resisting the widespread liberal values upholding most functioning democracies today. Its population simultaneously professes a desire for democracy while generally rejecting “the liberal political values that undergird democratic processes” by opposing checks on the executive branch, supporting the involvement of religious authority in lawmaking, and expressing low social trust. Journalists often practise “self-censorship”, for example downplaying state crimes such as atrocities against the Rohingya even without government direction. Violent ethnic conflict pervades, further challenging any attempts at liberalization. One 2012 paper described Myanmar as “not really a nation with an overarching, effective consensual national ethos, and identity”; government attempts in the mid-20th century to unite its polity under Buddhism, the religion of around 88 percent of its population at the time, further entrenched the divide between the Buddhist majority and the minority religious groups, ingraining deep ethnic hatred that is misaligned with more liberal notions of human rights. Against the backdrop of an illiberal national ethos and a history of ethnic conflict, the failure of Myanmar’s democratization now seems inevitable.
Even today, as hundreds of thousands gather to protest the military junta, the pro-democracy chants are laden heavy with irony. “You’re trained to be professional soldiers, do not kill civilians,” the BBC recorded protesters chanting, even as the state’s atrocities against the Rohingya have gone almost completely ignored. Protesters call for the return of “Mother Su” and refer to her as their “true leader”, turning a blind eye to the increasingly autocratic tendencies of her former government. Even if the protesters get their way, it seems likely that most of the population will return to a state of complacency with regards to human and civil rights abuses. If the past decade has taught us anything, it is that much of Myanmar wants nothing more than a shell of democracy—and that unless they learn to apply their current zeal towards lasting democratic change, Myanmar will continue to stay that way.
Spurred on by Western praise and incentives for surface-level democratic reforms, Myanmar’s rushed attempt at liberalization left behind a population who, perhaps traumatized by generations of oppression, was not yet prepared to democratize. This overly hasty pursuit of democracy has left Myanmar perhaps even worse off than it was before —the military coup has brought Myanmar back to where it was in 2008, while a decade of ineffectual democratic reform has cemented illiberal values in the population and worsened ethnic conflict. Following the disastrous consequences of America’s invasion of Iraq and Western involvement in the Arab Spring, Myanmar risks becoming yet another example of the many pitfalls of rushed democratization. The people of Myanmar once “thought that democracy would fall from the sky”, and much of the world seemed to have thought the same. Such naive and unreasonable expectations perhaps further soured the profound disappointment international observers have felt since the stagnation of Myanmar’s democratization, and especially since this month’s military coup. Yet Myanmar’s rapid democratization has always been a myth—democracy does not “fall from the sky”, from foreign pressure or from a passionate civilian leader like Suu Kyi, but is built from the ground up through the social trust and involvement of ordinary citizens, from popular respect and demand for human and civil rights. This building of meaningful liberal democracy may be slow, but it is a process that cannot be rushed. In this way, there is still hope for the people of Myanmar, upon whom the power to democratize ultimately rests.