Unsplash/ Gayatri Malhotra

A descent back to military dictatorship: what’s happening to the people of Myanmar?

Since 1 February 2021, unrest has entrapped the country of Myanmar with the country’s military enacting a coup d’état and taking control of the state. Paramilitary operations have eradicated the work stoppages and peaceful pro-democracy protests that once could be seen in Myanmar. The coup enforced by the military has reverted the state to full military rule after a short term of quasi-democracy that commenced in 2011.

Myanmar is situated in South East Asia, neighboured by countries such as Thailand, Bangladesh, India, Laos, and China. The state is also referred to as Burma, the former name of the nation before the previous military regime decided to change it to Myanmar in 1989. 

After Myanmar gained independence from Britain in 1948, it later was transformed from a democratic nation to a military dictatorship after Ne Win grasped control of the state by a coup d’état in 1962. Due to this, certain countries such as the UK would not recognise the name Myanmar as it would have legitimised the military regime that ruled the state at the time. 

For 26 years, Myanmar was governed by military rule with the only civilian government being implemented in 2011. A general election that year resulted in the official disbandment of the military junta. However, former leader Aung San Suu Kyi stated in 2016 that “it did not matter which name was used” as the use of ‘Myanmar’ became more frequently utilised. Additionally, both ‘Burma’ and ‘Myanmar’ have the same meaning – though, Myanmar is a more formal version.

This landslide win by Aung San Suu Kyi’s party is the match that sparked the flame for this forceful coup d’état

The military has now regained control of Myanmar through a coup d’état once again. During the Parliament’s first session since the elections in November, the military enacted their coup. In these most recent elections the leading Burmese civilian party, the National League for Democracy (NLD), won 83% of the seats available in Parliament. 

This landslide win by Aung San Suu Kyi’s party is the match that sparked the flame for this forceful coup d’état enacted by the Myanmar military. It culminated in demands from the military for a rerun of the vote, laying claims that the landslide win of the party is a result of widespread fraud. As a result, the military has also stated a yearlong state of emergency in the country.

Who is leading the country?

Aung San Suu Kyi, the leader of the NLD, became world-renowned for her activism in pursuit of reaffirming democracy in Myanmar. Ms Suu Kyi spent the years between 1989 and 2010 in incarceration for the organisation of demonstrations that insisted on free elections and democratic reform within the state. As a result of her consistent fight for democracy in Myanmar, she was awarded the Nobel Peace Prize in 1991 while she was under house arrest. In 2015, at Myanmar’s first openly contested election in a quarter of a decade, she went on to advance the NLD party to victory.

However, her international reputation was damaged severely due to the maltreatment of the Rohingya minority in Myanmar. In Myanmar, the Rohingya are perceived as immigrants and they are prohibited from obtaining citizenship. Additionally, they have been continuing to flee the country as a result of decades of persecution, with thousands of Rohingya being killed during an army “crackdown” in 2017. This resulted in 700,000 Rohingya peoples’ escaping to Bangladesh. Eventually, in 2019, Ms Suu Kyi was placed before the International Court of Justice and denied that the Myanmar military has committed such genocide.

This group has encouraged protesters to defend themselves and their rights

Ever since the military enacted the most recent coup, she has been imprisoned in an unknown location for multiple charges. These include things such as possessing illegal walkie-talkies, publishing information that could cause panic and dread, and breaching the country’s Official Secrets Act. Some NLD MPs were able to dodge arrest and have now assembled a new group in hiding. The leader of this group has encouraged protesters to defend themselves and their rights and to continue to contest the crackdown of the military.

As a result of Suu Kyi’s arrest the military commander-in-chief, Min Aung Hlaing, has taken the role of leader in Myanmar. Min Aung Hlaing has received much international condemnation and backlash for his alleged part in the genocides of ethnic minorities in Myanmar. Despite this, he has retained a high level of political prowess and influence in Myanmar – even as the country moved towards a democratic political framework. This was due to his successful management of the Myanmar military, the ‘Tatmadaw’.

During his first public comments after the coup, General Hlaing was keen to justify the coup itself – claiming that the Myanmar military is for the people and that they are seeking to assemble a “true and disciplined democracy”. The military has further corroborated these comments by declaring that there would be a “free and fair” election after the state of emergency is over.

The backlash from the International community

The international reaction to the coup has been fairly synonymous, with several countries condemning the military coup d’état and suppression that took place after. The UK, European Union and the US have all responded to the takeover by placing sanctions on Myanmar’s military officials.

Myanmar stands at the brink of state failure

– Richard Horsey, International Crisis Groups’ Senior Adviser

Additionally, due to the military removing MPs and Myanmar’s UN ambassador on 9 April, the UN Security Council have taken further action against the military takeover through extending sanctions and implementing both an arms embargo and a no-fly zone. During the UN meeting, the International Crisis Groups’ Senior Adviser Richard Horsey stated that the Myanmar military was creating an environment where the state “could become ungovernable.” Equally, the UN itself is concerned as Myanmar is “on the brink of state failure”.

Interestingly, the response from China has been mixed. The Chinese government has supported demands for the free release of the imprisoned Ms Suu Kyi and restoration to the democratic norms in Myanmar. However, they did obstruct a statement from the UN Security Council condemning the coup. Additionally, the Chinese government has contested international intervention in the state – though, China and other South-East Asian countries have an isolationist approach when it concerns foreign policy.

What about the people of Myanmar?

There have been huge reactions from the people of Myanmar, with mass protests taking place throughout the country. The protests regarding the coup have been the biggest ever since 2007 and the Saffron Revolution. The current protesters include a range of people from different walks of life, such as lawyers, teachers, students, government workers and bank officers.

The military is attempting to prohibit the protests by implementing restrictions that include curfews and limiting gathering. In attempts to diffuse protesters, security forces have used several weapons against them – ranging from live ammunition to rubber bullets and water cannons.

It is like genocide. They are shooting at every shadow

– Ye Htut, protest organizer

The crackdown of the Myanmar military upon civilians has seen very morbid and tragic days. On 27 March, more than 100 civilians were killed. As of 11 April, 80 people were killed in the city of Bago by Myanmar security forces according to activists. Situated near the nation’s largest city, Yangon, the Bago attacks reportedly occurred on 10 April, with many residents escaping to nearby villages.

Witnesses who saw the scenes have spoken with local media, saying that soldiers were using “heavy weapons” and releasing ammo on anything that made a motion. The Myanmar Now news outlet quoted Ye Htut, a protest organizer, that: “It is like genocide. They are shooting at every shadow.”

It is being communicated that the military is removing the bodies of those killed – therefore the exact number of deaths is impossible to accurately authenticate. These deaths also include children. The Assistance Association for Political Prisoners (AAPP), a monitoring group, have stated that the figures of deaths are probable to be exponentially higher than currently established.  It is being reported that since the beginning of the military takeover on 1 February, over 600 people have been killed with the military’s ever-increasing levels of violence against protesters and civilians to retain its power over the state. 

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