Straight Talk

Myanmar’s the Other Alternative

Abdul Mannan

6th February, 2021 11:17:26 printer

Myanmar’s the Other Alternative

When the Myanmar army in a bloodless coup in the early morning of 1st February overthrew the country’s State Councillor (similar to Prime Minister) Aung San Suu Kyi and the elected government, some international media termed it as an ‘old fashioned military coup.’

Such coups were very common in the sixties and seventies in countries of Latin America, Africa, South and South East Asia and the Middle East. Thailand perhaps tops the list when it comes to the number of coups - whether successful or unsuccessful. Since 1912 there have been almost 39 coup attempts and as of now another one may be in the making.  Some coups as the recent one in Myanmar are bloodless and some are smeared with blood shed. The coups in Argentina, Indonesia, Iraq, Chile, Haiti, Bolivia, Afghanistan, Turkey and Mali were very violent and hundreds of people were killed by the military while overthrowing a government. In South Asia, Pakistan has a record of one of the highest number of coups since 1947 but none of it resulted in bloodshed. As a matter of fact the people of Pakistan (once the West Pakistan) welcomes military rule and in some cases there would be posters around the country inviting the military to take over. In reality, even if there is an elected government in Pakistan, it has to function under the shadow of the military and the ‘do’s and don’ts’ by the elected government are dictated by the military. In its entire history Pakistan’s military is known as the most organized political party in that country very much similar to the military in Myanmar. The general people are just onlookers.

Myanmar, once known as Burma is a country where military has been in power since 1962 and even when there was an elected government, the de facto rulers were the military. Since its independence from the British rule in 1948 Myanmar have experimented with constitution making at regular intervals. The first was enacted in 1947 even before its independence and was known as Constitution of the Union of Burma. In 2008 the country adopted its third constitution where the Myanmar’s Armed Forces made sure that 25 per cent of seats in the parliament were reserved for the members of the armed forces. To make sure that the army had an absolute control over the government, three important ministries are constitutionally reserved to be held by serving army officers viz., home, border affairs and defence. The Myanmar constitution is unique in today’s world and strangely it is a good ally of US, China and Russia alike. Myanmar has the one of the most corrupt military in the world and they run a billion dollar legal and illegal business without any transparency or proper audit. Before the first military takeover in 1962 Myanmar was the most affluent country in  the South East Asia with abundant mineral and natural resources ranging from oil and gas to timber and precious stones like jade. Today the per capita income of the people is around US $1250 and it ranks 156th (nominal) in the world with an inflation rate of approximately 7 per cent. The bulk of the country’s real estate is owned by the serving or the retired army officers while the people live in a semi-pauperized condition. 37 per cent of the country’s 51 million people live near or below poverty line according to the World Bank.

Myanmar is an extremely ethnically diverse nation with 135 distinct ethnic groups officially recognized by the Myanmar Government and there are more than a dozen insurgent groups, some fighting for independence based on their ethnic identity. It is said that Myanmar army only controls the big cities and rest of the country are under the control of these insurgents. Since its independence Myanmar always wanted the country to be dominated by the Theravada Buddhists (fundamentalist Buddhists), marginalizing all other religious or ethnic minorities. In current  Myanmar people of all faiths, especially the Muslims are considered outsiders and do not have any rights as citizens of a free country and most of the Rohingyas who are displaced and pushed inside Bangladesh and some to neighbouring countries are known as Muslims and not as Rohingya.

The just overthrown State Counsellor Aung San Suu Kyi, youngest daughter of Aung San, Father of the Nation in modern-day Myanmar till 1988 was a British citizen, married a British and was settled in Britain. In 1988 primarily the students of universities of the Rangoon Arts and Sciences University and the Rangoon Institute of Technology tried to stage a mass protest and upsurge against the Myanmar’s army rulers, only to be suppressed by the army which left thousand dead. Though the movement was actively supported by professionals of all types and the common Buddhist monks, it failed to make any dent in the country’s politics as the movement lacked leadership. That was when Aung San Suu Kyi came to visit her ailing mother in Yangon with no political intention. Being the daughter of the Father of the Nation the protestors approached her to lead the movement which she accepted reluctantly. Since then Aung San Suu Kyi is known as a reluctant leader. Soon she found her own political party National League for Democracy (NLD). Under international pressure and unrest at home the military junta arranged an election in 1990 where NLD won 81 per cent of the seats. However, the military junta refused to recognize the results, annulled it, put Aung San Suu Kyi under house arrest and continued to rule the country for till 2015. As said in Myanmar it is the military which have always dominated the country’s rule and politics. The world remained silent about it, occasionally expressing meek reaction but failed to act in any meaningful way. Suu Kyi spent fifteen years under house arrest and the world saw in her a leader who could restore democracy in Myanmar. The world was wrong by all accounts. After her release in 2010 whenever there was an attempt to hold an election in the country, Su Kyi’s party NLD won in majority of the seats. The world had so much faith and trust in Aung San Suu Kyi that in 1991 she was awarded the coveted Nobel Peace Prize. Unfortunately it was again proved that very often the coveted prize goes to wrong hands. In 1939 even Hitler was nominated for this prize in 1939. Mahatma Gandhi was nominated on five different occasions without any result.

In the election of 2015, Suu Kyi’s party NLD again won a sweeping majority but the army as usual was defiant and would not let Suu Kyi form a government of her own. The army compelled, through its dominance in the parliament to change the key sections in the constitution, one being someone having a foreign linkage by marriage or otherwise would not be able to become either the President or the Prime Minister of the country. Also a change was made to ensure that one of the two Vice-presidents would be from the army.  After the 1st February military takeover not only Aung San Suu Kyi was thrown out but also all the members of the parliament were dismissed. The President and Aung Suu Kyi were both detained and the Army Chief General Min Aung Hlaing declared himself as the President.          

After the 2015 election it was thought that Myanmar will come out of the shadows of the military Generals and democracy will get a chance. Aung San Suu Kyi who was seen by the world as a crusader for democracy soon exposed her real self and would not take a step beyond the dictums of the army. She soon turned out to be a person who loved power and could never prove that she was a pro-people leader. In 2013, I along with two leading journalists of Bangladesh happened to visit Yangon to participate in an international media conference. One afternoon came Aung San to address us before the lunch. This was a time when Arakanese Rohingya Muslims were being systematically intimidated, tortured, raped and killed by the Myanmar army with the help of local Theravada Buddhists and Monks. Three of us chose to sit near the rostrum from where Aung San would speak from. We previously decided to ask her about the plight of Rohingya Muslims in the Arakan state. Soon she arrived and after greeting about one hundred guests present began speaking about a NGO she runs which works for improving public health. In her hour long speech there was not a single word about the ensuing election scheduled for 2015, the status of media in Myanmar on any other economic issues. Three of us raised our hands to ask her couple of questions but she pretended not to notice us. Finally one of us just rose from the seat and virtually on the top of his voice said he is from Bangladesh and asked if he could ask her a question. To the embarrassment of our hosts she looked at an old lady sitting at the back of the room and declared that she would take the last question from the lady. Unfortunately the lady seemed to have no idea of what question she would ask. Soon Aung San Suu Kyi closed the session and left the venue. It was evident she did not want some embarrassing question just before the election.

As if the intimidation of Rohingyas were not enough inside the Arakan State in 2017 the army began a new bout of forcibly displacing the Rohingya Muslims from their homes where they have stayed for more than six centuries. The action of the Myanmar Army and the local Buddhist monks did not stop with forcible displacement of Rohingyas. They soon began a systemic killing, arson, rape and torture which later the UN acknowledged it as genocide and ethnic cleansing. However,   Aung San Suu Kyi not only kept silent about this displacement but supported the inhuman acts.   When the OIC member country Gambia filed a case at the International Court of Justice at the Hague Aung San Suu Kyi went to plead the case on behalf of the Army in the Court. Soon about one million Rohingyas were forcefully pushed inside Bangladesh. Few thousand crossed into Malaysia and Thailand. The international human rights organizations and the media said the Lady of Peace is presiding over genocide.

So far Bangladesh seems to have exhausted all peaceful and diplomatic means to solve the Rohingya problem. Whenever the issue went to UN Security Council it was either China or Russia which vetoed any resolution to compel Myanmar to take the Rohingyas from Bangladesh. They would always reiterate that the problem should be solved bi-laterally. However, Myanmar would never agree the Rohingyas were there lawful citizens. They were acting like Hitler’s Germany and the Peace Lady soon became a Lady Hitler. She tried to appease the army to be in power till she was booted out on 1st February. This perhaps is what is known as natural justice. She has not only been booted out but also faces couple of charges and soon she may again land in house arrest or prison. Though Aung San Suu Kyi called upon the people to protest the military takeover, nothing is likely to happen as the people of Myanmar have become immune to such situations and the country does not have any political leadership. For all practical purpose Myanmar is back to square one which it created in 1962. As for the Rohingyas the future for them looks bleak and uncertain though Bangladesh so far has shown lots of restraint and looks towards China for a solution.

The Myanmar army immediately after seizing power declared a one year long emergency and that it will arrange for an election after the emergency is over. How long will be one year is anybody’s guess and the big question is whenever the ‘election’ is held will it be ‘for the army by the army and of the army’? If it was not for some powerful countries, Myanmar would become a pariah state long time back. In the end it is democracy which was the casualty in Myanmar and seems to have no viable democratic future in days to come. Since its independence Myanmar has virtually been ruled by the military in some form or the other.  Intermittently it has experimented with democracy but it did not sustain and returned back to the other alternative, the familiar military rule. This time it was no exception. As for Aung San Suu Kyi she will go down in history as someone whom most people will love to hate and forget.

The writer is an analyst and a commentator.