Art by Helen Cui.
What is Happening and Why?
For 26 years between 1962-1988, Myanmar (also known as Burma) was ruled as a military dictatorship under the Burma Socialist Programme Party with hopes of saving the country from disintegration. In 2010, the Union Solidarity and Development Party (USDP), backed by the military, claimed a resounding victory in the nation’s first elections in many decades. Although the elections illustrated signs of a developing democracy, opposition groups and many Western countries made allegations of widespread fraud. Despite these charges, on March 30, 2011, Thein Sein was sworn in as President of the civilian government, and the transfer of powers was complete. The progression of civil liberties looked hopeful as more than 200 political prisoners were freed, new labour laws allowing unions were passed, and a law allowing peaceful demonstrations was signed. During this time, the National League for Democracy (NLD) re-registered as a political party, and in April 2012, the NLD won 43 out of 45 seats in the landmark parliamentary by-elections. The path towards democracy shone even brighter when the government agreed to hold talks with students after a rare protest march in Mandalay over a new education bill which they claimed curbed academic freedom and increased central control in January 2015. However as the months passed, tensions rose between ethnic-minority rebels and the army in the Kokang region, and newspapers printed blacked-out front pages to protest against the jailing of journalists due to heavy censorship. In June 2015, hopes of a full democracy deflated when the Parliament voted to sustain the army’s veto abilities over changes to the constitution.
How Does Myanmar’s Current Government, Specifically the Presidency, Work?
The process of choosing the President begins when the Parliament (Hluttaw) divides itself into three groups: the elected representatives of the Lower House, the elected representatives of the Upper House, and the unelected army representatives. The Constitution states that unelected military representatives are to hold 25% of the seats in the Hluttaw, highlighting the direct involvement of the armed forces in the government. Next, each group nominates a Presidential candidate, and then the three nominees are voted on in a joint session consisting of representatives from the entire Parliament. After the votes are counted, the nominee with the most votes is declared President and the two other runner-ups become Vice-Presidents. On November 8, 2015, the NLD led by Aung San Suu Kyi, a notable human rights activist and Nobel Peace Prize winner, won the majority in the general election by a landslide. This victory placed the NLD in a position to control the Parliament and who the next President will be. In both 1990 and 2015, the NLD held a commanding majority of almost 80% of elected seats in the Hluttaw. Due to the scale of the NLD in the Houses, they had the ability to nominate two of the three possible leaders, ensuring at least one of their choices assumed the role of Vice President. It is important to note that although Americans view the President and Vice-President(s) as the most powerful leaders in the federal government, important security ministers (defense, home affairs, and border affairs) are selected by the head of the army, not the President, as stated by the Burmese constitution. Clauses such as this continue to uphold military dominance over all government matters, solidifying their control over the Burmese people.
As the leader of the NLD since 2016, Suu Kyi held the role of State Counselor as well as other governmental posts, essentially making her the de facto leader of Myanmar. With this, the question of whether Suu Kyi can become President arises. According to Article 59F of the constitution, she cannot be declared President. This article states that if one of a candidate’s “legitimate children… owes allegiance to a foreign power,” they are disqualified– both of Suu Kyi’s sons, Kim and Alexander, hold British passports. In order for Suu Kyi to be eligible for the Presidency, Article 59F would have to be amended, but this is possible only with the support of the unelected army representatives in the Parliament, support which the NLD does not have.
The Current Conflict
For the past month and a half, anti-coup protests, dubbed “the Spring Revolution,” have decimated Myanmar. On February 1, 2021, the commander-in-chief, Min Aung Hlaing, led the country’s armed forces (Tatmadaw) in a military coup. The overthrow of the government was justified using claims that the November 2020 general election was plagued by more than 10.5 million instances of “potential fraud, such as non-existent voters” with no evidence. In the previous five years, widespread reform under Suu Kyi and the NLD was implemented, lessening the military’s control over Myanmar. Since much of the USDP performed poorly at the election, their chances at naming a President under democratic procedures were diminished, forcing the party to turn towards military force to ensure a political stronghold. Through the coup, Min Aung Hlaing detained democratically elected leaders including Suu Kyi, ousted the ruling NLD government, and established a ruling junta named the State Administration Council. Additionally, the commander-in-chief declared a state of emergency for one year, after which he said an election would be held.
Throughout the country, the death toll has surpassed 700, and another group documented 90 killings by security forces on March 27. Under the cover of nighttime raids, 2,100 journalists, protesters, activists, government officials, trade unionists, writers, students, and civilians have been detained, according to the advocacy group Assistance Association for Political Prisoners. The nightly internet blackouts shield security forces who march from door to door, snatching civilians from their homes. Many of those arbitrarily detained are kept out of contact from family and friends, leaving their condition or whereabouts a mystery. Vivid reports and stark images detail the streets filled with pools of blood, as members of the Myanmar Police Force (MPF) with histories of human rights abuses are deployed to combat protestors. In the midst of chaos, former NLD officials have formed a parallel civilian parliament, the Committee Representing Pyidaungsu Hluttaw (CRPH), which is pushing for international recognition as the rightful Burmese government.
What Do The Protestors Want?
With their lives at risk, hundreds of thousands of protestors continue to flood the streets, demanding the military hand back power to civilian control. They order the military to be held fully accountable, and call for the release of Suu Kyi and other civilian leaders. She was detained by the MPF just hours before the coup, and is being charged with four crimes under the country’s import and export act, a national disaster law, the colonial-era penal code prohibiting publishing information that may “cause fear or alarm,” and telecommunications law stipulating licenses for equipment. Furthermore, Myanmar’s plethora of ethnic minority groups, which have been fighting for greater autonomy, are also demanding the military-written 2008 constitution be abolished with a federal democracy to be established in its place.
The Widespread Effects on Myanmar
The Burmese economy has come to a standstill as a result of protestors leaving their jobs. Labor strikes have occurred across the country, disrupting the healthcare, banking, railroad, and administration services sectors. Professionals such as medics, bankers, lawyers, teachers, engineers, and factory workers refuse to go to work, and the local media outlet, Frontier Myanmar, reported striking truck drivers, bank agents, and port workers who have brought international trade through Yangon’s ports to a halt. The violence has engulfed all aspects of Burmese society, proving the seriousness and urgency of the issue at hand.
On the international scale, the UN and its lack of tangible support has been cast into the spotlight, as protestors hold signs saying “R2P,” the UN’s commitment called Responsibility to Protect. Overall, the international community has acted in support of the protestors, raising questions regarding outside intervention and a lasting military hold on Myanmar. Most notably, the United Kingdom and the United States have imposed sanctions on various military leaders. Following the burning of Chinese-owned factories in Yangon in March, the Chinese Embassy also urged Myanmar “to take further effective measures to stop all acts of violence, punish the perpetrators in accordance with the law, and ensure the safety of life and property of Chinese companies and personnel in Myanmar,” according to Chinese state broadcaster CGTN. Furthermore, all 15 members of the United Nations Security Council (UNSC) stated that it “strongly condemns the violence against peaceful protestors,” and called on the military to “exercise utmost restraint.” Likewise, a group of 137 nongovernmental organizations from 31 countries have called on the UNSC to immediately enact a global arms embargo, a type of sanction to restrict the sale of weaponry. As of March 16, 2021, at least 149 protestors have been killed in Myanmar, highlighting the dire need for a comprehensive international solution to ensure political and social stability. With millions of Burmese having endured decades of political turmoil, national leaders as well as the global community must convene in order to adequately address the crisis in Myanmar.