Myanmar’s long road to democracy remains on hold

The military’s inability to share power with democratically-elected politicians despite enjoying constitutional protection bodes badly for the country’s future.

Expert comment Published 4 February 2021 Updated 7 July 2021 3 minute READ

Dr Gareth Price

Former Senior Research Fellow, Asia-Pacific Programme

For two-thirds of the time since it gained independence in 1948, the military has directly ruled Myanmar. In 1990, the National League for Democracy (NLD) won a landslide victory but the military refused to acknowledge the results and the People’s Assembly never convened. Perhaps ironically, this latest military takeover took place the day before Groundhog Day.

No elections were held from 1990 for 30 years until 2010 when the NLD boycotted a fresh election and the army-backed Union Solidarity and Development Party (USDP) won a majority. Prior to the next election in 2015, the view that the NLD was something of a busted flush after decades of repression was relatively widespread, but this turned out to be wide of the mark as the NLD won a landslide victory.

The euphoria that accompanied this result masked the fact that there were severe constraints on the NLD. Most notably, any constitutional change requires 75 per cent of the votes in parliament – difficult to achieve when the military gets to permanently hold 25 per cent of the seats. But, in addition, the constitution essentially allows for the military to just take back power if it wants to.

Less a transition, more a facade

What Myanmar has been through was less of a democratic transition, and more a façade in which the military appears to have given up power but continues to pull the strings and hold all the cards.

Since 2015, an uncomfortable diarchy of sorts has existed – one in which civilian rule was constrained by the need to accommodate the military, and the ‘state counsellor’ Aung San Suu Kyi ended up in the position of justifying its excesses, most notably in the issues surrounding treatment of the Rohingya.

Meanwhile the military was ever fearful that Aung San Suu Kyi sought to limit its powers. The greater her popularity – and her defence against genocide charges boosted this further – the greater their concern, and so the 2020 election, in which the NLD performed even better than in 2015, proved to be the last straw.

And so a power-sharing arrangement in which the military could have its cake and eat it has been jettisoned. Although Myanmar’s 2020 general election clearly contained some anomalies due both to conflict and the pandemic, most observers agreed the official count was representative of the people’s will.

Maybe the military believes its own rhetoric and thinks that for a party representing the guardians of the nation to perform so badly, the results must have been rigged against them. Much more likely, it feared the NLD had secured – yet again – a demonstrable mandate for reform, giving it the potential to reduce the army’s power despite all evidence of the last five years that Aung San Suu Kyi accepted the military’s position.

And so, replicating its actions in 1990, it took back power before allowing parliament to sit. If the military has decided power-sharing with the NLD is impossible, then the choices Myanmar faces are stark.

The population at large, even including large numbers of the military when examining voting patterns, want to be governed by the NLD – but the military leadership have decided otherwise despite there being no means to argue military rule has any popular legitimacy.

This fact should be clear for the people of Myanmar themselves as much as for external actors. Previous periods of military rule placed the country into international isolation, and many suggest the military was unhappy with the country opening up over the past decade.

But after a decade of relative freedom, and with a new, young generation used to the internet and mobile phones, returning to severe repression is risky for the military. Early indications of a civil disobedience campaign highlight the difficulties it may face.

Reaction of external actors

Major global democracies, with the partial exception of Japan, have voiced criticism and indicated sanctions are likely. It is hard to imagine that the military had not expected such a response – and if their aspiration was for less international engagement with Myanmar, actively hoped for it. The Western response is also slightly muddied by Aung San Suu Kyi’s standing being somewhat undermined by her defence of Myanmar against charges of war crimes at the Hague at the end of 2019.

India’s expression of ‘deep concern’ is relatively outspoken but, although Europe and the US response would clearly hope to have India onside, historically Myanmar has used its leverage on India – through tacit support of insurgencies in north-east India – more effectively than India has been able to affect the situation in Myanmar.

The reaction of the Association of South East Asian Nations (ASEAN), of which Myanmar is a member, was mixed with its more authoritarian members largely silent and more democratic ones more critical. But many Asian countries may be reluctant to consider disinvestment as less engagement would simply enable a greater role for China.

Although it is hard to see that China would welcome what is – by agreed international standards – a coup, having invested in its relationship with the NLD and generally supporting ‘stability’, it did quickly revert to its avowed policy of non-interference, blocking United Nations (UN) criticism and describing the military takeover as a ‘cabinet reshuffle’.

If China’s approach remains the same, Myanmar’s military probably thinks it has little to fear from the international response. Only if the situation becomes too unstable for China’s liking is its attitude likely to change.

The primary determinants of what happens next are likely to be Myanmar’s people. How much repression will the military consider necessary may be decided by the effectiveness of civil disobedience, and the actions of those members of the military who seemed to have cast their vote for the NLD just two months back.

For the longer term, the key question appears to be when – or whether – Myanmar’s military can be weaned off the idea it is their fundamental right to rule the country.