Burma: Land of ballots and blood

     An unlikely country has made international headlines over recent days, but the events there sound eerily familiar. A democratic political party won an election, only to have the commander of the armed forces declare that the results were invalid because of “fraud.” The National Election Commission insisted there was no significant fraud. The army commander dismissed that finding as “fake news” and announced the dissolution of the civilian-led government and the imposition of martial law. He suggested that new elections might be held sometime in the future under military supervision.

     This is the same essential scenario that former Gen. Flynn discussed with former President Trump. In this case, however, the country is Myanmar (aka Burma). As this is written, troops have occupied the capital, barricaded government buildings and imprisoned the leaders of the democratic civilian government. Growing crowds of protestors, numbering in the tens, if not hundreds of thousands, have gone into the streets demanding the restoration of democracy. All of this carries strong echoes from Myanmar/Burma’s recent past.

     British colonial rule in Burma ended in 1947, and the newly independent republic adopted all the trappings of British Westminster democracy. It was not long, however, before the army, impatient with what it thought was weak civilian leadership, took over in a coup. For 26 years between 1962 and 1988, the army ran Burma. In economic terms, they ran it into the ground. Their “Burmese Road to Socialism” took a naturally wealthy country and impoverished it. The combination of dictatorship and privation produced growing discontent. Popular anger boiled over in 1988, when students went into the streets demanding an end to military rule. The army’s response was brutal and bloody; thousands were killed or driven into political exile.

     However, the regime seemed to take a lesson from these events. In 1990, the junta announced democratic elections for a new government. The generals were confident that they had rigged the system so it would produce an electoral victory for pro-military candidates. Then something truly remarkable happened. Burma’s national independence hero, Gen. Aung San, had died at the hands of an assassin on the eve of independence. He left behind his widow and two-year-old daughter, Aung San Suu Kyi. Widow (and daughter) moved to Britain where Suu Kyi grew up — and ultimately married a British academic. In 1990, Suu Kyi returned to Burma for the first time in order to care for her ailing mother who had returned home to die.

     The 1990 election campaign generated great excitement with huge political rallies in the capital, Rangoon. Then people discovered that Aung San’s daughter was living there in their midst, at her father’s old home.

Crowds soon gathered outside her gate imploring her to appear and speak. The shy young woman that emerged very quickly discovered she had her father’s gift to command attention and to lead. She was catapulted into the leadership of the hastily organized civilian political movement, the National League for Democracy (NLD). When the election results were tallied, the junta was shocked to discover that despite their precautions, the NLD had won — by a landslide. The army responded by declaring the election invalid and arresting and imprisoning the NLD leadership. Suu Kyi was placed under house arrest.

     For the next 20 years, Burma (now renamed Myanmar) remained frozen in time — military rule, political prisoners, human rights abuses and economic stasis. Myanmar became an international pariah and Aung San Suu Kyi became an icon of democracy — awarded the Nobel Prize while still under confinement.

     Then in 2010, to the surprise of almost everyone, the generals relented (at least partly) and announced that civilian political parties could contest elections under a new constitution. Suu Kyi was released and allowed to resume leadership of a revived NLD. Once again, the generals thought they had rigged the system to guarantee that their interests and ambitions would be protected — including constitutional provisions giving the military a veto over legislation. However, in the 2015 elections the NLD won and installed Suu Kyi as de facto president.

     Despite this record of miscalculation, the commander of the armed forces, Gen. Hliang, clearly expected that pro-military parties would do well in the November 2020 elections — well enough to install him as president. That would enable him to protect the extensive economic interests of his family and friends.

     Instead, the results again repudiated the military parties and reaffirmed broad popular support of the NLD led by Aung San Suu Kyi. An angry, humiliated military commander responded true to type — he abrogated the results and declared martial law. But has he miscalculated once again?  

     There is a reason that the military leadership seems to consistently misread the popular mood. The Myanmar armed forces (the “Tatmadaw”) is a kind of state within a state — headquartered in a purpose-built capital carved out of the jungle and largely isolated from the bulk of the population. The military culture is one of unquestioned obedience to authority. Gen. Hliang almost certainly expected the citizenry to accept the coup and obey his orders. Instead, he has a popular uprising on his hands. The Tatmadaw has a long history of bloody suppression of civilian opposition — including slaughtering monks during the 2007 “Saffron Revolution.” Is that where Myanmar is headed again?

     All of this poses some difficult policy questions for the Biden administration. How should Washington react consistent with American values and interests — and without making things worse? Those questions can be saved for another time.   

Marvin Ott is a professor at Johns Hopkins University and senior scholar at the Woodrow Wilson Center of the Smithsonian Institution. He is a summer resident of Cranberry Isles.

Marvin Ott

Marvin Ott

Columnist at The Ellsworth American
Marvin Ott is a professor at Johns Hopkins University and a Public Policy Scholar at the Woodrow Wilson Center of the Smithsonian Institution. He is a summer resident of Cranberry Isles.
Marvin Ott

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