Inspired by the attempted January 6th insurrection in Washington, D.C., “Changing of the Guard” is a series of reflections on transitions of power — the peaceful, the violent, and the era-defining.
On February 1, the Burma (Myanmar) Army successfully carried out a coup d’etat, detaining leaders from the country’s ruling party and declaring a year-long state of emergency. While the news came as a surprise to the international community, for civilians, the threat of a coup and military rule had been long-looming. The Burma Army previously ruled the nation in a military junta from 1962 until 2011, and has since waged a continuous campaign of violence throughout the country, resulting in war crimes, mass atrocities, and genocide.
Tensions between the Burma Army and the National League of Democracy (NLD), Burma’s ruling party, had been brewing since the completion of Burma’s national election cycle on November 8 when the NLD won in a landslide victory. The Burma Army claimed the elections were fraudulent after the military-backed Union Solidarity and Development Party performed poorly in Burma’s 2020 elections, driving the Burma Army to call for constant re-votes until finally carrying out a coup on the morning of February 1. Since then, the Burma Army has cut off and restored internet access, arrested lawmakers, activists, ethnic leaders, and students, caused the nation’s banks to momentarily shut down, and shot and killed 19-year-old protester Mya Thwe Thwe Khaing.
It is much more complicated than disputed election results, however. Burma is home to over 135 ethnic groups, many of which, if not all, have suffered from violence incited by the Burma Army that has gone unchecked and ignored under the NLD’s watch. Since the start of 2021, the Burma Army has forcibly displaced an estimated 4,000 ethnic Karen people after shelling villages in Karen state. In Burma’s Kachin state, close to 100,000 ethnic Kachin are barely surviving in overcrowded and underfunded displacement camps, in addition to the over 200,000 ethnic Chin who have been displaced by clashes incited by the Burma Army since 2018. The same cycle of violence and impunity continues for Shan, Mon, Karenni, and Rakhine states.
The mass atrocities perpetrated by the Burma Army are of significance not only because of the thousands of lives that have been uprooted, but because they are representative of the deeply rooted ethnocentrism and violence that the NLD permits. Since the country’s first free elections in 2015, the NLD has remained in control of the government primarily due to its leadership of Aung San Suu Kyi— a Nobel Peace Prize awardee and long-time campaigner for restored democracy in Burma. While Aung San Suu Kyi was once a shining beacon of hope for Burma and a powerful woman leader to be idolized by the rest of the world, the Noble Laureate’s legacy is tarnished— in addition to ignoring the Burma Army’s abuses, Aung San Suu Kyi defended genocide against the Rohingya, an ethnic Muslim minority, when Burma was tried at the International Court of Justice in January 2020. Suu Kyi is somewhat of a military puppet, however, as despite the NLD ruling the Burmese government, the Burma Army holds significant power under the 2008 constitution, which gives a quarter of parliament seats to the military, and has multiple business deals and foreign investment projects that funnel money into the regime.
Clearly, the NLD is not the democratic force for change that the world once regarded it to be. When former Secretary of State Hillary Clinton visited Burma in 2011 and announced that the US would no longer block monetary aid from the World Bank and International Monetary Fund, the world was encouraged by Burma and Aung San Suu Kyi’s promises for democracy, leading President Barack Obama to lift sanctions and encourage democratization. While these policies were enacted with good intentions, they were implemented based on Burma’s words rather than actions— lifting sanctions placed a US seal of approval on Burma that caused the international community to believe democracy and security could progress unmonitored in the country. The results of these beliefs have manifested in mass violence, ethnocentrism, and now a military coup.
The abuses committed against Burma’s ethnic minorities cannot be disregarded when speaking on the coup. These abuses represent the extent of the military’s power in Burma and have inflated the egos of a violent and abusive leadership that will affect the entirety of the country, especially ethnic minorities. The NLD’s facade of democracy has allowed the Burma Army to operate unseen by the rest of the international community, and while many policymakers have been quick to report on and condemn the coup, these same experts have stayed silent when it comes to addressing the country’s internal conflict— the root of most, if not all, of the nation’s issues. The coup is not an isolated incident— it is a result of a longstanding history of the Burma Army’s impunity, the NLD’s poor leadership, and the international community’s failure to treat Burma with the urgency it required.
However, it is important to note that while the NLD’s leadership is vastly far from ideal, the election of the NLD is the closest that Burma has come to achieving a true democracy and must continue to be recognized as the official government of Burma throughout the military junta. The coup is a threat to all steps made towards a democratically-ruled Burma, and while it is hard to imagine what a true democracy in Burma will look like, it is a necessary exercise for the future.
In the long term, Burma’s government would need immense reform with diversity to the greatest extent in order to represent all ethnic groups and include ethnic candidates that were previously stifled in their election bids. Currently, ethnic minorities do not have a say in how they are governed but are still forced to follow the government’s policies— ethnic leaders with enhanced decision-making rights are crucial to a democratic end goal and necessary to grapple with the rampant Burmanization that has permeated the NLD. The country would also more than likely need to reform the 2008 constitution, which will otherwise continue to give the military power regardless of who is elected to leadership.
In the short term, the military coup needs to be reined in. This starts with holding the Burma Army accountable for their crimes and effectively ending their violent power-run. Decisive action will also need to be made on behalf of the international community and the US, which would include targeted sanctions on military-owned and controlled companies as well as pressure on the Burma Army to release all detained political prisoners. Ethnic minorities’ struggle for representation and basic human rights can no longer go overlooked— justice and the rule of law are in dire need of implementation.
While current events paint out Burma’s future to be extremely dim, there is hope for a country that has long fought for and is deserving of sustainable peace and democracy. Citizens have taken to the streets in mass protest against the Burma Army’s illegal seizure of power, with the rise of the Civil Disobedience Movement bringing artists, teachers, healthcare workers, and activists together in opposition. Burma has required the world’s attention for far too long— action must be taken to support Burma’s transition to security, peace, and democracy.