Has Burma fallen into a dark abyss?

On February 1, 2021, Burma’s military shocked the world as it seized the reins of an elected civilian government. Given its history, this was not completely unexpected, especially so after the ruling National League for Democracy won convincingly with an overwhelming majority in the November 2020 elections. Meanwhile, the Myanmar military alleged ‘irregularities’ and ‘voter fraud.’ In the aftermath of yet another coup, the new election commission on February 26, 2021, annulled the November election results. 

This has created a deep sense of uncertainty and raises questions on the future and fate of Burma’s search for genuine democracy. Has Burma plunged into darkness? Where is the light at the end of the tunnel? These questions reflect the feelings and anxiety felt across Burma. The fluid and unpredictable situation on the ground is now shaping the landscape of a country which was once the rice bowl of Asia.

The military government has been confronted with mass defiance and resistance through street protests and demonstrations. The country has come to an abrupt grinding halt. The Spectre Journal reported that police officers have in many cases joined the protest against the coup. The military, it reported, has taken defensive positions in key protest sites in Yangon and elsewhere in the country. There have been incidents of shootings, mass arrests and detentions. The UN Human Rights Office reported at least 18 people were killed on February 28, and another 38 killed on March 3. So far, as of the evening of March 5, over 50 people are reported to be killed. 

There are two broad questions that need urgent reflection. First, the recent coup has shown that any prescription for democracy without structural change is bound to collapse. The ability of the military to regain power after almost 11 years of its experiment with democracy indicates that existing political, military and economic institutions and structures are inclined towards the status quo which are either controlled by or extends support to the military. The context in which the coup has taken place shows that military leaders have no intention of handing the government to a democratically elected party.

In essence, Burma continues to be a Garrison State. And real change is not when new structures are created to protect the old, but when old structures of domination are dismantled, and new inclusive and peaceful structures becomes part of Burma’s democratic process.

Second, two opposing pathways to democracy in Burma exist. One advocates for Democracy first, with the assumption that a Federal system will follow. This prescription has failed in Burma. On the other, Ethnic Nationalities want Federalism first. Genuine democracy, they feel, will follow when power is shared through a Federal system in which Ethnic Nationalities have human rights and exercise self-determination. This suggests that ethnic nationalities and the Bamar-majority population are included in developing a new federal system with democratic practices which requires strategic peacebuilding process that includes broad-based inclusive dialogue and reconciliation.

The ongoing civil disobedience movement and call for transformative democracy in Burma will eventually need to address both these fundamental questions which are at the core of the country’s democratic divide.