Does the Myanmar Coup represent a threat to democracy in South-East Asia?
In this Voices piece, our three student contributors have explored the consequences of the 2021 Myanmar coup in a broader regional context. They argue that the collapse of democracy in Myanmar is both a product and a cause of the steady democratic backsliding throughout South-East Asia.
The military coup that shook Myanmar on the 1st February 2021 sparked worldwide protests as the country descended into civil war. The military commander-in-chief Min Aung Hlaing seized power right after Aung San Suu Kyi’s National League for Democracy won in a landslide general election. However, even as the country was moving towards democracy for nearly a decade, the Tatmadaw (Myanmar’s military) still maintained considerable political influence. It is therefore not a complete surprise for many that Myanmar has now returned to military rule. Peaceful movements of ‘civil disobedience’ have engulfed the streets of major cities like Yangon and Mandalay, being met with violent military crackdowns from riot-control weapons like water cannons, rubber bullets and occasionally live ammunition. As a response to these tactics, some civilians have started their own armed resistance movements, often in alliance with ethnic minorities – many of whom have been displaced in their hundreds of thousands.
The reaction of the international community has been one of outrage and condemnation, with the UN warning of the deepening of an urgent humanitarian crisis in the country. The US, UK and EU have all imposed sanctions on key military officials and certain holding companies over the violation of human rights and the overthrow of democracy. Ultimately, the military coup represents not only a threat to Myanmar’s democratic governance itself but to the democratic stability of South-East Asia as a whole. Despite previous successes in embracing democracy in the post-war period, the region is once again beginning to experience coups and the rise of populist governments, especially in Indonesia and Thailand.
This Voices article examines the current crisis from three perspectives. Firstly, Grace starts by placing the coup in a historical context of a return of South-East Asian military rule. Secondly, Vandana focuses on the consequences for human rights and argues that Aung San Suu Kyi is partly responsible for the Rohingya genocide as she failed to condemn it at the International Court of Justice. She points out the crucial difference between a liberal and a democratic government. Lastly, Jack analyses ASEAN’s response to the coup and shows that the organisation is setting a bad precedent by choosing not to respond to Myanmar’s anti-democratic policies.
1. How is the Myanmar Coup the product of a steady return of military rule in South-East Asia?
By Grace Eggleston, General Course
Essential to a coup d’état is its suddenness: the petrifying speed at which a political system is nullified in an aberrant burst of violence. In South-East Asia coups d’état are still sudden, but they have long ceased to be aberrant. The 2021 coup in Myanmar was its second since the Tatmadaw armed forces first gained power in 1969. Neighbouring Myanmar to the east, Thailand has experienced a staggering 12 coups since 1932. Indonesia’s democratically elected government was overthrown in 1965 by a military dictator who would rule for over three decades. Cambodia fell to the same fate, and the leader of its 1992 coup still ruling today.
By threatening democratic institutions, South-East Asian militaries often entrench themselves into the core political functions of the state. The more frequent their seizures of power and the longer they stay in office, the more deeply their influence becomes institutionalized. Indeed, the experience of military coups has been found to make states more vulnerable to their repetition.
This makes it all the more remarkable that in the early 2010s, South-East Asia seemed to be throwing off military rule. In 2010, Thailand, Fiji, East Timor, and the Philippines all achieved ‘partly free’ Freedom House rankings, while Indonesia was classified as fully free. Formally representative institutions and reforms, however, did not bring lasting accountability or human rights protection. President Duterte of the Philippines, though democratically elected, is under investigation by the International Criminal Court for killing thousands of his own citizens as a part of his "war on drugs", an initiative that has expanded military incursion into civilian life.
In 2011, the Tatmadaw promised competitive elections as a part of broader democratic reforms. In 2012, while still anticipating these elections, Aung San Suu Kyi cautioned that “Ultimate power still rests with the army...Many people are beginning to say that the democratization process here is irreversible. It’s not so”. Even after Suu Kyi’s election, however, the Tatmadaw retained ‘ultimate’ power. In 2021, they exercised it.
In repressing civil society and wiping away democratic gains, the Myanmar coup represents a threat to democracy in South-East Asia. But even more so, it reveals that the political influence and violent potential of military powers in the region have not receded despite ostensible reforms and popular demands for democracy.
2. What does the breakdown of democracy mean for Rohingya in the region?
By Vandana Venkataraman, 2nd year International Relations
The November 2015 elections offered a rare rousing triumph for Myanmar with the landslide National League for Democracy (NLD) victory: democracy had finally won. However, with this success came the immediate downfall of human rights as the Rohingya Muslims bore the brunt of marginalization and abuse from the military junta. More than 700,000 Rohingya people were forced to flee the border to Bangladesh in the wake of an organised campaign of extrajudicial murders, violence, rape and the destruction of villages by federal security agencies by the end of January 2018. Myanmar’s flirtation with democracy has ultimately been coterminous with severe setbacks for the future of civil rights.
Part of the problem lies with Aung San Suu Kyi’s unwillingness to use her global prestige to condemn the persecuted Rohingya’s ethnic cleansing. Her statement at the International Court of Justice created a large shift in her image, with her citing the 2017 Rohingya crackdown as a “mere internal conflict” while failing to acknowledge the community by name. This turned her from peace icon to pariah. Suu Kyi and her lieutenants are complicit in the genocidal violence by treating the army, the same institution that suppressed Burmese freedom, with utmost deference and respect in return for mutual support in reigning over Myanmar. The Tatmadaw armed forces’ ability to claim full autonomy and the ability to regain political power using the National Defence and Security Council at any given moment leaves the Rohingya in a constant state of fear, with no option of protection, amnesty or security.
The international community is also to be blamed for the inaction against the genocidal atrocities of Myanmar. Despite the 2017 genocide, the UN and the EU were both reluctant to impose sanctions on Suu Kyi’s hybrid civilian “democratic” government due to the fears of her losing her position in government to the military junta. International structures such as the Right to Protect (R2P) norm have blatantly failed, with veto powers like China and Russia emboldening the Myanmar military’s attacks and ASEAN nations refusing to overcome principles of non-intervention. By prioritizing a democratic transition over the persecution of the Rohingya and creating a clearer human rights stance, the international community is complicit in the cleansing of an entire ethnoreligious group.
Ultimately, the breakdown of democracy reflects the grim reality of democratization of Rohingya minorities. Aung Saan Suu Kyi’s fall from grace sheds light on the fact that democracy and liberalism are not synonymous and that pro-democracy icons can easily shed universal principles of human rights for realpolitik gains. Without international intervention, sanctions and coordinated support for human rights, the future for Rohingya is unfortunately bleak and represents a grim future for the development of democracy in Southeast Asia.
3. What consequences will the coup have on Myanmar-ASEAN relations?
By Jack Love, 2nd year International Relations
The February 1st coup in Myanmar has stressed Myanmar-ASEAN relations greatly. ASEAN is the Association of South-East Asian Nations and was founded in 2008 with the principles of establishing peaceful relations, economic development and integration, fostering a sense of community, and strengthening democracy and constitutional government. ASEAN attempted to mediate the crisis in Myanmar by meeting with Myanmar military officials to establish a Five-Point Consensus in April of 2021 which would bring an end to the crackdown that had led to an estimated one thousand deaths and nearly ten thousand arrests. However, in light of Myanmar’s failure to carry out the consensus, the Sultan of Brunei, who held the rotating chair of ASEAN in October of 2021 decided to exclude Myanmar military official Min Aung Hlaing from the summit until the military showed a commitment to carrying out the Five-Point Consensus. For this reason, Myanmar was not present at the October 2021 ASEAN meetings. ASEAN officials made it clear that Myanmar is still “part of the family” and its membership “has not been questioned” despite its absence.
ASEAN is treading a fine line in its policy toward Myanmar. However, rather than stating that it is against the regime change in Myanmar, it is instead condemning the violence associated with the regime change. This demonstrates that ASEAN prioritizes unity over regime type because condemning the new regime in Myanmar would surely lead to Myanmar’s withdrawal from ASEAN. In effect, this is merely an extension of ASEAN’s tendency to be complacent regarding democratic backsliding. ASEAN has taken few measures to address issues regarding freedom of speech in countries like Malaysia, Singapore, and Hong Kong, and more importantly, ASEAN has only responded in a limited way to the Rohingya Genocide. For this reason, ASEAN chose not to address the anti-constitutional and anti-democratic nature of the February 1st coup and instead focus on the violent crackdown on political opposition which followed the coup.
As a result of the coup, relations between ASEAN and Myanmar will be strained but ASEAN will not take any measures that it believes could result in Myanmar leaving the regional agreement. However, this policy towards Myanmar has and will continue to set the negative precedent for ASEAN of turning a blind eye to democratic backsliding and human rights abuses in favour of unity through non-aggression and economic integration. In effect, Myanmar, an ASEAN member state, will get away with anti-democratic and anti-constitutional policies, with only a slap on the wrist for poor execution of the transition which brought about such a regime. For this reason, the coup in Myanmar further perpetuates anti-democratic policies in Southeast Asia and represents a threat to the greater Southeast Asian democratic project.