With State Counsellor Aung San Suu Kyi under house arrest, and the military once again in the driver’s seat, history appears to be repeating itself in Myanmar! Ever since that country wrested her independence in 1948, it had been a continuous tussle between democratic forces and the military junta to secure political and administrative power. In 1962, the military, locally called the Tatmadaw, under General Ne Win, overthrew the civilian government and installed an authoritarian regime. But to assuage growing democratic sentiments amongst the people, the junta was coerced into holding multi-party elections in 1990, which was won by the National League of Democracy (NLD) party of Suu Kyi. The junta refused to let go power, annulled the election, arrested Opposition party members and placed Suu Kyi under house arrest, in which she remained for two decades. But international sanctions and popular internal protests induced Myanmar’s military again to take steps to usher in civilian rule in 2007. But it changed the Constitution, reserving key ministries and 25% of parliamentary seats for unelected military appointees. Suu Kyi’s NLD party, which won overwhelmingly in the 2015 elections, had to accept the terms in order to further the cause of democracy. The last decade, therefore, had seen uneasy coexistence, with the junta hovering over the democratic forces like the sword of Damocles, and Suu Kyi being forced to defend army action against Rohingyas.
Thus there is an element of déjà vu in the latest development in Myanmar, where the military has seized power in yet another coup d’état, detaining Suu Kyi, President Win Myint, NLD lawmakers and members of its Central Executive Committee, as also party officials and democratic activists. The Tatmadaw’s move came just as the country’s new Parliament, formed after the 2020 elections which the NLD had won overwhelmingly, was to be sworn in for a five-year term. The military claims that it is taking control to investigate alleged fraud at the country’s November elections, when clearly it was fear at NLD’s popularity and that the party would use this to amend the Constitution and deprive the army of its powers, which has induced the latter to embark on this coup d’état. As before there has been condemnation of the army’s actions by a number of nations including the US and India, and the prospect of reimposed economic sanctions by the international community looms high. Also, as before, it is the tacit support of China, which had been alarmed at Myanmar’s shift towards democracy, that has emboldened the junta to grab power, and former General Myint Swe to declare himself the Acting President. While it is to be hoped that the international community would continue to impose sufficient pressure on the junta to reverse its decision, the final responsibility for this will lie on the resolve of Myanmar’s people.