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Military Coup in Myanmar and the Regression of Democracy

In the early hours of February 2021, the military seized power in Myanmar, declaring a year-long state of emergency. This led to the arrests of leading public figures including Noble Prize Laureate and civilian leader Aung San Suu Kyi as well as President Win Myint. This was following only the third Democratic election since the end of the country’s military dictatorship.

Democracy within Myanmar has been tenuous since its inception. Its Constitution, drafted in 2008 while under Junta rule, granted the military 166 seats in Parliament (25 percent of the seats), which allowed them to hold significant power. Throughout elections, the military-backed the Union Solidarity and Development Party (USDP) as their proxy party for the other 75 percent of seats up for election. Despite the military’s support, the USDP won only a fraction of seats in the recent election, with Suu Kyi’s National League for Democracy (NLD) winning a landslide of 399 seats (with only 322 seats being needed to form a government).

Following these results, both the military and the USDP raised claims of election fraud and the military laid the groundwork for a coup, stating that they would “take action” unless the election was rerun under their supervision. Four days before the coup, the country's Electoral Commission said that there was no substantial evidence of election fraud and that Suu Kyi’s victory was legitimate. The Military Armed Forces Chief Min Aung Hlaing seized control of the state during the coup, establishing an 11 person Junta which will hold power for at least the next year. The military arrested members of the NLD, including one member of Parliament whose arrest was streamed live on Facebook by her husband.

Many arrests were made on the grounds of “election fraud”, however, documents suggest that those arrested are being charged with other crimes. Suu Kyi was charged with violations of import and export laws due to owning unlawful communication devices and Myint was charged with breaching National Disaster Management Law for meeting supporters during the election campaign and for violating COVID-19 restrictions. The use of charges other than election fraud by the military suggests that the military is attempting to trump up charges on their political opponents as they have no other grounds under which to charge them.

Since the coup, there has been an outpouring of support from the international community for Suu Kyi, the NLD, and for democracy within Myanmar. The United States, the United Kingdom, Canada, and the European Union, as well as many Asian democracies, have released statements of support for the NLD and for the upholding of the election results.

The United Nations Security Council even attempted to reach a collective position and plan of action to help return the NLD regime. However, China did not agree with the approach proposed by other states, believing that sanctions on the new regime would only make the situation worse. The Security Council subsequently failed to reach any kind of agreement to help the people of Myanmar due to its bureaucratic shortfalls.

Within Myanmar, there have been outcries of public support with grassroots movements spawning from the coup. Much of this opposition to the coup has been organised online with many Facebook groups being established to plan civil disobedience against the new regime at their own legal risk. This has led to the military banning access to Facebook in the country.

Since the coup, there has also been a mass protest movement against the new regime with thousands taking to the streets despite a ban on large public gatherings and curfews put in place in major cities. Those protesting have been met with water cannons, tear gas, and rubber bullets, with some unconfirmed reports of live fire taking place against crowds. However, not all protestors have received the same treatment from law enforcement with some officials crossing the divide to join the protests or allowing the protestors to pass their blockades. This would suggest that the military's grip on power is not as ironclad as they assert.

Many of those under the rule of this new regime grew up under the old regime and wish to see their country avoid a return to the military dictatorship of the past. Despite the major human rights issues that Myanmar has had since the introduction of its partial burgeoning democracy, the world waits with bated breath to see if progress can be restarted. The Myanmar people continue to fight to improve their lives within Myanmar and prevent the state's regression to a time before any sense of democracy.


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