Grounding the Coup: Narratives of Praetorianism and Democracy in Myanmar

Grounding the Coup: Narratives of Praetorianism and Democracy in Myanmar

… And the other shoe has dropped. After much teasing, Myanmar’s military has finally brought an end to an agonizing two-week ‘will-they-won’t-they’ waiting game. After pressing complaints about electoral lists following the unfolding of the 2020 general election, the long-time tyrants struck out at the governing National League for Democracy (NLD) on Monday morning, executing a swift and wide-sweeping coup d’état. By 5 a.m., word had gotten out that NLD leadership, including long-time pro-democracy advocate and NLD figurehead Aung San Suu Kyi, had been detained by soldiers. Shortly thereafter, internet across major cities began to slow dramatically, and television stations across the country turned to static. By 9 a.m., it was made official: a military-spokesman took to the state-owned Myawaddy television channel to announce that the military had unilaterally declared a year-long state of emergency, and that Commander-in-Chief Min Aung Hlaing had been granted executive, legislative, and judicial powers.

While the military continues to claim that the coup remains de jure within the bounds of their 2008 constitution, in all likelihood, their reclamation of total control has brought shut a decade-long period of creeping liberalization, and all but shutters Myanmar’s chances at a proper democratic transition. In this light, Myanmar’s rapid change of political fortunes as of yesterday might easily come as woven at the centre of two narratives that seem to have defined Myanmar in the eyes of many: on the one hand, a crashing end to a story of hope and democratic change; on the other, the soft, yet inescapable, thump of a history of military despotism reasserting itself once more.

For years, Myanmar has been defined by the military’s prerogatives. The institution of federal elections as part of the military-managed transition to ‘discipline-flourishing democracy’ of the 2000s was preceded by a near 50-year period of despotic and repressive military-led rule. Temporary military rule came in 1958 as a result of growing internecine civil conflict between the military and ethnic armed organizations. By 1962, a coup d’état had been carried out by a newly revitalized — and defiantly nationalist — military. In the years that followed, state governance shifted from military-rule to one-party state to military Junta. While systems shifted, the military’s total control of central governance and the heavy-handed despotism that so accompanied remained constant. Military leader Ne Win’s devaluation of the currency triggered protests in 1988, these driving promises of free and fair elections in 1990. Yet, following the sweeping victory of the newly-formed NLD, the military moved quickly to annul election results and arrest opposition figures. What followed were two further decades of towering and oppressive rule by the Tatmadaw.

However, by 2010, signs of change abound. To many, a new era beckoned. In 2008, the military implemented a new constitution that promised federal elections on a five-year basis as part of their multi-step process to ‘discipline-flourishing democracy’. The military maintained sweeping powers: 25% of seats in both houses of parliament, the right to unilaterally appoint a Vice-President, and control of the ministries of Defence and Home Affairs. However, the implementation of state-wide elections was a marked difference from past years of military rule. Furthermore, following elections in 2010, the military-led administration began to show genuine signs of a willingness to reform: political space opened, economic growth shot to new heights, and a landmark peace treaty signed between several of the major armed ethnic groups signalled the beginning of efforts towards meaningful negotiations between the military and ethnic armed groups throughout the country. More centrally, 2012 saw the election of long house-bound NLD leader Aung San Suu Kyi to Parliament. The further victory of the NLD in federal elections in 2015 meant that for the first time since the 1960s, the military had a new partner in governance. After 5 years of a relatively stable period of shared rule, 2020 marked a second set of relatively free and fair elections for the country, these won convincingly once more by the NLD and Aung San Suu Kyi.

In this sense, these two stories define discussion of Myanmar politics, one emphasizing contemporary political openings, and the other, an entrenched despotism. Following the latter, some have rushed to argue that the coup was demonstrative of the lurking influence of the military within Myanmar’s liberalizing governance structures. Despite five years of democratic governance, the military remained deeply suspicious of the NLD’s endeavours to reform the 2008 constitution and limit the military’s influence. The NLD’s huge victory in November elections only further magnified such a threat. The coup followed the inevitable collision of a threatening pro-democracy actor and a reclusive and authoritarian military outfit.

Following the former, however, was a confounding turn of events. The status quo arrangement wherein the military maintained significant influence over governance behind the scenes and the NLD stood to take the heat for the military’s continued abuse of power (and populations) in peripheral areas benefited the Tatmadaw. To many, the military-NLD period of governance was instead defined by consensus, not conflict. Given this, a coup made little sense. At the turn of the year, the Frontier Myanmar foresaw 2021 as a year defined by the possibility of rare political stability. Only days before the coup, the Irrawaddy called the prospects of a coup “unlikely”. Even after the military had begun detaining NLD figures, some on Twitter even held out hope that this was a negotiating tactic designed to prevent the NLD from further encroachment on military power.

Like any major political event, this most recent coup d’état clearly has much to tell us about changing political realities in Myanmar. Yet as historian Thant Myint-U has pointed out, the coup brings added instability to an already fragile living reality for many Burmese. Regardless of how political scientists and casual observers seek to fit the military’s re-ascendance to power into various stories of democracy, authoritarian retrenchment, and Myanmar history, it might be best to spare a thought for what implications the coup carries for these Burmese individuals on the ground.

Some of the most striking images that arose from Monday morning in Myanmar were of the myriad of shop owners scratching off NLD decals from their windows and of others quickly doing away with the NLD’s peacock-adorned flags. Images of journalists roughed up by soldiers and pro-military figures alike have seemed all too common over the last 48 hours as well. At least in the immediate period, the military coup has meant an all too routine return to a climate of fear and silence that has defined much of Myanmar’s history.

For those from the ethnic states, a belligerent army once more in total control carries anxiety inducing implications. Tatmadaw expansions have resulted in armed clashes most recently in Southeastern Myanmar, leading to yet more 4000 villagers to flee their homes. In the Northwest, hundreds of thousands of Rohingya Muslims still languish in Internally Displaced Persons and refugee camps. For many others, all of this comes at a time when, according to a International Food Policy Research report from late 2020, many segments of the population have been without income for months on end due to the government’s strict response to the COVID-19 pandemic.  

At the base of it, military coups stand as the snapping of political tension; the rapid re-concentration of a once nominally disperse political power. In Myanmar, the shockwaves from this carry across a population where reinstated military rule may carry dramatic implications for the safety and wellbeing of vast swathes of the population. While it might remain in vogue to emphasize the inevitability built into the decades of military influence over central governance or the shock of a democratic opening slamming shut, perhaps the most important narratives right now are those that demand us to ask what happens next for the everyday Burmese people.

Edited by Robin Vochelet

Photo credits:Methinks the tatmadaw doth protest too much.” by Jon Evans, published on Flickr, licensed under CC BY-NC 2.0. No changes were made.

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