Introduction to Myanmar
The politics of Myanmar confuse many of us (although few will admit it). Let’s start with the name. Some still call it Burma. This is the original name dating back to British colonial rule. However, its name officially changed in 1989 to Myanmar. At the time the United States refused to recognize the change of its name in part, because it refused to recognize the government after the military coup and the repression of the 8888 Uprising. Nonetheless, many academics to this day will use Myanmar and Burma selectively or even interchangeably.
Its military has played an outsized role in its political history. The military is known as the tatmadaw. The tatmadaw has defined the trajectory of the key transitions in Myanmar’s politics through its willingness to seize political power and manage the state. Despite the importance of the tatmadaw, nominal political leadership is often in the hands of civilian leaders. Still, the tatmadaw has always retained significant formal power throughout Myanmar’s history. The most recent constitution gave the tatmadaw formal authority over the ministries of Home Affairs, Border Affairs, and Defense.
On February 1st the tatmadaw seized political power once again through the declaration of a state of emergency. They arrested State Counsellor Aung San Suu Kyi and other civilian political leaders. The coup d’etat followed elections where the incumbent National League for Democracy (NLD) held onto its supermajority in parliament. The coup is widely seen as a response to a second consecutive humiliation at the ballot box. It caught many political observers off guard because Myanmar has undergone a decade of political liberalization through the introduction of elections and greater respect for human rights.
A Brief Political History of Myanmar
Myanmar’s political history divides into three main sections. Its early history begins with independence in 1948. Its early years experienced instability in its politics and security. In 1062 the tatmadaw seized political power through a coup of senior military officers. Ne Win led the coup and effectively governed until his retirement in 1988. During this time he formed a single party state through the creation of the Burmese Socialist Program Party (BSPP). This era commonly refers to the Burmese Way to Socialism. Unlike many other military regimes, the tatmadaw embraced a leftist ideology during this period.
Around the time Ne Win stepped down in 1988, the economy faced a series of crises. Protests broke out demanding economic and political reforms including democratization. The protests became known as the 8888 Uprising. Aung San Suu Kyi emerged on the political scene as a leader of the nascent democratic movement during this time. The tatmadaw staged another coup and formed the State Law and Order Restoration Council (SLORC). They introduced elections in 1990, but refused to cede power when the NLD won an overwhelming victory. The military restored order largely through outright repression. During this time they became recognized as a pariah state and faced sanctions from the West.
Political liberalization began as early as 2008 with the introduction of a new constitution. Nonetheless, new elections did not take place until 2010. The new constitution conferred substantial power to the tatmadaw who oversaw key ministries and reserved a quarter of parliament to active military personnel. Nonetheless, it did offer a substantial role for civilians in governance. Still, the tatmadaw formed a new political party called the Union Solidarity and Development Party (USDP) to represent their interests in elections. Moreover, retired general Thein Sein won the Presidency in 2010.
The NLD and Political Liberalization
The NLD had boycotted the initial elections in 2010. However, after Aung San Suu Kyi’s release from house arrest, they fielded candidates and actively campaigned in 2015. They won outright majorities in both chambers of parliament. Because the constitution formally barred Aung San Suu Kyi from the Presidency on a technicality, they created a new post called State Counsellor. Despite no mention of the office of State Counsellor in the constitution, Aung San Suu Kyi effectively became the head of the government.
Many political leaders, activists, and academics all had high hopes for Myanmar after the 2015 elections. Aung San Suu Kyi was a legend in the global democracy movement. She had won the Nobel Prize in 1991 for her leadership during the 8888 Uprising. Unfortunately, she did not meet the lofty expectations many around the world anticipated. She demonstrated many authoritarian inclinations in style and substance. Her politics was fiercely nationalistic. Indeed, she even defended the army at the International Court of Justice for human rights abuses over the expulsion of the Rohingya people.
Despite criticisms from around the world, Aung San Suu Kyi and the NLD remained popular in Myanmar. Nonetheless, the USDP and the tatmadaw expected the NLD to lose seats in the 2020 elections after four years of governance, They had won such an overwhelming victory in 2015, few thought they would produce a repeat performance. In the end, the NLD gained a handful of seats in both chambers. While the NLD remains popular in Myanmar, the results also represented a rejection of the tatmadaw and the USDP. The 2020 election demonstrated the military could not hold onto power in a democratic political environment.
The recent coup has perplexed many political observers. Regardless of any pressures from democratic protest movements, the tatmadaw had spearheaded the political liberalization of the past ten to fifteen years. Moreover, liberalization brought about tangible economic benefits through the repeal of economic sanctions and its inclusion into the global economy. So, the actions of the tatmadaw come across to many as narcissistic and selfish. Zoltan Barany believes, “Like many dictators before them, Burma’s generals in 2008 failed to grasp just how much the people detested them.” Thant Myint-U predicts the implosion of the economy and a descent into a failed state. Other scholars never had high expectations. Igor Blaževič wrote back in 2016, “As both a state and a nation, Burma so far has been a failed project.” Hopefully, recent events do not represent failure, but simply a setback in a far longer history.
Listen to the Democracy Paradox’s episode featuring Roger Lee Huang, author of The Paradox of Myanmar’s Regime Change, for a more in-depth exploration into the politics of Myanmar.
A Few Sources
Zoltan Barany (2021) “The Generals Strike Back,” Journal of Democracy
Hannah Beech and Adam Dean (2019) “‘How Myanmar Covered Up Ethnic Cleansing,” New York Times
Igor Blaževič (2016) “Burma Votes for Change: The Challenges Ahead,” Journal of Democracy
The Economist (2021) “Myanmar Could be Asia’s Next Failed State”
The Economist (2021) “The Meaning of Myanmar’s Coup”
Roger Lee Huang (2020) The Paradox of Myanmar’s Regime Change
Thant Myint-U (2019) The Hidden History of Burma: Race, Capitalism, and the Crisis of Democracy in the 21st Century
Thant Myint-U (2021) “Myanmar’s Coming Revolution,” Foreign Affairs
Bridget Welsh, Kai-Ping Huang, and Yun-han Chu (2016) “Clashing Attitudes Toward Democracy,” Journal of Democracy
Min Zin (2016) “The New Configuration of Power” Journal of Democracy
Democracy Paradox Podcast
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