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Myanmar’s failed experiment with democracy

Dr. Azeem Ibrahim

Published: Updated:

Myanmar has come a long way since its days as a closed authoritarian state led by a military junta which characterised most of its history.

One could argue the beginning of the end of the junta stated 30 years ago this month when over two million people rose up against the regime in pro-democracy street protests. The response by the military junta in 1988 was brutal. Some 3,000 to 10,000 dead, many more tens of thousands injured, imprisoned, or run out of the country altogether.

Among the imprisoned, Aung San Suu Kyi, the daughter of one of the country’s post-independence founders, and a newly emerged pro-democracy icon. Over the next 21 years, she would spend 15 in prison for her advocacy of democracy and human rights in Myanmar – work for which she also received international recognition and a Nobel Peace Prize.

Yet today, Ms Aung San Suu Kyi is the de facto leader of the country, holding the position of 1st State Counsellor, and a number of ministerial portfolios, following a general election in 2015 which swept her pro-democracy movement, the National League for Democracy, to a dominant majority in the country’s parliament (after gaining around 60 percent of the vote for both houses).

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But scratch beneath the surface and it quickly becomes evident that the promises of democracy have been, and continue to be betrayed: and by Ms Suu Kyi and her National League for Democracy as much as by anyone else.

The most obvious sign that something is very wrong in Myanmar is the ongoing genocide against the Rohingya minority in the north-west of the country.

Democracies tend not to kill their citizens en masse. And sure enough, though the Rohingya were all born in Myanmar and have existed in their region for centuries, they are not citizens.

Democracy in Myanmar was a nice dream. But today, it is nothing more than a thin veneer over a nightmarish reality

Dr. Azeem Ibrahim

Citizenship Law

Successive leaderships of the military junta disenfranchised the darker-skinned, minority-religion group, until the 1982 Citizenship Law rendered the members of the group illegal foreigners, ineligible for citizenship or even naturalisation in the country of the birth and of their forefathers.

One would have expected a democracy and human rights icon to advocate for the rights of powerless, disenfranchised groups. Many in Myanmar and the West were expecting Aung San Suu Kyi to do just that upon winning the 2015 general election.

Instead, she has opted to deny the Rohingya their very identity as a people, repeating the Buddhist-nationalist hardline propaganda claims that they are “illegal Bengali immigrants”. And defending the use of violence against them by the Myanmar armed forces in the process.

That is not something that the typical democratic leader does in a normal democratic country. But then, Aung San Suu Kyi is not a typical democratic leader, and Myanmar is hardly a democratic country.

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Ms Suu Kyi’s views on the Rohingya are not new. In 1985 she was writing about the Burmese “racial psyche”, where Buddhism “represents the perfected philosophy. It therefore follows that there [is] no need to either to develop it further or to consider other philosophies”.

Hardly the mindset needed to be a democratic leader in a diverse country. From such unfortunate “accidents of language”, and from her systematic pattern of behaviour and policy since Ms Suu Kyi has been in power, one can conclude that she at most aspires for democracy just for the ethnic Burmese Buddhist citizens of her country. And other senior figures in her NLD party make that case explicitly.

But the Rohingya are just the tip of the iceberg. Even as the military operations in Rakhine state were winding down earlier this year, after they successfully pushed the overwhelming majority of the Rohingya in the region across the border to Bangladesh, the military, with the backing of Ms Suu Kyi’s government, were redeploying to wage full scale ethnic war against other ethnic minorities in border regions in the north and south-east. And these groups largely do have acknowledged citizenship.

Ethno-nationalist state

So why is Myanmar behaving not like the democracy it appears to be, but much the same as it used to behave when it was run by the military juntas: a Buddhist-Burmese ethno-nationalist state engaged in perpetual warfare against any of its people who do not belong to the majority group?

The leaders of Myanmar military retain ownership of the vast majority of the country’s productive resources. When it voluntarily transitioned towards the current “democratic” constitution in 2008, after a wave of public pressure, the Army retained automatic control of 25 percent of the seats in the country’s federal government, and fully autonomous control over areas of government concerning security, defense and foreign policy.

The Commander-in-Chief of Myanmar’s Armed Forces remains above the entire civilian administration in the constitutional power hierarchy, and has the power to veto, overrule or take over the government entirely, whenever he sees fit.

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In other words, Myanmar is still a military dictatorship, both de facto and de jure. The only thing that has changed is that they are now allowing Aung San Suu Kyi, the NLD, and other approved political actors to play at power, within “safe constraints”. And Ms Suu Kyi, her NLD, and other “democratic” parties are happily playing along, now that they are allowed at the table.

In 2015-2016, we could have been persuaded that at least this was progress. And at least the country was going in the right direction. After a campaign of ethnic cleansing which has successfully removed almost an entire ethnic group of some 1 million people from the country, and after the flaring up of all the other ethnic wars the Myanmar Army is involved in, over the past two years this is no longer obvious.

Not least because the “democratic” civilian government is choosing to use its position not to moderate the excesses of the Army, but rather to shield the Army from international condemnation for their assault against their own people. Democracy in Myanmar was a nice dream. But today, it is nothing more than a thin veneer over a nightmarish reality.

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Azeem Ibrahim is Senior Fellow at the Centre for Global Policy and Adj Research Professor at the Strategic Studies Institute, US Army War College. He completed his PhD from the University of Cambridge and served as an International Security Fellow at the Kennedy School of Government at Harvard and a World Fellow at Yale. Over the years he has met and advised numerous world leaders on policy development and was ranked as a Top 100 Global Thinker by the European Social Think Tank in 2010 and a Young Global Leader by the World Economic Forum. He tweets @AzeemIbrahim.

Disclaimer: Views expressed by writers in this section are their own and do not reflect Al Arabiya English's point-of-view.