Volume 3, No. 6, June 2021
Editor: Rashed Rahman
The military coup in Myanmar on February 1, 2021 dashed whatever hopes remained of a turn from the decades-old repressive domination by the Tatmadaw (military) towards a democracy. Aung San Suu Kyi’s National League for Democracy (NLD) won 396 out of 476 seats (83.19 percent) in the November 8, 2020 general election. This was an even bigger landslide in the party’s favour than the 2015 elections in which it had won 79.5 percent of the seats, paving the way for its entry into power. That entry through the first general election since 1960 was circumscribed by the military-promulgated Constitution of 2008, which reserved 25 percent of the seats in parliament for the military, effectively blocking any constitutional amendment/s requiring a 75 percent majority, reserving the post of President for the army, and leaving the appointment of the interior, defence and border affairs ministries (i.e. all portfolios to do with security) in the hands of the army chief.
Aung San Suu Kyi and other leaders of the NLD were detained immediately. She has finally had a court appearance the other day to hear the patently trumped up charges against her. Appreciably, she appeared calm and confident. Aung San Suu Kyi is no stranger to detention. The NLD was formed under her leadership in 1988 in the wake of a student-led uprising against the military dictatorship that had been in power since 1962. The following year, she was put under house arrest, where she remained for 15 years. In 1991, she was awarded the Nobel peace prize while still in detention.
Aung San Suu Kyi’s lineage and her struggle against military dictatorship and for democracy helps explain her extraordinary charisma and the undying love and support of her people. While in detention, she has helped keep the struggle alive by her courage and principled stance. In 2007, the Saffron Revolution, in which thousands of Buddhist monks rose up against the military, was suppressed with brutal force just as in 1988 and subsequent uprisings. In response to widespread unrest, the military regime promulgated the 2008 Constitution, which fell far short of full democracy. The 2010 elections under this new Constitution were boycotted by the NLD, perhaps in anticipation of the military regime’s plan to rig the polls in favour of the military-backed Union Solidarity and Development Party, and so indeed it transpired.
By 2011, the military began to realise some concessions would have to be made to the democratic forces led by the NLD. An important factor was the down spiralling of the economy, ostensibly run on socialist lines with the heights of the economy under state control and Myanmar isolated from the world, with the exception of China, which extended military and economic aid and protected the military regime from censure in the UN Security Council and opposed any international intervention in Myanmar’s internal affairs. The 2015 general elections, however, in a telling sign of the changing times, returned the NLD with a landslide win (79.5 percent of the seats).
Circumscribed by the military as the NLD government was after the 2015 elections, it inspired the people to return the party with an even bigger majority in the 2020 general elections (83.19 percent of the seats). This in spite of the criticism directed at Aung San Suu Kyi for not taking a clear stand against the military’s expulsion of thousands of the Rohingya people from the State (province) of Arakan bordering Bangladesh. The critics failed to take account of the delicate and sensitive nature of the relationship between the NLD government and the military. There were definite constraints on the former’s freedom of action. Nevertheless, the people of Myanmar not only were aware of these limitations, they did not let the issue stand in the way of returning the NLD to power with an even bigger landslide victory in 2020.
It is this growing power of the democratic forces led by NLD that persuaded the military to halt the ‘experiment’ of a civilian democratically elected government fronting the continuing control of the military from behind the curtain. If the trajectory and forward march of the democratic movement is any guide, the military saw its eventual marginalisation if not ouster from power, a prospect it was not willing to contemplate, resorting as per habit to the most severe repression against peaceful protestors that has killed over 800 people already, and counting.
What is most interesting is that some of the urban peaceful protestors, in response to the military’s ‘shoot to kill’ stance, have decided to join the ethnic minority rebel armies in the mountains and jungles who have been waging an armed struggle for autonomy since 1947, the eve of Myanmar’s independence from British colonial rule in 1948. To understand this phenomenon of ethnic rebel armies, a slight digression into Myanmar’s history may be useful as context.
Myanmar (Burma) borders Thailand, Laos, China, India and Bangladesh. This geographical location is reflected in the historical influx of peoples from these adjoining countries, starting with settlers from Yunnan, China from 11,000 B.C. onwards. The Yunnanese people eventually set up the Pyu city states (200 B.C.-1051 A.D.) The Bamar people entered the upper Irrawaddy Valley in the 9th century A.D. and achieved the first ever unification of the Irrawaddy Valley and its periphery in the Pagan kingdom (849-1297, essentially a riverine civilisation, as was the norm in ancient times). The Burmese language and Bamar culture slowly replaced and absorbed the Pyu in its fold. After the first Mongol invasion in 1287, several small, splintered kingdoms emerged, amongst whom the Ava, Hauthewaddy, Mrauk U and Shan (the last came with the Mongols) were dominant, but there were constantly shifting alliances and wars amongst them. Notable too were the Mon kingdom (400 B.C.-1057 A.D, people from Thailand) and the Arrakanese kingdom (788?-1406). The Warring States period lasted from 1297 to 1555 and was followed by the Toungoo dynasty (1510-1599 and 1599-1757) and the Konbaung dynasty (1752-1885). The Anglo-Burmese wars (1842-45) led to British colonial rule, although there was a Resistance guerrilla movement (1885-1895), followed by a Nationalist Movement (1900-1948).
World War II saw the Japanese occupation (1942-1945), during which some nationalists (a la India’s Subhash Chandra Bose) flirted with Japanese support against the British. Amongst them was Aung San, father of Aung San Suu Kyi and considered the father of Burmese independence. Aung San had been instrumental in forming the Communist Party of Burma (CPB) in 1939, the Socialist Party later, and the Freedom Bloc, a broad front of all patriotic forces. Japanese deception regarding the future independence of Burma soon disillusioned Aung San and his comrades, and they forged an Anti-Fascist Organisation that declared itself with the Allies. After the defeat of the Japanese in 1945, Aung San led the negotiations with the British for independence. Having successfully concluded Burma’s independence negotiations, Aung San and many senior leaders of the movement were assassinated by rivals on July 19, 1947. Suu Kyi therefore brings to the table the mantle of her father’s independence hero legacy.
From 1948-62, Burma was formally a parliamentary democracy. In 1962, General Ne Win mounted a military coup. The military remains in power since then, with Ne Win clinging to the top slot for 26 years. This ‘permanent’ military regime had been challenged by the CPB and some ethnic minority insurgencies dating to around independence, some that broke out after the 1962 coup, and a widespread democratic movement from 1962 to date. To understand these disparate forces splayed against the military dictatorship, some light needs to be shed on the CPB and ethnic minority insurgencies, their trajectories, and their present situation.
The Communist Party of Burma (CPB) was founded on April 16, 1939, during British colonial rule and on the eve of WWII, following the biggest anti-British general strike dubbed the “1300th movement”. Among the founders were several student leaders from Dohbama Asiayone (Our Burma Association), the most militant nationalist political party before WWII. Aung San was elected general secretary of the CPB. In 1944, after a brief but in the end disappointing flirtation with the Japanese occupation forces in control of the country since 1942 against British colonialism, the CPB helped organise the Anti-Fascist People’s Freedom League (AFPFL) comprising the Burma National Army under Aung San and other patriotic forces. On March 27, 1945, the CPB started an armed struggle against the Japanese occupiers. This guerrilla struggle coincided with the defeat by the Allies of Japan in August 1945. However, in October 1946, there was a split between the communists and socialists in the AFPFL, which led to the expulsion of the communists. The AFPFL then negotiated the independence of Burma, formalised in the Aung San-Attlee agreement.
The CPB waged political struggles in parliament, and amongst the workers and peasants. In 1948, amidst an upsurge of such mass struggles, the government cracked down on the communists, and on March 28, 1948, the CPB launched an armed struggle against the (new, after the British departure) ruling classes. This civil war lasted until 1969, when the CPB collapsed due to internal strife, compelling the remnants of the party to seek shelter in their main supporter, neighbouring China.
Out of Myanmar’s 57 million population, the Bamar constitute 68 percent, Shan nine percent, Karen seven percent, Rakhine four percent, Chinese three percent, Indian two percent, Mon two percent, and others five percent. The main religions are Buddhist 88 percent, Christian six percent, Muslim four percent, animist 0.8 percent, Hindu 0.5 percent, and others 0.2 percent. There are more than 100 ethnic groups in the country, with a history of systemic discrimination, lack of economic opportunity and development, minimal representation, and abuse. The 1982 Citizenship Law laid down that only members of ethnic groups that lived in Myanmar before 1823 (the year of British partial occupation) could be full citizens. This rendered hundreds of thousands of lifelong residents and members of entire minority groups, particularly the Rohingya, effectively stateless.
Under British colonial rule, ethnic divisions were deliberately created and stoked (classic British colonial ‘divide and rule’ tactics, so familiar to us in the Subcontinent), but continued in the form of discrimination even after independence in 1948. Said to be the longest continuing civil war in history, the Tatmadaw (military) has been engaged in lengthy armed struggles with 20 plus ethnic organisations and dozens of smaller militias since independence. Several ethnic armed organisations (EAOs) initially fought for greater autonomy. Tensions were exacerbated by the military coup in 1962, after which minorities’ rights were further curtailed. The fighting has primarily been in the heavily forested and mountainous border areas in which these minorities live. The prominent ethnic guerrilla armies are the Arakan Army in Rakhine State (Buddhist, not Rohingya), the Karen National Liberation Army in Kayin (Karen) State, the Kachin Independence Army in Kachin State, the Shan State Army and United Wa State Army in Shan State, and many more smaller militias. In this long running civil war, tens of thousands have been killed. The Tatmadaw is accused of abuses in Chin and Rakhine States, including extrajudicial killings, forced labour, rape, torture, and the use of child soldiers. Nearly one million people have reportedly fled abroad, hundreds of thousands are internally displaced.
After the February 2021 military coup, some city protestors have joined one or the other EAO to train in guerrilla warfare. There seems to be convergence emerging between the underground shadow government of national unity set up by Aung San Suu Kyi’s comrades from the NLD and some EAOs. Some see this as hopeful for a future in which the old ethnic enmities will dissolve in the interests of a unified struggle against the military. Only time will tell, but there is no denying the will and commitment of every citizen of Myanmar, no matter from which ethnicity, not to let the military coup of 2021 stand.