By Rizal G. Buendia
Similar to practically all Southeast Asian countries, Myanmar (also known as Burma) experienced decades of authoritarian or semi-authoritarian rule as well as periodic mass movements opposing despotic and dictatorial rule. The people of Myanmar (also known as Burmese or Bamar) have passionately yearned for a more democratic and pluralist society after almost half-a-century of military rule – 26 years (1962- 1988) under General Ne Win’s military dictatorship and 22 years (1988-2011) under General Saw Maung’s military government, formerly known as the State and Law Order Restoration Council (SLORC) and later as the State and Peace and Development Council (SPDC).
The intense upsurge and rapid spread of a protest movement in the entire country following the detention of Aung San Suu Kyi, NLD’s Chairperson and Myanmar’s State Counsellor (equivalent to a prime minister), the country’s President Win Myint, and other elected members of the parliament is comprehensible when the country’s Armed Forces (Tatmadaw) Commander-in-Chief Min Aung Hlaing seized power, made retired general and vice-president Myint Swe the new president. The Tatmadaw nullified the results of the 2020 general elections which popularly elected the ruling party, the National League for Democracy (NLD), to the parliament – winning a total of 396 out of 476 seats, which is more than 322 required for a parliamentary majority (Walker 2021).
In the early hours of 1 February 2021, a day before the parliament is due to convene after the NLD’s landslide victory in the November 2020 election, the military staged a coup d’état against the democratically chosen leaders and accused them of rigging the 2020 general elections, hence regarded the elections as illegitimate and invalid. Consequently, the stratocratic government proclaimed a yearlong state of emergency and stated that a new election will be held upon the lifting of “emergency” rule.
Abrogating the election results due to alleged fraud and cheating have been controverted by international election observers, which include the Asian Network for Free Elections (ANFREL), the Carter Center, the European Union, as well as other diplomatic observers who attest to the validity and fairness of election outcomes. Likewise, a coalition of 12 domestic election observer organizations contends that the election was respectable that reflect the will of the people.
Against this backdrop, this brief exposition analyses the state of the democratic movement in Myanmar in terms of its inclusiveness, comprehensiveness, and participation to sustain a mass movement serving the multi-faceted interest of the people.
Discerning elections and electorates
While Western countries view the military takeover of the government as “unacceptable” and “outrageous” with the US even threatening sanctions, the Association of Southeast Asian Nations (ASEAN) interprets the situation in Myanmar as an “internal affair” and calls for more dialogue, reconciliation, and return to normalcy among parties rather than condemnation. In addition, China and Russia block the United Nations’ Security Council’s (UNSC) statement reproving the military coup arguing that it will escalate the tension and complicate the situation instead of contributing to the political and social stability of Myanmar.
Indeed, there is no single perception in analyzing the events that transpired in Myanmar. Viewpoints and standpoints of countries are defined by their concepts and values of “democracy,” “human rights,” and “governance” as well as the imperatives of geopolitics and nation’s notion of sovereignty. In like manner, the Burmese or Bamar majority believe in and assert their democratic right to be governed by their duly elected leaders rather than by the unelected military officers. Nonetheless, the Burmese majority does overlook the fact that Myanmar’s ethnic and minority groups have equal right as theirs to dissent against the NLD leaders to rule over their land, considering that nearly two (2) million of them have been disenfranchised when the NLD-created Union of Election Commission (UEC)[i] cancelled the 2020 elections in their areas.
Even though no massive and significant irregularities occurred in the elections, the Human Rights Watch (HRW) deemed the process fundamentally flawed and lacking in transparency, thus anti-democratic. Notably, less than a month before the 2020 general elections, the UEC disenfranchised ethnic and religious minorities in 56 townships in Kachin, Kayin, Mon, Rakhine, and Shan states, citing security concerns and judging that “free and fair elections” could not be conducted.
Notwithstanding the 48 years of military rule and five (5) years of NLD and Aung San Suu Kyi (2015-2021) in power, ethnic minorities have been subjected to a form of colonial subjugation. In fact, over the past five (5) years under NLD’s rule, systemic violence against minorities and Rohingya worsened. It has supported the military in carrying out ethnic cleansing. HRW Asia Director Brad Adams says:
It’s appalling that Aung San Suu Kyi is determined to hold an election that excludes Rohingya voters and candidates…She knows that real democracy cannot flourish in an apartheid regime imposed on the Rohingya.
In December 2019, Suu Kyi appeared before the International Court of Justice (ICJ) at The Hague in a lawsuit brought by The Gambia to defend the State’s security forces against allegations of genocide of the Muslim Rohingyas who reside in Rakhine State of Myanmar. She argued that Myanmar’s military did not have any “genocidal intent” against the Rohingyas. She contended that the conflict was “internal” between the army and the local armed group, the Arakan Rohingya Salvation Army (ARSA). This implies that Myanmar is engaged in a legitimate act of securing the stability and protecting integrity of the state.
Apparently, the NLD and Suu Kyi have diminutive if not nil appreciation for fundamental human and democratic rights of the minorities in spite of being projected internationally as icons of democracy. It was reported that many ethnic minorities have become disheartened and dejected with NLD and Suu Kyi as more ethnic states have been marginalized and more people displaced when Suu Kyi served as State Counsellor and Minister of Foreign Affairs since 2015. Ashley South, an independent Myanmar expert, confided that the minorities feel ‘disappointed’ toward the NLD government. Conceivably, NLD’s concept of democracy is narrowly focused on individual voting rights and chiefly intended to thwart military’s dominance over the affairs of government rather than an inclusive, anti-racist, multi-ethnic, and pluralist democracy.
Broadening democracy and rights in the context of change
Enlarging the idea of democracy is vital in sustaining the democratization movement and warding off authoritarianism. This part of the essay explores the changing significance of democracy in a transforming world not only in Myanmar. It examines, in brief, the issue and question of ethnic rights vis-à-vis individual (liberal-democratic) rights and how they figure out in strengthening the process of democratization in contemporary society.
The term “democracy,” a combination of two Greek, words: demos (people) and krato (rule or power) or simply the “rule of the people,” raises a number of complex concerns: who are considered the “people”? how should power be exercised? how should structures and institutions of power be organized and shaped to reflect the people’s power? what kind of participation is envisaged for the people? what and where is the place of people’s obligation and dissent? under what circumstances, if any, is government entitled to resort to coercion against its own people or against those outside the sphere of legitimate rule?
Conceptually, “majoritarian” democracy (Westminster model) needs to be de-massified amidst the advancement of local empowerment, resistance to globalization, homogenizing capitalism, and heightened ethnic and racial consciousness. The upsurge of ethnicity and defense of ethnic and minority rights due to the centralization of the state and globalization have become paramount at this time without certainly destressing the protection of individual rights, i.e., civil, political, social, and economic rights.
Ethnic rights are not always reducible to individual rights as the former are employed in collectivities or groups. These can be exercised only through collective action of individuals who share common values. An individual can be a bearer of such rights solely by joining other members of one’s own group. Otherwise, it ceases to be a collective right. The conception of the collective as a whole rather than a collection of individuals provides an alternative source of security and protection among ethnic groups against the attempt of the state, market, and development process to reduce their identities to isolated “selfs” and abdicate their freedom at the expense of “others.”
In fact, it is highly inconceivable for an individual to successfully sustain and nurture one’s culture, religion or language out of one’s ethnic group or society. Minority rights, for obvious reasons, can be enjoyed only through the group to which the individual belongs. The denial of a group’s collective identity, consequently, means the denial of an individual’s rights. Corollary to collective rights is the relativity of values. Human rights need to be applied with due respect to the rights of people who chose to be different. The application of standards embodying’ the values of only one culture over other cultures is indeed an affront to the latter.
Apparently, democracy must not only guarantee the democratic rights of the majority but also assure the minority of their rights to differ from the majority. These are without any obligation on the part of the former to yield their rights and abide by the decisions, policies, and rules set forth by the latter when such endanger or cause the erosion of identity and survival of ethnic groups. Otherwise, the minority would simply be persecuted by the majority.
The persistence of a mosaic of ethnic groups who operate in accordance with their own rules and persevere in their legitimate rights to self-governance, either outside or within the realm of the State, is slowly giving rise to “mosaic democracy” as distinguished from mass democracy. Mosaic democracy appears to correspond to the mosaics in the economy and diversified or “de-massified” people’s needs and political demands.
The inability of the state to expand the process of democratization does not only limit participation and representation but may be destabilizing for the state. Htoo Htet Naing, head of the Accountable Action for Arakan, a non-profit organization based in the State of Rakhine, asserts in a statement that the disillusionment of the minorities in the electoral process after cancellation of elections in their localities trigger outrage among them and will lead to the non-recognition of whoever wins in the election.
If our right to vote isn’t recognised, we won’t recognise the government…The people have lost their rights and [ethnic] parties have been excluded and marginalised. It destroys people’s expectations for a democratic transition and negates people’s efforts to reform governance structures.
The issue of federalism
Three (3) weeks after the Tatmadaw illegitimately seized power, it was reported that members of some of Myanmar’s ethnic groups joined the resistance against the military coup leaders and supported the civil disobedience movement despite their misgivings over NLD’s commitment to their aspirations towards political autonomy, federalism, and community representation. Saw Kapi, director of Salween Institute for Public Policy, one of Myanmar’s think tanks, declares that although ethnic minorities are in unison with the Bamar majority in opposing the rule of the military, they differ in what they want for the future; while the protest movement aspire for liberal democracy, the ethnic minorities seek autonomy.
Ke Jung, a youth leader from the Naga minority is more explicit, stating that the minorities are in pursuit of a federalism, “[W]e can’t form a federal country under dictatorship. We can’t accept the junta.” Myanmar’s minorities are therefore more concerned with the issue of federalism rather than who would be a better ruler – the military or NLD. Hence, there is no agreement on who should govern Myanmar in the event that stratocracy is toppled.
While the democratic movement in Myanmar and the peoples’ resistance against military rule have to be acclaimed and admired, there is a need to widen the heroic democratic struggle of the people. Democracies have to tolerate the widest possible diversity so long as the political system remains equilibria. In a similar vein, constitutional framework and development strategies ‘apropos’ in fostering cultural pluralism have to be discovered sui generis in each case.
The empowerment of diverse ethnic communities and recognition of their right to nurture their own development are essential requisites in nation-and state-building and in upholding democracy in a multi-ethnic society. The- surge of ethnic nationalism poses the challenge of redefining and reformulating the concept of “democracy” so as to include the advancement and protection not only of individual rights but also the collective rights of ethnic and minority peoples.
An expansive, inclusive, non-racist, pluralist, and mosaic notion of democracy will not only strengthen the process of democratization in any country but also serve as a bulwark against leaders who seek cover under the wings of democracy to install another authoritarian and fascist regime.
For Myanmar’s ethnic minorities, federalism is perceptively more suitable as major diversities of people are geographically grouped as confirmed by scholars and practitioners of political systems (Carnell 1961). Federalism promotes democracy, unity in diversity, and expresses confidence over the ideals of liberty and freedom.
Editor’s note: The views expressed in the article are the author’s own and do not necessarily reflect those of PinterPolitik.
 Union Election Commission is the national level electoral commission of Myanmar, responsible for organising and overseeing elections in Burma.
Carnell, F. G. (1961). “Political implications of federalism in new states”, in U.K. Hicks (Ed.), Federalism and economic growth in underdeveloped countries. Allen and Unwin, Hemel Hempstead, Herts. pp 16–59.
Walker, N. (2021). Myanmar: 2020 parliamentary election. Briefing paper CBP 9127, 4 February. United Kingdom: House of Commons Library.