One Year into Myanmar’s Military Coup

Myanmar has faced political upheaval since the coup d’état of Feb. 1, 2021. Faced with  political, economic, and humanitarian crises, Myanmar remains a subject of international condemnation and assistance.

What did the Myanmar Government Look Like Before the Coup?

After being colonized by Britain in the 19th century, Burma became independent after the Japanese invasions of World War II. General Aung San, along with leaders from ethnic minority groups, signed the Panglong Agreement in 1947, which guaranteed Burma’s sovereignty and created a bicameral parliament and prime minister. In 1962, there was a coup d’état, beginning the decades long period of military control, where the country was led by General Ne Win. The government was isolationist and had a socialist economy. 

In 1988 a pro-democracy movement, the 8888 Uprising, led to the prominence of Aung San Suu Kyi, daughter of General Aung San. This uprising was met with severe backlash and another military junta took over the country. The country was renamed the Union of Myanmar, though official U.S. policy still refers to the country as Burma. 

In 1990, the junta permitted an election, but rejected the results when Aung San Suu Kyi’s party won in a landslide. They placed Suu Kyi under house arrest. In 2007 Saffron Revolution paved the way for the 2008 Constitution. However, the Constitution, still in place today, allows the military to maintain extensive control over the government (e.g. 25% of parliament seats are reserved for military appointees). Multiparty elections occurred for the first time in 2015, along with other reforms permitted by the junta. This seemed to signal democratic progress. 

What Are the Demographics of Myanmar?

Myanmar is an incredibly diverse country with the state recognizing over 100 ethnic groups. Ethnic Burmans (Bamar) form two thirds of the population and hold the majority of political and military positions. However, many ethnic minorities have faced system discrimination and abuse. These tensions existed during British colonial rule, but worsened under junta leadership in the 1960s. Fighting amongst ethnic groups primarily occurred in Myanmar’s border areas; human rights monitors have long documented the military’s abuses of minority groups. In the wake of the 2021 coup, over one million people fled as refugees, many of whom are Rohingya, a Muslim minority group that has faced decades of repression. 

What Incited the Coup?

On Feb. 1, 2021, Myanmar’s military, known as the Tatmadaw, staged a coup over the country’s democratically elected government, reinstating full military rule. The democratically elected government was headed by Aung San Suu Kyi of the National League for Democracy Party (NLD) who played a critical role in the country’s pro-democracy movement. The junta officially declared plans to dissolve the NLD on May 21, 2021. 

The underlying issue beneath this turmoil was the military’s fear of losing power due to the quasi-democratic system. The coup was, simply, the junta’s way of eliminating the threats of keeping control over the country.

Furthermore, Myanmar has hosted deep-seated ethnic differences, as the military is composed of the Bamar ethnic majority, which makes up ⅔ of the country’s population. The minority groups in Myanmar had been long-standing victims of prejudice and discrimination at the hands of the majority group.

What has the military done and how has the public responded in the past year?

After detaining the democratically elected government’s officials, NDL leaders, and other chief actors, the Tatmadaw declared a national emergency—a power granted under the 2008 Constitution. The military then suspended communication and transportation, closed banks, and cut food supply, among other measures. 

There has since been extensive opposition from ethnic armed organizations and activists who have formed the Campaign for Civil Disobedience (CDM). CDM has organized protests and strikes against the highly unpopular military coup, and local militias, People’s Defense Forces (PDFs), along with groups of civilians, have sprung up to participate in attacks against the Tatmadaw. Such resistance has instigated violent reactions from the Tatmadaw, some of which include the brute use of rubber bullets and rocket launchers, amongst other forms of force. Altogether, failed attempts to overthrow the junta rule has led to a civil war-like situation in the country. 

What is the International Response?

The Association of Southeast Asian Nations (ASEAN) established a five-point consensus plan, with aims to end violence, promote dialogue, provide aid, and allow for a Special Envoy to visit Myanmar, but it has largely been considered a failure, as there has been little tangible progress. With COVID-19 being an impending crisis in Myanmar and the junta exacerbating the situation by blocking aid and targeting healthcare workers, ASEAN has not offered nearly enough aid to make a real impact on the country. 

The United States responded to the crisis on March 12, 2021 by enstating Temporary Protected Status (TPS) for Burmese nationals in the U.S. to file for protected status. The U.S. has also continued financial and humanitarian assistance towards Burma. Shortly after, the House passed the Protect Democracy in Burma Act of 2021, which requires the Department of State to update Congress on the military coup, including U.S. relations with ASEAN in guiding pro-democracy efforts in Burma, as well as efforts to urge the UN to hold the junta responsible for the coup. 

Tom Andrews, United Nations Special Rapporteur on human rights, has urged the international community to obstruct the Tatmadaw’s access to resources by imposing “an arms embargo” and increasing “financial pressure.” The UN has also released a new Humanitarian Response Plan (HRP), which requires a drastic increase in funds, $826 million, in order to help 6.2 million people, as the military coup has displaced hundreds of thousands of people and caused immense nationwide insecurity. 

Silvio Gozato, Ambassador Deputy Head of Delegation of the European Union to the United Nations, declared the military coup in Burma to be a “gross violation of fundamental democratic norms” and stated that “the international community does not accept the coup, and it does not recognize any legitimacy to the regime that emerged from it.

Erin Kim is a freshman majoring in Political Science and International Studies at Johns Hopkins University. She is from Irvine, CA and is an editorial member of the Hopkins Podcast on Foreign Affairs.

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