Observations of an expat: A sad Burmese tale

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This week’s coup in Myanmar (aka Burma) is a warning of the dangers of Faustian pacts between politicians and the military.

To be fair, the political manoeuvrability of human rights icon Aung San Suu Kyi was severely limited. Her country had been under a brutal military regime for nearly half a century when she started talks with the generals.  And she was negotiating while under house arrest.

But the government which eventually resulted in multi-party general elections in 2015 and again last November was neither political fish nor fowl and thus inherently unstable. The Tatmadaw (the military’s name for itself) called the result a “discipline-flourishing democracy.”

The new constitution allowed multi-party elections, but 25 percent of the seats were reserved for the military’s political vehicle the Union Solidarity and Development Party (USDP); which had a blocking vote because major legislation required a three-quarters majority.

In addition, the cabinet portfolios of defence, border security and home affairs were held by serving military officers.  The military also appointed two of the vice presidents. Ms Suu Kyi was specifically barred from the presidency by constitutional clause which said no one married to a non-Burmese citizen or who had non-Burmese children could hold the top job. Aung San Suu Kyi was married to a British subject and had British children.

The generals were the real power in the land. The problem was that they craved political legitimacy; and Aung San Suu Kyi and her National League for Democracy (NLD) repeatedly thwarted them by winning landslide victories.  The latest was in November when the NLD secured 86 percent of the elected seats in parliament. The USDP won a derisory seven percent.

The military claimed the election had been “stolen”. They tried to bully the electoral commission into reversing the result. When that failed they marched on parliament. Sound familiar so far? Backed up with tanks and guns, the generals arrested the NLD politicians and returned Aung San Suu Kyi to house arrest.

The generals had hoped that blocking Ms Suu Kyi from the presidency and her lack of government experience would lead to her failure that would strengthen the USDP. She started by confounding them over the leadership issue. Barred from the presidency, Ms Suu Kyi created the post of “state counsellor” which she said was above the presidency.

But the generals appeared to be right in Aung San Suu Kyi’s lack of government experience. She failed miserably to negotiate an end to the long-standing civil wars which has plagued the country since 1948, with several ethnic factions fighting the dominate Burmese-speakers for autonomy or outright independence.

The ethnic problem was highlighted by Ms Suu Kyi’s failure to control the Tatmadaw from waging virtual genocide against the Rohingya Muslims. Her defence of the Burmese military before the International Court of Justice caused Ms Suu Kyi to fall from the human rights pedestal on which Western liberals had placed her.

Suu Kyi’s handling of the economy was too little too late. Under her government the economy grew at about 6.5 percent a year, but it needed growth of well over 10 percent to make up for decades of mismanagement.

Before independence in 1948, Burma was one of the richest countries in Asia. The country was—and still is—awash in oil, natural gas, minerals and precious gemstones. But its long and repressive military dictatorship resulted in sanctions, lack of foreign investment and international isolation which destroyed the colonial economy. Myanmar’s per capita income is £1,298 per annum compared to $6,502 in neighbouring Thailand.

All this led the military to believe that they had a chance of at the very least making a substantial dent in the NLD’s substantial majority in the elected parliamentary seats. But the November elections only increased the NLD’s position. Democracy had failed the generals, so they staged their coup, put Aung San Suu Kyii back under house arrest and returned to the tried and tested military dictatorship.


* American expat journalist Tom Arms is LDV's foreign affairs editor and author of the forthcoming book “America: Made in Britain.”

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  • Not so much oil in Burma. Remember the British Burmah Oil company of which Mr. Thatcher was an executive.
    The picture is from a protest outside the Burmese Embassy in Bangkok. There are over a million Burmese workers in Thailand, many are strong NLD supporters

  • Charles Smith 6th Feb '21 - 9:12pm

    Myanmar’s junta shut down the internet in the country on Saturday as thousands of people took to the streets of Yangon to denounce this week’s coup and demand the release of elected leader Aung San Suu Kyi.

    In the first such demonstration since the generals seized power on Monday, activists in the country’s largest city chanted, “Military dictator, fail, fail; Democracy, win, win” and held banners reading “Against military dictatorship.” Bystanders offered them food and water.

    Many in the crowd wore red, the color of Suu Kyi’s National League for Democracy (NLD) which won Nov. 8 elections in a landslide, a result the generals have refused to recognize claiming fraud.

  • Considering the sectarian populist nationalism which “The Lady” has been willing to represent, with her indifference to the plight of the minorities for which she’s accountable, from the outside it frankly looks on the whole a good thing that the generals have banned social media- the main means in which Buddhist sectarian hatred has spread rife against the country’s religious minorities, given the lurid stories about them on Whatsapp & Facebook.
    Perhaps the genocidal general’s media ban may divert populist hatred away from non-Buddhist locals while the populace instead focuses anger at the Chinese-backed military. Who knows, maybe a more competent, less sectarian NLD leader might one day build bridges between the majority and religious and ethnic minorities, something “The Lady” clearly had no interest in doing.
    Interestingly, the very name for the smaller Karen Christian minorities derives from a derogatory Burmese term, originally for all non-buddhist indigenous ethnic minorities there.

  • Thomas
    Most Karens are Buddhists as are other minorities.

  • Peter Hirst 8th Feb '21 - 11:47am

    Perhaps there is a lesson here for liberal democracy in judging the actions of leaders when their grip on power is more precarious than we assume. It will be interesting if Aung San Suu Kyi writes her memoirs eventually. We cannot assume that early democracies can always act how we would like them to.

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