CEU Democracy Institute Event Asks: Is There Still Chance for Democracy in Myanmar?

The online roundtable organized by the CEU Democracy Institute focused on a possible outcome of the current political upheaval in Myanmar.

On February 1, the overthrow of Aung San Suu Kyi’s government (The National League for Democracy) by the military junta plunged Myanmar (Burma) into chaos again after a short period of democratic developments. The panel discussion organized by the CEU Democracy Institute sought answer to the question whether there is any hope that Myanmar will once again be steered back on to the path of democratic development. And if so, what price the people of Myanmar will have to pay for democracy.

During the course of the online event, the audience was able to welcome the three panelists: Laura Faludi, International Peace Worker (German Civil Peace Service); Wai Wai Nu, the founder and Executive Director of the Women's Peace Network and former political prisoner in Myanmar; and David Scott Mathieson, an independent analyst who has been working on conflict, peace and human rights issues. The online discussion was moderated by Professor Liviu Matei, Provost of Central European University and Vice Chancellor of the Open Society University Network.

Democracy in Myanmar

The discussion began with the title question: Is there still a chance for democracy in Myanmar? Nu was addressed first, who said this is something that should not be questioned as “there is always a chance for democracy when we have a committed society.”

She emphasized how the civil disobedience movement unified the whole country as one to get rid of the military leadership and gain autonomy. The movement was initiated by civil servants, but it spread widely among the people – both geographically and socially – demanding accountability of those who are in power. “One reason why the coup was plausible is the failure of addressing the accountability of the military for the past crimes and the ongoing crimes,” she said, in particular to the human rights abuse of the Rohingya Muslim minority. “It is not a normal military coup; these military individuals are genocide criminals,” she continued, adding that “without the accountability of the regime, we would fail to build our democracy.”

Faludi continued the discussion with a thought on marginalized ethnic groups, suggesting that it is worth examining the nature of the democratic development of the country from 2015. She questioned whether the regime of Aung San Suu Kyi can be seen as democratic if genocide is allowed to happen. Furthermore, ethnic minorities, which make up 30 percent of Myanmar’s population, were and still are excluded from key decision-making. She added that it must be considered what kind of democracy the country would be returning to if there was no chance of experiencing democracy in the first place.

On one hand, this ongoing movement can be seen as a form of unity of the people of Myanmar, she continued. On the other hand, the reality is that the attitude toward ethnic minorities has not remarkably changed yet. The formation of the National Unity Government (NUG) against the military junta and the creation of the Federal Charta are promising steps towards unity, but it can only work if it is going to be genuine and inclusive toward all ethnic groups, since it is still the NLD core that makes decisions, according to Faludi.

To understand democracy in Myanmar, Mathieson brought attention to the fact that Myanmar's Constitution of 2008 and the roadmap to democracy – endorsed by the State Peace and Development Council – promoting a disciplined flourishing democracy. The Aung San Suu Kyi’s NLD was operating according to this idea and coexisted with the military government. But, according to Mr. Mathieson, the big mistake was overlooking the rise of the military. The price it has cost so far includes over 800 people who have been killed, and over 5000 people who have been detained. However, as Faludi added: “You can’t shoot everyone, and you can’t put a whole country in prison.”

The hope:  bravery, innovation, and some humor 

“There is a lot of ground for hope. I have hope in the young people,” said Mathieson. Generation Z has the power of innovation, and the movement of civil disobedience is something that wasn’t seen before in this form. It has successfully made the country disfunction in order to make the military unable to run the country. Protesters were able to spread the power from the ground to the local administration systems to stop them working, alongside the economy, the banking sector and other government services. Not to mention the initiative of consumer boycott against military businesses, Nu added.

Mathieson highlighted two major fears of the authoritarian system which play into the movement’s hands. First, they fear being toppled and facing justice. Second, they fear being ridiculed – and this movement has a sense of humor and innovation in their protests. Enough to think about their strategies include banging pots and pans overnight to warn people that the military is coming or staging the “broken-down cars protest” to block roads in front of the military and police forces.

The other strength here is unpredictability.“We live in a post-prediction Burma,” said Mathieson. It is a big opportunity for the movement that the military is incapable of predicting where the protests will proceed. There have been over 3 months of non-violent protests, and now more resistance movements are appearing. “People have the initiative now and, the decision is in their hands,” he added.

The NUG has also formed its armed wing, the “People’s Defense Force” (PDF) which undoubtedly has strong symbolical power. “The idea of establishing a federal army makes sense as sort of a unifying project, but as it looks like that, they are trying to establish a parallel Burmese army that is not the Tatmadaw, which is not particularly encouraging,” Faludi said. Military effectiveness is not beyond the reach for the NUG and PDF, according to Mr. Mathieson, however they will face challenges in terms of operation, for example, with local PDF in different areas in this extremely complicated security landscape.

International reactions

Overall, the international reactions are mixed: the USA, Canada and the European Union put sanctions only on individuals, meanwhile Russia and China support the military with arms without any disguise.

“It is very shameful how the world is really acting while people are dying on the ground just to fight for democracy and freedom, that is completely unfair,” said Nu. While the people of Myanmar face the loss of their income, their jobs, even their life, most of the world remains silent.

The audience also raised the question of the EU's acknowledgment of the NUG. Ms. Faludi, who has been campaigning among MPs of the European Parliament to recognize the NUG, replied that the EU is in a position where they recognize states, but not governments, hence accepting the NUG is yet to come. Meanwhile, the UN Security Council has not been able to make any strong actions yet, and international sanctions are not comprehensive and coordinated well enough, Nu explained.

Additionally, Mathieson suggested not to expect any support from ASEAN as he likened the organization to a “helpless upside-down turtle” that cannot move. He also added that there is a push for an arms embargo which would not lead to any solution, according to him. However, it is important to support these endeavors towards an arms embargo because it keeps Myanmar in the spotlight and brings attention to the brutality of the military regime and its international supporters in the background, such as Russia or China.

Ms. Faludi also explained that many development projects ended after the coup, many actors pulled out, and funds stopped, which can be understandable since international organizations and governments would not like to legitimize this regime with engagement. But it also has the opposite affect: “The military government is legitimized with inaction in long terms,” she added.

More importantly, this situation left millions of people in precarious circumstances. There are over 1 million people with acute humanitarian needs currently, as Mathieson pointed out, which is going to escalate considering the Covid-19 situation. Therefore, Western nations should find a way between balancing the form of pressure and continuing to engage in humanitarian help. Nu also emphasized that immediate actions against military individuals and their businesses, in the form of coordinated economic sanctions, are crucial.

Article by Orsolya Balazs

The CEU Democracy Institute strives to enable the renewal and strengthening of democratic and open societies through world-class research, collaboration across academic and professional disciplines, the free exchange of ideas, and public engagement on a local, regional, and global scale. The Institute is based at Central European University’s campus in Budapest, Hungary. Learn more: democracyinstitute.ceu.edu