February 21, 2021

Solidarity with People of Myanmar

THERE is a mass upsurge in Myanmar (Burma) against the military takeover.  People from all walks of life have been out on the streets in the past fortnight protesting against the brutal suppression of democracy.

The Tatmadaw (Myanmar armed forces) effected the coup on February 1, the day the new parliament was to open after the general election in November 2020.  The election had resulted in a landslide victory for the Aung San Suu Kyi-led National League for Democracy (NLD).  The army declared the results to be illegal and deposed President Win Myint and State Counsellor Suu Kyi.  They and other NLD leaders have been arrested and detained.

The armed forces had ruled Myanmar for decades since the Gen. Ne Win coup of 1962.  The movement for democracy achieved a breakthrough in 1981 but it was brutally crushed by the army.  Suu Kyi was put under house arrest for sixteen long years.

After an arduous struggle, the army conceded some powers and a hybrid democratic system was put in place based on the 2008 Constitution adopted by the army.  Under this system, the army still held key powers; 25 per cent of the seats in the two houses of parliament were reserved for military nominees.  The defence and interior ministries were with the army as well as control over other critical sectors of the State. 

In 2015, for the first time, the NLD contested the elections to the House of Representatives and the House of Nationalities which comprise the Assembly of the Union.  The NLD went on to win over 80 per cent of the seats in the two houses.  Since Suu Kyi could not assume the post of head of government as she was barred by the constitutional provision that disallowed any person having a foreign spouse from holding that office, she was made a State Counsellor and was the de facto prime minister. 

In the November 8, 2020 general election, the NLD improved its position by winning 258 out of the 310 seats in the House of Representatives and 138 of the 168 seats in the House of Nationalities.  The military-backed Union Solidarity and Development Party (USDP) could only garner 26 seats and 5.9 per cent of the vote in the lower house.

Frustrated by this result, the army declared that there were serious irregularities in the election and the coup followed.  The armed forces declared an emergency under a constitutional provision and said it would last for one year after which fresh elections would be held.  Till then the commander-in-chief of the army, Gen. Min Aung Hliang, would be the de facto ruler.

What is the motivation for this drastic military action?  The higher echelons of the armed forces have built up a powerful network of patronage and business interests in the country.  Some of the lucrative sectors like precious gems, timber and mineral resources are controlled and plundered by enterprises run by generals and former members of the officer corps. 

The armed forces have thought that the USDP would gain enough strength to checkmate the NLD and Aung Suu Kyi.  Even the provision of a 67 per cent super majority required to get one's candidates elected as president and second vice president was not a sufficient barrier  to thwart the NLD. In both 2015 and 2020 election, the NLD scored over 80 per cent of the seats in the non-military sector.

The vested interests exercising political and economic power by the armed forces elite were getting threatened by the growing electoral legitimacy of the NLD and its leader. 

That the armed forces are completely isolated from the people has become evident in the last fortnight.  Significantly, the bulk of civil servants, health workers, power sector employees and railway workers have joined the mass protests and gone on strike. The army will find it difficult to run the government without the cooperation of these sections. 

Faced with the growing protests, the police and the army are now resorting to repressive tactics including firing on peaceful protestors. Hundreds have already been arrested and put in jail.  There are apprehensions that there will be a bloodbath.

However, the people in an impressive show of solidarity and collective will are bravely facing the might of the military.  The Myanmarese people require the full support and solidarity of the Indian people. Both our countries are united by our past colonial histories.  The British imperialist power exiled Bahadur Shah Zafar to Rangoon while King Thibaw of Burma was exiled to Ratnagiri in Maharashtra. For decades, the people of Myanmar were under the brutal heel of a military dictatorship.  They have now resolved not to allow this to happen again. 

The Indian government should not go by geopolitical calculations and must stand firmly with the people and their democratic aspirations in Myanmar. 

(February 17, 2021)