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The Dartmouth
May 27, 2024 | Latest Issue
The Dartmouth

Zehner: Derailed

Hopes of Transformation in Myanmar have been dashed

The comparisons were too easy to make. The world watched a charismatic leader and advocate of democracy released from years of confinement by an authoritarian government, who went on to win the country’s first openly-contested elections. Many people, including myself, firmly believed that Aung San Suu Kyi’s impact on Myanmar would mirror Mandela’s reformation of South Africa, that she would eliminate the draconian restrictions of the established military government and herald a new era of Burmese democracy. This, however, has not come to pass. Tragically Suu Kyi, now the country’s de facto leader, has overseen the erosion of democratic potential in Myanmar. The country that so recently carried the hopes of the international community has regressed.

The most gripping display of Myanmar’s fall from grace has surrounded the treatment of the Rohingya population. The Buddhist-majority nation, uncomfortable with the existence of a sizeable Muslim population within its borders, has attempted to do away with them. Over 700,000 Rohingyas have fled across the border into Bangladesh, where they reside in dire refugee camps, and the UN has deemed estimates of 10,000 Rohingya deaths conservative. It appears that the Burmese army has been given a blank cheque, with free rein to raze and exterminate villages. In the last few years, the international community has been saturated with reports of these human rights violations, with the UN correctly labelling Myanmar’s actions as “a textbook example of ethnic cleansing.” And Suu Kyi has done nothing to stop it, instead backing the army’s actions and refusing to allow human-rights investigators into the country. The idea of a Nobel peace prize laureate allowing genocide within her own country has been hard to come to terms with, and has firmly indicated that the democratic reforms of 2015 were nothing but a mirage.

The Rohingya crisis has arisen partly due to an unforeseen consequence of democracy: nationalism. Liberated by eased restrictions on speech and media, Buddhist extremists have grown in number and influence. The civil rights of the nation’s religious minorities (primarily Muslims) has suffered as a result, with individuals and their businesses targeted. As the government has historically derived its authority from Buddhism, it is reluctant to act against it. Thus, the government currently tolerates Buddhist nationalists so long as they rally against ethnic minorities and not the state. Evidently a situation where the newfound rights of the majority is used to infringe upon the those of the minority, and where the state refuses to protect its own citizens, cannot be considered particularly democratic.

Freedom of the press has also not undergone the liberalization program that observers had anticipated. Rule 66(d), which punishes journalists who criticise the government, was only used by the previous government seven times. Suu Kyi’s government has already invoked the rule 89 times, with 10 journalists accused of defaming Suu Kyi herself. Since Suu Kyi’s National League for Democracy took over in 2015, 44 journalists have been targeted with legal action. Recently, three journalists were arrested, under colonial-era legislation that protects “public tranquillity,” for detailing the misuse of funds for Yangon’s bus network. In addition, two Reuters journalists are now serving seven years in prison for reporting on Rohingya abuses in Rakhine state. And of course, foreign journalists are prevented from going anywhere near the former Rohingya villages, unless they are on manicured state tours which show just how great everything is. The disregarding of personal liberties in this way attests to the fact that democracy lacks a true foothold in the country.

Suu Kyi has made a determined effort to centralize power within her government, creating a tight circle of loyalists around herself. And she distrusts any state institutions she believes to be loyal to the previous regime. For example, she withdrew many officials from the Myanmar Peace Center, which hoped to resolve conflict with the ethnic-minority insurgents in the outer regions of the country. Truces have broken down and fighting has flared up again since.

Myanmar was supposed to be the poster-child for how authoritarian governments can transition to democracies, and how nonviolent resistance can be used to achieve those ends. Instead it seems that the state just has a new veneer. Many of the old problems persist, and now exist alongside a host of new issues plaguing Burmese society. Heated nationalism has run rampant, and the rights of Muslims, and most severely the Rohingya, have been trampled on as a result. The freedoms granted at the end of the military government were not as plentiful as anticipated, with freedom of press and freedom of speech still significantly curtailed. And Aung San Suu Kyi, the freedom fighter who captured the heart of the international community, has proved to be as susceptible to the corrupting influence of power as everyone else. What the example of Myanmar ultimately shows that democracy is a very hard thing to come by, that even when ideal circumstances appear to arise, things can still go wrong. Maybe this will end up tempering people’s hopes going forward.