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Andrew Heyn: Democracy in Myanmar is what counts

Tuesday 16 February 2021

Don’t focus on Aung San Suu Kyi’s undoubted flaws. The prize in this fragile state is the survival and flourishing of a meaningful liberal society


Supporters of democracy the world over looked on with disbelief and anger at Donald Trump’s attempt to overturn the outcome of a free and fair election. They recognised this was the latest in a series of attacks on democratic systems across the world. The fact that it was happening in America made it even more shocking. Yet – also because it was happening in America – the institutions that needed to stand firm to protect democracy were strong and mature. Thankfully the US electoral and legal systems stood firm and the election result was ratified.  

Thus far, the generals in Myanmar have succeeded where Trump failed. Yet (just as in the case of the US) it is crucial that supporters of democracy stand by their principles and support the Myanmar people in rejecting this illegal power grab by the military. 

This is not about what the international community thinks of Aung San Suu Kyi or the power-hungry army commander-in-chief, Min Aung Hlaing. It is about defending a young democracy – one which emerged painfully out of five decades of oppressive military rule. It is about backing the civil servants, the doctors, the nurses, the transport workers, the students and all the others who have bravely taken to the streets to fight for the freedoms they so briefly enjoyed. Freedoms that, for a while at least, were an example to others living under dictatorships, that peaceful resistance can bring about democratic change. 

We in the international community who enjoy our democratic freedoms owe it to Myanmar’s people to stand by them in their hour of need. We need to look at how we got to this point, how the international community can support Myanmar’s democracy, and where China fits into the picture. 

I served as British Ambassador to Myanmar from 2009-13. In that time, I witnessed an extraordinary transition from military rule to nascent democracy. On my arrival in July 2009, I saw at first hand what life was like under a dictatorship. People lived under an overarching atmosphere of fear and anxiety. Poverty and corruption were rife. The justice system was non-existent. 

There was censorship in all areas of life – the media, internet, and books people were permitted to read. Self-censorship did much of the junta’s work as people feared being reported by an undercover regime stooge. Over 2,000 political prisoners filled the country’s jails. Aung San Suu Kyi (ASSK) was under house arrest. For western countries, Myanmar was a pariah state. 

A bogus general election in November 2010 offered little hope of improvement. The military’s proxy party secured a landslide win. No serious independent election observation was allowed and the few opposition parties that dared contest the vote alleged widespread vote-rigging. ASSK’s party, the National League for Democracy (NLD), had boycotted the process months earlier, calculating correctly that it would be a sham.

To make things even worse, the Junta had carefully drafted a new constitution which ensured that 25 per cent of the seats in parliament were henceforth ring-fenced for legislators the generals had hand-picked. This guaranteed a blocking minority for any future attempt at constitutional change. Under this constitution, key ministerial portfolios such as borders, home affairs and defence were reserved for military appointees. 

In a final act of autocratic precaution, voting was cancelled in 44 constituencies (around 8 per cent of the total number of seats) because the military judged the circumstances were not conducive to holding elections. Little wonder the junta’s party “won” a massive victory.   

Then something wholly unexpected happened. Just a week after this deeply flawed election, Aung San Suu Kyi was released. As rumours of her impending release grew throughout Saturday 13 November, my wife and I hurried to the house on University Avenue where she was detained under house arrest. Thousands had already gathered and the mood of euphoria was something we will never forget. Their joy turned to ecstasy when, in the late afternoon, she finally appeared at the gates to greet the crowds. 

There is still debate about why she was released on that November day. Some argue that the military, with the fig leaf of the sham election and their constitution in place, felt confident enough to release her, not realising how enduring her popularity was. Others say there was always a plan to work with her to secure international acceptability and to work with her to deliver a hybrid system of managed democracy with Burmese (military) characteristics. 

Either way, further change took time to come. Some political prisoners were released, but only in dribs and drabs. The first tentative negotiations between the military-dominated government and their former prisoner, ASSK, took almost nine months to begin. People in Myanmar and across the world reacted cautiously, worried that this was another false dawn and that at some point, the prisoners would be rearrested and ASSK locked up again. But by the end of 2011, it was clear that real change was happening. 

Hillary Clinton made a historic first visit in November 2011. William Hague, then UK foreign secretary, followed six weeks later and David Cameron a few months after that. In April 2012, by-elections were held in the 44 constituencies held over from the 2010 elections. 

Those by-elections were a real turning point. I witnessed ASSK on the campaign trail and it was unforgettable. Tens of thousands of people turned out to greet her wherever she went. The rapturous reception she received was extraordinary to behold. Her party, the NLD, duly won 43 of the 44 seats contested. I knew then, as did many others, that if the general election due to be held in 2015 was truly free and fair, she would win by a landslide.  

But the change I witnessed wasn’t just about VIP visits and by-elections. It concerned people’s everyday lives. Overnight, new newspapers and journals started appearing. People could speak and argue freely, without fear. ASSK’s image – previously banned – was displayed everywhere. After 50 years of oppressive military rule, the people finally had the chance to speak. They seized it unhesitatingly and in the 2015 general election, ASSK’s party won by a landslide. ASSK looked set to lead the country into a much brighter future. 

Much credit is due to President Thein Sein for ensuring a free and fair poll, but the military’s Constitution was still in place, with its built-in veto on constitutional change and its block on anyone whose children were foreign nationals becoming president – a clause specifically aimed at ASSK. Crucially the military also retained almost total control of security issues. giving them carte blanche to act as they wished in Rakhine State against the Rohingya Muslims.

Aung San Suu Kyi’s fall from grace in western eyes has been well documented and does not need repetition here. The stubbornness and resolve that helped fortify her through the dark days of her fight to bring democracy to Myanmar, served her far less well in government and spectacularly badly when dealing with the military’s excesses in Rakhine.

Quite apart from the discomfort of condemnation by the West, everyday life in Myanmar remained tough for many during the five years of the new NLD government. Although the economy improved and incomes increased, many structural social and economic problems remained unresolved. Highly divisive ethnic issues remained in a stalemate. The legal system remained deeply flawed. Press freedom contracted.

The Myanmar people knew all this as they went to the polls in November. They knew that the governance of ASSK was not a panacea for all their ills. But they still voted for her overwhelmingly. The NLD won around 80 per cent of the contested seats. The military’s proxy party, the Union Solidarity and Development Party (USDP), was trounced. 

This is the central issue for any of us who consider ourselves true democrats. If we turn our backs on Aung San Suu Kyi because we disagree with her actions on the Rohingya, we turn our backs on all those who voted for her. These are the same brave people we admired so much when they ran massive risks in taking to the streets to fight for democracy in 1988 and were shot at and arrested. And again in the Saffron Revolution of 2007. We owe them our support.  

So what can the international community do? For a start, it can avoid making this a referendum on Aung San Suu Kyi. The military’s action has ripped away the freedoms that the Myanmar people enjoyed for just five short years. Some speculate that this coup d’etat was due to the personal ambitions of the Commander in Chief, who had seen his dreams of being elected president shattered by his party’s rejection in the elections; others believe that the military more widely felt their ability to resist constitutional change was now at risk following another NLD landslide. 

Both are probably true and both are equally indefensible. We should be resisting what the military did every bit as much as we condemn what Donald Trump tried to do in the US. The people’s will was expressed loudly and clearly in a free and fair election and it should be respected.  

We must continue to reject the generals’ actions, regularly and vociferously, so that the people who are once again taking to the streets to fight for democracy know they have our backing and the military know the eyes of the world are on them. They must know what they have done is not accepted as a fait accompli and that what they do now – including perhaps another brutal clampdown – will have a cost. 

Measures such as sanctions, visa bans and asset freezes have their place, but the West also needs to keep up the pressure on Myanmar’s Asian neighbours and partners, especially those that are democracies, to condemn the military’s actions. We should downgrade or even withdraw our delegations from any ASEAN meetings where Myanmar is represented. The previous iterations of military governments in Myanmar were treated as pariahs. The same should happen now. 

Myanmar – what might happen next?

There is almost no chance of a negotiated solution between the generals and Aung San Suu Kyi. Trust between them was already rock bottom. Now, it will be non-existent. 

Judging by past form, the most likely outcome is that the protests will grow and the military will eventually suppress them with extreme violence, mass arrests and a period of martial law. This is what happened with the uprisings of 1988 and 2007. Myanmar will once again become a pariah state in the west, an embarrassment for its ASEAN partners and heavily dependent on China for diplomatic cover and investment. 

If things are going to be different this time, the army itself will have to turn on the Commander in Chief. Either the senior generals around Min Aung Hlaing will need to rise against him and throw in their lot with Aung San Suu Kyi or – and perhaps more likely – substantial numbers of the officers and foot soldiers who will be ordered to clamp down on the protesters will need to switch sides.

Such individual acts of rebellion carry massive risks for the people concerned. The Myanmar military has zero-tolerance for dissent. All recruits are drilled relentlessly on the importance of unquestioned loyalty to the armed forces. They are told that only military unity can prevent Myanmar from becoming Balkanised as the country’s many ethnic rebel groups wait in the wings ready to strike at the first sign of military weakness or division. 

So far, so bleak. But there are significant differences between what is happening now and previous uprisings. In both 1988 and 2007, popular protests erupted against a ruling and long-established military junta and stood little chance of toppling the generals. Now the protesters are seeking to reinstate a democratically elected government, albeit an imperfect one. General Min Aung Hlaing’s move is against the de facto serving President, Aung San Suu Kyi, by far the most popular figure in the country, who has just won a landslide victory in a free and fair general election. Based on the scale of her victory, significant numbers in the military must have voted for her. How do these soldiers feel about what has been done to her by their senior commanders? 

The other big difference is that previous uprisings pre-dated social media. The military’s efforts to ban Facebook and other similar platforms demonstrate that they realise the power of this medium to enable protesters to organise. In these days of VPNs and tech savvy populations, attempts to muzzle opponents are likely to be only partially successful while at the same time stoking popular discontent. 

Where does China sit in all of this? Some speculate that they must have been briefed on and have approved of the coup, or that it is part of their wider plan for dominating their near abroad. I am not so sure. The relationship between the previous military government and China was very strained. The generals resented the degree of influence China could wield in Myanmar as a result of Burma’s international isolation. There is credible speculation that reducing this uncomfortable dependence on China was one of the reasons for the opening up process in the last decade. 

Furthermore, Aung San Suu Kyi and President Xi Jinping seem to have had a workable relationship. She visited China as opposition leader in 2015 and was received by President Xi. The Chinese President then visited Myanmar in January 2020. As her relationship with the West faltered, China readily filled the void. The reality is that China will – as usual – avoid any substantive comment on the “internal affairs” of a neighbour and work as best they can with whoever comes out on top.  

So, as the popular protests spread, we should be clear that it is democracy itself that is at stake in Myanmar. In the US, strong institutions withstood the pressure of a rogue President. In Myanmar’s nascent democratic system, these checks and balances were lacking. This enabled the military – perplexed by their rejection at the ballot box – to simply bulldoze their way back to power.  

The people of Myanmar have only their own courage, bolstered by the support of the international community, as they fight for their rights and freedoms. The least we can do is ensure we remain steadfast in that support.

Andrew Heyn was the British ambassador to Myanmar from 2009 to 2013.