Myanmar: An Evolving Crisis
This article is the accumulation of an A4 sheet of paper’s description of the Myanmar crisis, a room of students studying different degrees and what happens when women collaborate and cooperate to find solutions to global problems. It was written earlier this year during the height of the emergency.
We do not claim to be experts or even impose our ideas on the people of Myanmar. We seek to share and contribute to the debate of approaches to solving the rapidly changing and evolving Myanmar crisis.
Image description: Katherine states that the artwork "shows a sense of loneliness, a basic human emotion that leaves us with a sense of alienation that I feel is best shown through the surreal". While the gas mask may be an allusion to the military coup in Myanmar, the striking sense of alienation that the artwork portrays draws a connection with the world turning a blind eye on the daily oppression of the Rohingyas and the population of Myanmar.
The people of Myanmar are at the centre of this turbulent situation, with their lives increasingly in danger. This crisis stems from Myanmar’s complex political history, which endured the gruesome British colonisation period between 1824 and 1948. This was followed by the assassination of Bogyoke Aung San, the leader of the Anti-Fascist People’s Freedom League, and arguably since these events, political instability has never left Myanmar. This, alongside changing power dynamics, reveals the delicate nature of this situation.
The military claimed alleged widespread election fraud as a motivation for the detention of Daw Aung San Suu Kyi. The subsequent control of democratic power suggests significant cracks in Myanmar’s political situation and disproportionate military power. According to a BBC article on the political constitution of Myanmar, the military hold 25% of the seats reserved in parliament; they have veto powers over constitutional amendments and they hold access to key industries such as Jade and Ruby. We believe that some of the key tenets of democracy are opposition parties and the separation of executive, judicial and legislative branches of the state. How the Myanmar military is structured undermines these tenets.
The US and UK have used strong rhetoric signalling their disapproval of the coup and have implemented targeted sanctions on military generals. However, Myanmar’s ambassador to the UN, Kyaw Moe Ton, appealed for tougher sanctions and actions from the international community to restore democracy as “time is of the essence”. Although these more focused sanctions are better than imposing general sanctions which could isolate Myanmar, their effectiveness won’t be enough to solve this crisis. For example, this is the same strategy taken in response to the genocide of the Rohingya Muslims which remains an ongoing atrocity.
Despite considering a foreign intervention, sanctions and other forms of international interference as our solution to the Myanmar crisis, these were all rejected. The reason being that history is not short of examples of the negative long-term effects of foreign intervention. Previous examples have clearly shown that political systems propped up by intervening countries are considerably weaker and much more susceptible to collapse and corruption. One needs to only look to Latin American countries after the Cold War or to the Middle East in the 21st century; the West must learn from these mistakes. Furthermore, there is considerable evidence to suggest that sanctions cause more harm to the people than to governments. According to the US congressionally mandated report (submitted on April 28, 2004) regarding trade sanctions against Burma, trade sanctions on Burma (Myanmar) in 2003 created an estimated 50,000 to 60,000 loss of jobs, showing that sanctions have not been successful in the past and are therefore unlikely to be so in the future.
Our proposed solution to the Myanmar crisis was two-fold, consisting of short term and long term action, stemming from the country’s people. In the short term, the resources of the military’s power would be targeted to eliminate influence and control over the people. The protests across the country for several months have made it abundantly clear that the people want democracy reinstated. The implementation of collective action and civil disobedience have been used successfully before in India against British control and Poland with the solidarity movement opposing the communist rule. Therefore, we believe that by understanding how it is that the military continues to control the people, those sources of power can be eliminated. As we later discovered, the people of Myanmar have already begun to target military-owned industries such as Jade, Ruby, and boycott military products. In this way, it is possible for the will of the people to triumph.
However, this is not the first time that the military has taken power and control over the country. Our second element works to ensure the permanence and long term security of the country's democracy and therefore requires that three key changes are made. Firstly, there must be an emphasis on the separation of powers within the structuring of the country's democracy. Institutions must hold each other to account to make it impossible for one institution (in this case it is the military) to take absolute control. Secondly, the overall power of the military must be drastically reduced. It must be structured and purposed towards seeking to serve the people rather than seeking power. The third element is to change how we conceptualise and understand the military’s role in Myanmar’s society.
The definition of gender expectations within society has been largely dictated by justifications for the demands of the military. Military demands have dictated what it means to be ‘a male’ or ‘a female’ in society. Drawing inspiration from Cynthia Enloe’s book ‘The Morning After’, for years society has cultivated the notion that ‘men must protect their women’ and used heroic ideals of honour and pride to justify the taking of millions of lives. Economic benefits lay at the heart of these military expeditions rather than any moral justifications are given. We hope that by changing the expectations of the military to better reflect peacekeeping and people-serving roles, it can become a more inclusive environment. It could encourage greater participation of women in the military and overall reflect a more healthy form of militarisation within a nation.
This reckoning between the military and civilian political power raises questions about the reality of democracy within Myanmar, as issues within the political system have been revealed. Especially, considering the terrible abuses suffered by groups within Myanmar like the treatment of Rohingyas, highlighting the essential question of how to reinstate democracy. This presents the need for democratic reform alongside a reduction of military power in creating an inclusive, representative form of politics.
The previous events of the brutal 1988 coup in Myanmar’s history underline the hostility between military power and democracy. However, with the rapidly changing political climate in 2021, there is perhaps hope for an end to military suppression and violence. The role of social media has created greater global awareness of these protests. It is this awareness that individuals across the globe must rally around for change to help resolve the distressing situation in Myanmar. The goal to encourage equal democratic representation and the continuation of civilised political opposition is necessary globally. But, particularly in creating a democracy that works for and is unique to Myanmar. As without intervention to this military regime, the future of Myanmar, alongside the future of countries across the globe, is looking increasingly alarming.
This article was written in collaboration with the Women in Politics and International Relations Society at the University of Edinburgh.