Following years of human rights violations, and under a decade of holding elections, Myanmar’s military has once again seized power in an authoritarian coup against de-facto president Aung San Suu Kyi, who was replaced by Min Aung Hlaing. Also known as Burma, the country was previously ruled by a military dictatorship for almost 50 years, ending in 2011. From an ongoing genocide of the Rohingya people to the public’s relationship with its rulers, Myanmar’s history and current events remain extremely complicated.
The most important figure involved in the Myanmar coup is, without a doubt, the nation’s de facto President: Aung San Suu Kyi, who was overthrown by General Min Aung Hlaing. Suu Kyi is technically barred from holding the office of president, as the position prohibits presidents who have children who are foreign nationals. Still, she is widely considered to be the most powerful person in the Burmese government. Suu Kyi is the daughter of one of the most famous figures in the fight for independence from the British, Aung San, and Myanmar’s former ambassador to India, Daw Khin Kai. She was imprisoned for over 15 years for protesting the military’s absolute political power, and was awarded the Nobel Peace Prize while under house arrest in 1991 for doing so.
After her release, Suu Kyi became head of Myanmar’s pro-democracy party and ascended to become the most powerful person in the country. However, her and her leadership came under fire in the latter half of the 2010s for moving to commit genocide against the Rohingya ethnic minority, the majority of which were also Muslim — a religious minority in the predominantly Buddhist country. This prejudice and the military killings and crimes based on it are found in both ethnic and religious hatred.
As the BBC reports, Myanmar has refused to recognize the Rohingya as people, and does not include them in the census whatsoever, claiming they are all illegal immigrants. Over the past several years, these people have been subjected to torture, rape, and murder, as well as ethnic cleansing and forced displacement — all orchestrated at the hands of the Burmese military. The majority of the Rohingya have been forced to flee to neighboring Bangladesh as refugees, and, afterward, the government has destroyed their homes, towns, and property en masse in order to build federal facilities. The government has denied this, and Burmese citizens do not care all that much; Suu Kyi remains incredibly popular, with 80 percent of her people saying they have full trust in her.
This leads us to the current coup itself. As mentioned earlier, the military lost absolute power in 2011, but still remained incredibly influential in government, as it has been throughout Myanmar’s history. Suu Kyi has also been surprisingly friendly toward the military she fought so hard to remove from power three decades ago. She has kept prominent generals as aides and cabinet members, and has referred to them as “rather sweet.” However, her party still won in an absolute landslide in 2020, an even bigger margin than before.
For context of just how popular her and her party are: in re-elections following her party’s first election in 2011, they won 43 out of 45 seats. The military-backed party is extremely weak despite their recent action that overthrew Suu Kyi’s administration and arrested them under false premises of a fraudulent election. In organizing this coup and replacing Suu Kyi with Min Aung Hlaing, top general of the Burmese army, it is assumed the military sought to regain the power they had pre-2011.
While they have only placed Suu Kyi under house arrest and have not started killing politicians or non-minority citizens, this has caused some of the biggest protests in Myanmar’s history. After all, she is one of the most popular people in Myanmar, and her arrest has given its citizens a central rallying point to fight back. Experts have compared this to the Saffron Revolution in 2007, where the military government increased fuel prices by 500 percent halfway through the day, stranding people around the nation with no means of transportation, which outraged the public.
This has also caused arguably more international backlash than their genocide itself, with President Biden directing the U.S. to reintroduce heavy sanctions that were on Myanmar before its first election in 2011 until, and if, the military relinquishes power. However, neighbors in the region, who have far greater influence, have been more or less indifferent. China has reasserted itself as a “friendly neighbor” of Myanmar, and Cambodia, Thailand, and the Philippines have called it an internal matter and refuse to get involved. Japan has actually pushed back against any sanctions placed on the Burmese, claiming it will give China more power. With this reaction, it is unlikely the military will give in without a people’s revolution in the country or international intervention.
The Burmese people have now been oppressed by the military for half a century. Although Burma experienced about a decade of a pro-democracy government, Min Aung Hlaing’s coup seems to be reverting the country to its past of military authoritarianism. It remains to be seen whether the military will get more violent, but, sadly, considering the violence the nation has already committed against the Rohingya population, it would be far from surprising if it does.
Featured image: Courtesy of Getty Images.