The largest city in Myanmar, Yangon (formerly Rangoon), was a lively place to be in the winter of 2018. City residents and tourists thronged the streets, restaurants, shops, and parks. Tourists and other visitors ambled around the city’s gilded Buddhist pagodas. Gleaming new buildings were going up, flanking the crumbling colonial structures of old. Getting internet and cell phone connections was easy. Myanmar’s economic liberalization under the civilian government led by Aung San Suu Kyi promised a bright future.
That future, which seemed so hopeful while I was studying Burmese in Yangon as a graduate student, is now in doubt. On February 1, 2021, Myanmar’s armed forces detained a number of civilian leaders, including State Counsellor Aung San Suu Kyi, the de facto leader of the country, citing massive fraud in the November 2020 general elections, which her party won in a landslide. In so doing, they demolished democratic government in a country struggling to maintain it. They declared on the military-owned Myawaddy TV a state of emergency to last for one year. From her incarceration place, Aung San Suu Kyi urged citizens to “respond and wholeheartedly to protest against the coup by the military.”
The crushing of democracy guarantees troubles ahead for Myanmar and dilemmas for the international community. One urgent question facing most Western capitals now is whether to impose sanctions on Myanmar, which could cause suffering in the population and drive the country farther into the orbit of China, which has already made inroads with its massive financial support and infrastructure projects.
“The doors just opened to a very different future,” Burmese historian Thant Myint-U tweeted on February 1. Whatever its future, Myanmar’s path has been anything but smooth. The Monday coup is the third one since the nation’s independence in 1948. Every time the army overthrows the civilian government, it points to the incompetence of the civilian-run politics to justify its move and deliberately gives the public the impression that its intervention is only transitional. But in fact, most interventions by the army have lasted a long time. Indeed, it is sometimes said that while most countries have armies, Myanmar is an army that has a country.
Over the country’s 72 years of independence through 2020, the army exerted unlimited control over state institutions for 36 years and partial control for 18 years, and it was under very loose civilian control for 18 years. This history suggests that although the army spoke of election within a year, its power will continue because the generals will set the election rules, and elections may not be free and fair.
In fact, Aung San Suu Kyi did much to placate the army during her time in office, in a bid to prevent a direct challenge to her power. For example, though she won the Nobel Peace Prize for championing democracy and human rights over many years, she drew widespread condemnation in recent years for supporting the army’s war on ethnic minorities on the country’s periphery and especially its atrocities against the Rohingya Muslim minority in the west. The army is also notorious for its record of brutally suppressing oppositions and dissent at home.
The Burmese economy faces a dark future of the army now repeating its record of mismanagement and corruption when it held power in the past. Myanmar has rich natural resources, but under military rule, it turned into one of the poorest countries in the world, racked by inflation and unemployment. Given the xenophobic nature of the Burmese generals, they may even attempt to close the economy and trade with only a select few neighbors and partners.
President Joseph R. Biden Jr. has proclaimed that he will restore human rights as a foreign policy priority. The coup in Myanmar is delivering an unwelcome first test of that commitment. But resuming broad-based sanctions may do more harm than good to the livelihoods of ordinary Burmese people. Targeted sanctions are already in place against the commander-in-chief of the Burmese army, Min Aung Hlaing, and many other generals for the army’s violence against the Rohingya Muslims.
Another option worth trying is to impose sanctions on the two military-controlled conglomerates, Myanmar Economic Holdings Limited and Myanmar Economic Corporation. Set up in the 1990s, they have now grown into industrial giants with sprawling interests across a wide range of sectors. These business giants, which are also believed to have been involved in such illicit activities as jade trade in Kachin state, have been serving as the army’s off-budget financing sources for decades.
But any sanctions the United States imposes may end up pushing the army-led government closer to Beijing. Prior to the coup, the Myanmar government’s relations with Washington and most Western capitals already soured over the Rohingya crisis, while its ties with Beijing strengthened. The Burmese army, however, has long been suspicious of China’s intent in the country and has sought to counter its influence. But now they may decide they have no choice but to rely even more heavily on China as a key source of foreign investment and diplomatic protection.
One can only hope that international pressure will persuade the military to step back. But history suggests a different outlook.
1. Renaud Egreteau, Caretaking Democratization: The Military and Political Change in Myanmar (New York: Oxford University Press, 2016), p. 22. The numbers have been updated by the author.