The political history of Myanmar is turbulent, marked by coups d’état, military dictatorships, and armed conflicts. Since its independence from the United Kingdom in 1948, the country has been mired in a civil conflict between the central government and ethnic minorities. Myanmar has over 135 ethnic groups, and many of them have fought for their recognition and autonomy over the years.
On March 2, 1962, the army staged a coup d’état led by General Ne Win, overthrowing the civilian government of U Nu in a process that sought to redirect a recessionary economy, end political instability, and establish a military dictatorship that lasted for over 40 years. In the days that followed, the army declared martial law, dissolved parliament, and established a new military government called the Revolutionary Council of the Union.
Under the condemnation of the international community, the army established a series of policies that limited freedom of expression, freedom of assembly, and freedom of association, in addition to repressing all political opposition through the imprisonment of thousands of people and the execution of many others, also acting on the representation of the multitude of ethnic groups that inhabited the country. Among the economic measures taken by this government were the nationalization of the majority of private companies operating in the country, centralized economic planning, greater protectionism that increased and imposed high tariffs on imports, and repressed foreign investment. While these economic measures were relaxed from 1988 onwards, the economy remained very weak and eventually stagnated, with little relevance on the international stage.
THE WAY TO A FRUSTRATED DEMOCRACY
In 2011, after more than 40 years of dictatorship, General Than Shwe, leader of the regime, announced that the army would withdraw from government and that elections would be held. While it maintained a strong control over government and society, in 2015 elections were held that placed Aung San Suu Kyi of the National League for Democracy (NLD) at the head of the government, making her the first woman to hold the office of prime minister in Myanmar. However, this new democratic era would be frustrated only a few years after its beginning.
On November 1, 2020, general elections were held that resulted in an overwhelming victory for the NLD, with 396 of the 476 seats in the country’s parliament. Two days later, the Myanmar army issued a statement accusing the party of electoral fraud. Tension between the army, the central government, and the citizens grew for months after this statement, with protests in the streets and actions that endangered this fragile democracy.
Finally, the situation of discontent on the part of the military sector led to a new coup d’état by the army led by General Min Aung Hlaing on February 1, 2021, declaring martial law and the dissolution of parliament. The then-prime minister Aung San Suu Kyi was arrested the following day by the army, along with other NLD leaders, which gave rise to a series of protests throughout the country against the coup from the 3rd.
International condemnation grew throughout February, calling for the restoration of the democratic government, but the army’s response was to intensify the repression of protests.
A month after the coup, the Union National Assembly (ANC), a group of NLD elected lawmakers in hiding, declared Aung San Suu Kyii as prime minister on March 1. Ethnic minorities in Myanmar joined the protests throughout March, resulting in an offensive against the various villages and points in the country where they are concentrated. On May 14, the coup army extended the state of emergency until August 31, 2021, and the ANC announced the formation of a government in exile at the end of the same month. A few days before the deadline for the end of the state of emergency, the army extended it again until January 31, 2023, and again until May 31.
More than two years after the conflict began, the ANC announced the formation of a resistance army on February 20, 2023, and months later declared the holding of presidential elections in exile on September 24. These would again result in the victory of Aung San Suu Kyi. Days later, the Myanmar army again rejected the election results.
The coup d’état in Myanmar remains an unresolved crisis. The Myanmar military maintains control of the government and has intensified the repression of protests. The international community has condemned the coup and imposed sanctions on the military, but these measures have not succeeded in restoring democracy to the country.
The situation in Myanmar has been the subject of international attention since the military took power again in 2021. This coup d’état has led the country to a political and humanitarian crisis that has worsened over time. The international response has been largely condemnatory. The European Union, for example, has expressed its support for the efforts of the Association of Southeast Asian Nations (ASEAN) and the United Nations to help Myanmar find a peaceful solution to the crisis. In addition, the UN has adopted a resolution condemning the use of lethal force and violence in the country.
Despite international condemnation, the situation in Myanmar has continued to deteriorate. Six months after the coup, the humanitarian crisis worsened, with a growing number of displaced people, a food crisis, and an increase in COVID-19 infections. The human rights situation in the country is also critical, as more than two years after the coup d’état, Myanmar is facing an unprecedented setback in terms of human rights. According to the UN High Commissioner for Human Rights, Volker Türk, the country has sunk into a crisis like never before and has suffered a general setback in terms of human rights.
The Myanmar Armed Forces continue to carry out arbitrary arrests, torture, and killings with impunity. Since the coup, nearly 3,000 people have been killed, 1.5 million have been internally displaced, more than 13,000 remain in detention in inhumane conditions, and at least 4 people have been publicly executed and more than 100 have been sentenced to death. It is estimated that more than 36,000 nationals of Myanmar have been forced to seek refuge in neighboring countries. According to the UN, there are currently 34,500 Burmese in India and 1600 in Thailand. Outbreaks of violence in northern Rakhine, Myanmar, forced hundreds of thousands of people to flee to Bangladesh in a very short period of time. In addition, there are 7.8 million children and girls out of school.
The military’s offensive against anyone they consider to be an opponent has spread fear throughout the country and led to serious human rights violations with tactics such as launching airstrikes and ground attacks against civilians. Although many governments have responded to calls for action, their response is still not enough to stop the serious human rights violations perpetrated by the military.
NGOs active in the region play a crucial role in the current situation in Myanmar. Despite the difficulties of access, UN humanitarian agencies and their partners have increased aid in the conflict zones in the southeast and northwest of the country with the aim of helping displaced people and host communities. NGOs facilitate the return assistance to irregular migrants and other migrants, such as rejected asylum seekers, trafficked migrants, and qualified nationals.
The United Nations and its partners are currently providing humanitarian assistance to three million people in Myanmar. However, the crisis has challenged the major international organizations and has profoundly altered perceptions about the practice of politics.