At the beginning of February Myanmar’s military, known as the Tatmadaw, overthrew the democratically-elected government of Myanmar and arrested many high-ranking members of the ruling National League for Democracy (NLD) party, including figurehead and State Chancellor Aung San Suu Kyi and President Win Myint. Aung San Suu Kyi has since been charged with possessing illegal walkie-talkies, which can result in a three-year prison sentence and ineligibility in future elections. The Tatmadaw claim widespread election fraud and are set to rule the country for one year during a State of Emergency leading up to fresh elections, although no timeline has yet been set for new elections.
Despite what the Tatmadaw say, this looks suspiciously like a return to the military junta that ruled the country from 1962 to 2011. The Tatmadaw relinquished power after decades of protests calling for democracy, and Aung San Suu Kyi’s popular NLD party has led the country since, winning a landslide victory late last year that strengthened the NLD in Myanmar, which threatened the Tatmadaw. There were many issues surrounding the 2020 election, but there is no evidence of any fraud.
The Tatmadaw’s actions are reminiscent of Donald Trump’s baseless claims of electoral fraud, and it’s possible that the Tatmadaw are copying Trump’s playbook: Trump and his allies have normalised the concept of fraudulent election and have shown just how far these claims can go without needing evidence.
The international community, including Australia and America, are threatening to reimpose sanctions on Myanmar. This is a bad move because sanctions largely impact the general population, who will suffer the most from the punitive action. Sanctions restrict import and exports, limiting the population’s access to goods and services and making it harder for businesses to operate domestically and internationally. International firms are reportedly already reconsidering their business deals in Myanmar, a bad omen for the country’s fragile economy. Myanmar is in desperate need of foreign investment into their country and the opportunities that come with new ventures. It could take years to regain the prosperity that Myanmar has only just begun to develop.
Foreign governments also need to consider the effectiveness of their sanctions. If Western businesses pull out from the Burmese economy, China is likely to fill the void. Rather than pressure the Tatmadaw to return the country to democracy, sanctions are likely to push Myanmar closer to Beijing and its authoritarian values, as happened in the 1980s. A better option for Western democracies is targeted sanctions on individual military leaders, perhaps in the form of frozen financial assets or restrictions on international travel. Continued engagement in the country is also needed to prevent Myanmar from falling deeper into dictatorship.
Although the Tatmadaw have taken control over the government, this isn’t necessarily an end to democracy and a beginning of a new fifty years of military junta rule. Widespread use of the Internet and social media allows the word to spread quickly, so unlike 1962 when the Tatmadaw last took power, there’s a lot more visibility and scrutiny over their actions, both internationally and within Myanmar. Facebook is a popular platform in the country and was used to garner pro-democracy support quickly. The Tatmadaw are clearly threatened by social media's power and have shut down the Internet and Facebook within the country.
This hasn’t deterred Aung San Suu Kyi’s supporters, with tens of thousands taking to the streets in protest. Although there has been no violent retaliation by the police and military yet, protests have historically been met with force, most infamously in 1988. Although Internet use has been curtailed, the world is still watching the situation closely, which may stay the Tatmadaw’s hand for now; even as they impose martial law and ban gatherings of more than five people in an attempt to dissuade rallies and protests. The threat of violence remains; in the country’s largest city Yangon, violence was threatened against protestors who breached police lines.
Ultimately, it is unlikely that the Tatmadaw can hold onto power indefinitely and begin a new era of military rule. Under pressure and scrutiny at home and abroad, they will have to hold fresh elections soon, although how free and fair they will remain to be seen. The Tatmadaw will do everything they can to win the election, whether it be by trying to restrict campaigning and voting, or even banning the NLD entirely. The Tatmadaw may even be victorious in their new elections, but it may not be enough to keep them in power. Since elections were first held in 2011 and Myanmar began to open up, the country has flourished under the NLD. Younger generations have grown up with a taste for democracy, and older generations have seen the improvements and want opportunities for their children. Despite what the Tatmadaw may wish, the overwhelming majority of Burmese want democracy and freedom, and they voiced their assent for the NLD mere months ago.
Matthew Dodwell has recently graduated with a Masters in International Relations from The University of Melbourne, where he focused on security issues in the Middle East and the Asia-Pacific.