Tracing Myanmar’s recurrent history of military takeovers and student-led protests

JAKARTA, INDONESIA — Massive nationwide protests against the Myanmar military coup continued to flare after the Tatmadaw’s takeover earlier this month.

The military takeover was purportedly sparked by allegations of vote-rigging in the November 2020 election, when civilian leader Aung San Suu Kyi’s National League for Democracy (NLD) party gained a whopping 83 per cent of the vote, enabling it to form a government.

Thousands of people went on strike on Monday (22 Feb), forcing the closure of businesses.

The bloodiest protest that took place in Mandalay the week before — which took the lives of two protesters after they were shot by police — sparked international condemnation.

February 2021 military coup not the first in Myanmar’s tumultuous history

14 years after Myanmar — formerly known as Burma — gained independence from British colonial rule in 1948, the military launched a coup in 1962.

General U Ne Win toppled the civilian government, claiming that the civilian leadership had failed to tackle minority ethnic rebel groups and that “parliamentary democracy was not suitable for Burma”.

Ne Win nationalised Myanmar’s enterprises and put in place an isolationist policy, which led to a rapid plunge in the nation’s economy.

Massive student-led protests arose by 1988 as the people’s anger swelled over widespread corruption, rapid shifts in economic policy related to Myanmar’s currency, and food shortages during Ne Win’s dictatorship.

Ne Win then resigned as chairman of his party and appointed his henchman Sein Lwin in July 1988 to replace him in what was set to be another period of military junta rule.

Sein Lwin was dubbed “The Butcher of Rangoon” for his brutal suppression of the student-led protests at the time in the capital now known as Yangon.

Maung Maung — a lawyer and scholar, as well as a civilian figure who had close links to the Tatmadaw — later replaced Sein Lwin.

Maung Maung’s rise to power brought a glimmer of hope to Myanmar at the time, having lifted martial law, declaring a free press for the first time in nearly three decades, and releasing detainees who were arrested for objecting to the military rule.

He further assured that he would legalise student unions and rebuild the Rangoon University Student Union that was destroyed after Ne Win’s 1962 coup.

However, the promise brought by Maung Maung’s rule was short-lived as an internal coup removed him from power.

Leaders of the 8888 Uprising were also sceptical of Maung Maung, seeing him as a puppet of the military.

The 8888 Uprising references 8 August 1988, a date that took the lives of an estimated 3,000 to 10,000 protestors in the hands of the military.

Democratic doyenne Suu Kyi gained worldwide popularity as the symbol against military tyranny during the time as the leader of the newly-formed NLD.

The Tatmadaw detained Suu Kyi from 1989 to 2010. Suu Kyi later received a Nobel Peace Prize whilst under house arrest in 1991. To date, she remains under house arrest.

The military still maintains its power as the 2008 constitution stipulates that Tatmadaw controls 25 per cent of the parliamentary seat, and any changes will require 75 per cent of the parliamentary’s approval.

In 2011, then-President Thein Sein introduced a series of reforms by granting amnesty to political prisoners and giving more press freedom. In 2015, Myanmar held its first election. Suu Kyi’s NLD won the poll.

Solid conclusions cannot be made about Aung San Suu Kyi’s silence on Rohingya issue due to longstanding suppression by military: Academician Will Leggett

Despite being hailed as a pro-democracy icon, human rights activists criticised Suu Kyi for being silent about the ongoing persecution of Rohingya Muslims — dubbed as the world’s most persecuted minority — who are not recognised by the Myanmar government as citizens.

Will Leggett, an associate professor at the Middle Tennessee State University however opined that solid conclusions cannot be made about her silence, as the military still controls the government.

“Ultimately, it is hard to judge her actions if we are outside of of a system of indoctrination and isolation, put in place by the military generals, that has made ample use of fear and silence and that has been going on for decades,” Dr Leggett told TOC in an interview via email.

The quashing of freedom of expression, he said, is “part of the complicated nature of authority and power in Myanmar”.

“This was, at one time, a nation of almost 100 per cent literacy. The universities produced some of the brightest pupils in the world. Once the military took control, universities were closed across the nation. It was even difficult — maybe even seditious — to find paper and pencil in a household,” Dr Leggett stressed.

Thus, controlling the means through which citizens could obtain and impart knowledge is “a powerful way to maintain the status quo and to reinforce the legitimacy of a particular form of governance”, he added.

Dr Leggett opined that Suu Kyi’s silence is likely a product of being “forced into silence through years of coercion” rather than simply due to coming from “an elite class of ethnic Burmese”.

“We are, ultimately, forced to recognize this recent very brief experiment with democracy under “The Lady” as little more than a blip within a decades-long history of military control,” he said.

The military’s ultimate victims of these recent moves are not just the Rohingya, who are suffering immeasurably, with little assistance, much less outcry, from the outside world, but also the citizens of Myanmar, Dr Leggett stressed.

“Unfortunately, the citizens are all too familiar with the current situation,” he added.

Myanmar is a diverse country that has more than 100 ethnic groups. The Burmese, or Bamars, are the majority group with access to most social and economic fields, while many minorities face discrimination and are not represented in the government.

“We are witnessing something awful that, unfortunately, we have seen before. Ethnic and/or religious violence are not new to Myanmar. Ethnocide and genocide are central components of humanity’s history. But there is a distinctly Burmese precedent to the pattern of violence and intimidation we are currently witnessing,” Dr Leggett observed.

Something “has gone horribly wrong” when leaders and authorities of a nation turn their violence against its citizens, as well as the immigrants and refugees living within the national borders, he added.

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