Democracy died in Myanmar on the morning of February 1st. Just hours before the first session of their newly-elected, second-ever Parliament, the powerful military, known as the Tatmadaw, seized power in a coup d'etat, detaining President Aung San Suu Kyi and many of her top ministers on the grounds of alleged election irregularities. But as protests erupted across the country and global condemnations were aired, the coup turned from an attack on democracy to a mass violation of human rights. Now, the country is awash in blood and bodies, forced under the heel of a powerful and deadly military junta. This horrifying situation must be brought to light so that proper and influential action may be taken.
While military coups may seem rare, this is not the first time that Myanmar has suffered under martial law. In 2011, the country held its first democratic elections after 50 years of brutal military control. In November 2020, the county held its second-ever democratic vote, with Nobel prize winner and de facto civilian leader Aung San Suu Kyi’s National League for Democracy (NLD) party overwhelmingly winning 83% of the vote, and 443 out of 476 seats in Parliament. However, the military claimed mass voter fraud, sparking off barely-dormant political tensions. The morning before the second Parliament was to begin, the military detained Ms. Suu Kyi and other government officials, before proceeding to shut down all local news channels but the military-owned Myawaddy TV and sending soldiers into the streets on patrol. Army Commander-In-Chief Min Aung Hlaing took leadership of the country and declared a year-long State of Emergency. Hlaing, who has been under U.S. sanctions since December 2019 over his role in the Rohingya Genocide, claimed that the military was doing this for the good of the people, and that they would form a “true and disciplined democracy.” Hlaing has been head of the military since 2011, and the military held onto significant power even after the democratic elections that took place in that year. In addition, Hlaing and his family have grown in power and wealth since that time. According to Myanmar law, he would have been forced to retire in July when he turns 65, however, with the country under martial law, that would not happen.
In response to the coup, the people of Myanmar took to the streets in protest, but chances of a peaceful response vanished quickly. While the protests were initially non-violent, the military responded with might, firing live bullets into the crowds and throwing tear gas grenades. In response, many demonstrators chose to fight back, now armed with makeshift molotov cocktails, home-built weapons, slingshots and stones, and makeshift barricades in the roads. To counter the tear gas, protesters began arriving in gas masks and lighting barricades and vehicles on fire. The military again responded with increasing violence and began killing at random, as well as conducting raids on houses and their occupants. At time of writing, over 780 people have been killed by the military response, one of the youngest victims being Khin Myo Chit, a seven-year-old girl killed in her home during a military raid. The fact that democracy in Myanmar lived only a little longer than this innocent girl shows that the military has no interest in the good of the people.
Response to the events in Myanmar have come from outside as well as inside. In a statement made shortly after the coup, President Joe Biden called it a “direct assault on the country’s transition to democracy and the rule of law.” President Biden also threatened to review recently-removed sanctions on Myanmar, or to add more if the situation persisted. Nearer countries, such as Indonesia, Thailand, and China, have issued responses as well. Indonesia’s Ministry of Foreign Affairs urged all parties involved to act with self-restraint and peace in order to avoid violence. In Bangkok, the capital of Thailand (which experienced its own military coup in 2014), protesters gathered outside the Myanmar Embassy to burn pictures of Min Aung Hlaing. In China, they urged Myanmar to handle its differences in a way that maintains political and social structure.
Sadly, there is no change on the horizon for the time being. The military has no interest in returning to civilian rule, and as such, the protests will not stop. Until the world can take effective action, we must hope that the violence is soon resolved, and that the situation does not grow worse.