DEMOCRACY took a hit on Monday when Myanmar’s military overthrew the elected government, detained civilian leaders and declared a year-long emergency. A major setback for liberty and freedom, it caps a decade of tentative democratisation in the South-Eastern Asian nation that had been continually assailed by an intrusive and brutal military. Beyond condemnation, the world should unite and push back against this brazen assault.
A threat to democracy and the people’s sovereign will expressed through free and fair elections anywhere is a threat to freedom everywhere in the world. The coup is particularly reprehensible: it was staged to overturn the results of the general election of November 2020, which the National League for Democracy won by a landslide, defeating the generals’ favoured candidates. Their claims of fraud have been deemed baseless. The putsch prevented the inauguration of the elected parliament and consolidation of power by the NLD leader and democracy icon, Aung San Suu Kyi. The United Nations Secretary-General, António Guterres, rightly called it “a serious blow to democratic reforms.”
The will of the people, declares the United Nations, “is the source of legitimacy of sovereign states.” There is no perfect model, but democracy, by allowing greater participation, equality and inclusion, “provides an environment that respects human rights and fundamental freedoms, and in which the freely expressed will of the people is exercised,” it said. Military rule is particularly odious and inherently violent.
Myanmar’s armed forces, or Tatmadaw, have held a repressive and bloody stranglehold on Myanmar (Burma) for most of its 73 years of independence. They seek to re-impose full military dictatorship after reluctantly stepping back in 2010 for a guided democratic system that The Economist Intelligence Unit’s Democracy Index dismissed as an “authoritarian regime.” Despite their wide powers and exclusion of civilian oversight from military affairs in the constitution they foisted on the 54.77 million Burmese, they could not stomach free elections. Suu Kyi, the de facto prime minister, Win Myint, the president, ministers and senior NLD figures have been clamped in detention. Absurd charges have been filed against the duo; Suu Kyi for “importing communication gadgets illegally” and Myint “for violating COVID-19 lockdown regulations.” There is a media blackout. The commander-in-chief, Min Aung Hlaing, has named himself head of state and head of an 11-man junta, to be in place for one year with hints of staging fresh elections.
All 193 member–countries of the UN should ostracise the junta in the international arena. They should fully back Guterres’ vow to rally the world to ensure that the coup fails. Beyond their call for immediate, unconditional release of detainees, the world should support the country’s legitimate political leaders to reject and boycott any fresh election: the people have spoken and the result of the November election should stand. The people themselves should step up their ongoing peaceful protests.
Freed from the divisiveness of the Donald Trump administration, the United States, democracies and the UN should unite to impose effective sanctions and other measures necessary to force out the generals. They will need to outflank China and Russia, two of the five permanent members of the UN Security Council, who remain adamant enablers of rogue regimes. China has already blocked a proposed UNSC statement condemning the coup. When the Tatmadaw threw out an election in 1990 (also won by the NLD) and kept Suu Kyi in detention for 15 years, sanctions hurt the people, while the military officers amassed wealth through control of the commanding heights of the economy. There should be more effective sanctions this time.
The coup offers a lesson to all that democracy must be defended at all costs. It has been harmed by Trump and like-minded right wingers in some established democracies and ambitious ‘strongmen’ in emerging ones. Belarus’ ruling party prevented free elections last year. The EIU’s Democracy Index 2020 observed a decline in the state of democracy worldwide in 2020, worsened by the fallout from the pandemic; of the 167 countries surveyed, 116 (almost 70 per cent) recorded a decline in their total score. It adjudged only 23 countries to be “full democracies,” 52 as “flawed;” and 35 “hybrid;” 57 countries, representing 34.1 per cent of countries surveyed and 35.6 per cent of the global population, live under authoritarian regimes.
Emergent democracies should understand that for democracy to thrive, the military must be subordinate at all times to civilian authority. Myanmar’s never let go of governance, exerting an influence that placed it beyond civilian oversight. Building a professional, apolitical army is essential; this was a bulwark that among other institutional rail guards helped the US surmount Trump’s atrocious January 6 power grab.
Nigeria’s military is too dangerously exposed; troops should be withdrawn from routine law enforcement in the 33 states where they are currently deployed, they should never again be involved in elections or in quelling public protests. The military should be a last resort, called in only when the police are overwhelmed. Reforming the police and allowing effective, professional state and local policing will free the military to face their core duty of territorial defence.
The UN, US, European Union countries should pile up the pressure on Myanmar, following up their swift condemnations with punitive sanctions, international isolation of the regime and measures to discourage China, Russia, Iran and others from giving comfort to the usurpers.
Though tainted by her defence of atrocities against the autonomy-seeking Rohingya minority, over 10,000 of whom have been killed and almost one million displaced in what the UN has labelled as genocide, the world needs to rally round Suu Kyi, who remains immensely popular within the country, as the symbol of resistance to military usurpation. Regional groups like the 10-member Association of South-East Asian Nations and the seven-member Bay of Bengal Initiative should also goad the soldiers to give way to the people’s will. Until democracy is restored and the sanctity of the elections upheld, Myanmar and its junta should be treated as pariahs by the international community.
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