New hope for genuine democracy in Myanmar
The broad opposition to the military government that took over Myanmar on Feb. 1 has now coalesced around a national unity government, centered on the deposed leader of the last civilian government, Aung San Suu Kyi, and leading National League for Democracy (NLD) figures. This also brings together civil society leaders who have fronted the ongoing civil resistance to the military junta, as well as representatives of the minority ethnic groups that surround the Burmese heartland of the country.
This is a potentially pivotal development for the democratic future of Myanmar. For one, this formation is not at the pleasure of the Myanmar military, the Tatmadaw, like the previous civilian government was. Suu Kyi and the NLD are not part of this effort because the Tatmadaw saw fit to allow it — they are there because of their popularity with the majority of the Burmese citizens of Myanmar.
Perhaps an even more interesting and promising aspect is that the new effort actively invited the participation of the multitude of minority ethnic groups that have historically been systematically marginalized in Myanmar. Previously, even when Myanmar has toyed with democracy, as it did in the 2010-2020 period, it has still very much retained majoritarian tendencies, whereby only the Buddhist Burmese majority could expect to have their interests and voices reliably represented in government. This was demonstrated by the marginalization and eventual expulsion from the country of the Rohingya, on Suu Kyi’s watch.
The participation, from the onset, of the representatives of the minority ethnic groups in this new democratic government-in-waiting raises hopes that, next time, Myanmar democracy will have a more liberal character that affords minorities protections against the worst impulses of Burmese ethnic nationalism. And we would expect that such guarantees have already been sought and won, as the price for the support of the minorities for the unity government.
This development also dramatically increases the likelihood that this democracy movement will ultimately succeed. Historically, the main tool in the Tatmadaw’s arsenal for domestic control was pitting the Burmese majority against the borderlands minorities and then promising to defend them from the expected backlash. It is no coincidence that Myanmar has been in an effective state of civil war against the borderlands minorities almost permanently since it gained independence in 1948, while being ruled over by the military in one way or another for the overwhelming majority of that time. The Tatmadaw sets itself up as the main vehicle for Burmese domination over the state and has always shored up its support among the Burmese by maintaining ethnic strife and, therefore, a fear of ethnic-based violence against them from the borderlands groups; especially those who could be portrayed as associated with foreign powers: The Chin with China, the Rohingya with the Muslim world, and some of the Christianized ethnic groups with the West.
It looks like the Burmese have switched sides — they no longer run to the Tatmadaw for protection.
Dr. Azeem Ibrahim
It is exactly that dynamic that seems to have been most profoundly altered since Feb. 1. When good, Buddhist Burmese came out on the streets to peacefully protest against the coup and to politely request that Suu Kyi, their duly elected leader, be allowed to governed, the Tatmadaw unleashed upon them the exact same kind of violence that the minorities had alleged for decades had been directed at them. Then something unexpected happened: A wave of these protesters took to social media to directly apologize to the Rohingya for not having believed them and for having previously sided with the Tatmadaw. It seemed like the Burmese majority were beginning to understand that it was not the minorities who were the most immediate threat to their lives and their hopes for the future. It seemed like the Burmese were beginning to understand the violent nature of the Tatmadaw, and to understand that they too could be the targets of that violence.
At the time, that was still the most hopeful interpretation of what was happening. Now, however, it seems that this is indeed the momentous event we hoped it would be. With the direct participation of the minorities in the new unity government at the invitation of the NLD and of the civil society leaders, it looks like the Burmese have switched sides: They no longer run to the Tatmadaw for protection. Not when the Tatmadaw is killing their children on the streets. Instead, they are seeking alliances among other civilians like themselves — civilians who have been brutalized by the same Tatmadaw for decades
With that, it really looks like the nationalist base of support for the Tatmadaw is dissolving before our eyes, as the people of Myanmar are banding together against the military across ethnic and religious lines. If this is indeed what is happening, then the emergence of genuine democracy in Myanmar is not far away.
• Dr. Azeem Ibrahim is a director at the Center for Global Policy and author of “The Rohingyas: Inside Myanmar’s Genocide” (Hurst, 2017). Twitter: @AzeemIbrahim