Aug. 8 marks the 30th anniversary of Myanmar’s pro-democracy uprising in 1988. Until that moment, the country had been a Soviet-style, one-party socialist state led by a military junta for well over two decades. Then, on that August day, 2 million people rose up against the regime.
The junta responded with a brutal crackdown. The armed forces killed some 3,000 to 10,000 people outright; tens of thousands more were injured, imprisoned or run out of the country altogether. Among those jailed was Aung San Suu Kyi, a newly emerged pro-democracy leader who was also the daughter of one of the country’s post-independence founders. Over the next 21 years, she would spend 15 in prison for her advocacy of democracy and human rights — work for which she also received international recognition and a Nobel Peace Prize.
Today, Aung San Suu Kyi is the de facto leader of the country, holding the position of state counselor as well as a number of ministerial portfolios. She acquired those titles after a long-awaited general election in 2015 that swept her political movement, the National League for Democracy (NLD), to an overwhelming majority in the country’s parliament.
Since then, many of the sanctions that were keeping the country shut off from the world just a few years ago have been lifted, and Western, Indian and Chinese interests are all vying to invest in the developing economy and its infrastructure. The party-political dynamics at the top seem stable, and there is every reason to expect that the next general elections in 2020 will also go well.
Scratch the surface, though, and it quickly becomes evident that the promises of democracy have been betrayed. And responsibility for this goes to Aung San Suu Kyi and her party as much as anyone else.
The most obvious sign that something is very wrong in Myanmar is the ongoing genocide against the Rohingya minority in the northwest of the country. Democracies tend not to kill their citizens en masse. And sure enough, although the predominantly Muslim Rohingya were all born in Myanmar and have existed in their region for centuries, they are not citizens. Successive leaderships of the military junta disenfranchised the darker-skinned, minority-religion group, culminating in the 1982 Citizenship Law that rendered them illegal foreigners, ineligible for citizenship or even naturalization in the country of their birth and of their forefathers.
One would have expected a globally celebrated champion of human rights to advocate for the rights of the powerless and the disenfranchised. Many in Myanmar and the West were expecting Aung San Suu Kyi to do just that after her victory in the 2015 general election. Instead, she has opted to deny the Rohingya their very identity as a people, repeating the Buddhist-nationalist propaganda claims that they are “illegal Bengali immigrants” and defending the military’s use of violence against them. That is not something that the typical democratic leader does in a normal democratic country.
But then, Aung San Suu Kyi is not a typical democratic leader, and Myanmar is hardly a democratic country.
Aung San Suu Kyi’s views on the Rohingya are not new. Writing in 1985, she expounded on the Burmese “racial psyche,” in which, she said, Buddhism “represents the perfected philosophy. It therefore follows that there [is] no need to either to develop it further or to consider other philosophies.” Judging by her policies in the past three years, one can only conclude that Aung San Suu Kyi at most aspires for democracy only for the ethnic Burmese Buddhist citizens of her extraordinarily diverse country. And other senior figures in her NLD party make that case explicitly.
The Rohingya are just the tip of the iceberg. No sooner had the military pushed some 700,000 Rohingya across the border into Bangladesh than it was redeploying, with the backing of Aung San Suu Kyi’s government, to wage full-scale ethnic war against other ethnic minorities in border regions in the north and southeast. And these groups largely do have acknowledged citizenship.
Myanmar, in short, is behaving less like a democracy and more like what it was under the juntas: a Buddhist-Burmese ethno-nationalist state engaged in perpetual warfare against any of its people who do not belong to the majority group.
The leaders of the Myanmar military retain controlling ownership of the vast majority of the country’s productive resources. When a wave of public pressure pushed the army to adopt a new constitution in 2008, the generals took care to ensure themselves 25 percent of the seats in parliament as well as a monopoly on security, defense and foreign policy. The commander in chief of Myanmar’s armed forces remains above the entire civilian administration in the constitutional power hierarchy, and has the power to veto, overrule or take over the government entirely, whenever he sees fit.
In other words, Myanmar is still a military dictatorship, both de facto and de jure. The only thing that has changed is that they are now allowing Aung San Suu Kyi, the NLD and other approved political actors to play at power, within “safe constraints.” And Aung San Suu Kyi, her NLD and other “democratic” parties are happily playing along, now that they are allowed at the table.
Democracy in Myanmar was a nice dream. Today, however, it is a nothing more than a thin veneer over a nightmarish reality.
Azeem Ibrahim is Senior Fellow at the Centre for Global Policy and Adj Research Professor at the Strategic Studies Institute, US Army War College. He completed his PhD from the University of Cambridge and served as an International Security Fellow at the Kennedy School of Government at Harvard and a World Fellow at Yale. Over the years he has met and advised numerous world leaders on policy development and was ranked as a Top 100 Global Thinker by the European Social Think Tank in 2010 and a Young Global Leader by the World Economic Forum. He tweets @AzeemIbrahim.
Originally published in Washington Post