Yasmin Aliya Khan
Military Coup in Myanmar
Hello! I’m Yasmin Aliya Khan and I’m the host of the Global Thread podcast. Thank you for being here!
Today we’re going to be talking about the military coup and protests taking place right now in Myanmar, also known as Burma. This is just the latest in a years-long news story involving the displacement and mistreatment, to put it lightly, of Rohingya Muslims, as well the ongoing struggle for power between a military-led authoritarian government and a democratic one.
Very quickly, I know I mentioned that the nation was also known as Burma, not formerly known as Burma. It’s a bit complicated as to why this country has two names, but basically, the military changed the name from Burma to Myanmar in 1989. However, for reasons that may become clear later in the podcast, the United States still officially recognizes the nation as Burma. The name Burma was originally derived from one of the ethnic groups that live there, so without getting into all the etymology, the people are still generally referred to as Burmese. For the sake of this podcast, I’ll be using the name Myanmar when referring to the country, with a few exceptions here and there.
Myanmar is located in Southeast Asia. It’s bordered by Bangladesh, India, China, Laos, and Thailand, and it’s got a hefty amount of coastline along the Indian Ocean. In a lot of ways, it sort of bridges the Indian subcontinent with East Asian cultures while maintaining its own distinct cultural identity.
The majority of the population is Buddhist, and the locals have a reputation for being some of the friendliest around! The land itself is sparsely populated, so it’s a popular tourist destination for people who enjoy nature and outdoor activities. The cuisine also sounds awesome because it pulls in influence from India, China, and Thailand. I just wanna go there and eat.
Given its proximity to India and Bangladesh, you may not have known that it was actually once a part of the British Indian empire. Right before India got its independence from Britain in 1947, then-Burma had already separated to become its own nation. The rest of India, for the most part, wasn’t too worried about it because, technically, it had never really been a part of India to begin with.
Burma also claimed independence the following year, but remnants from the separation and independence campaign carried over as the new nation set off to govern itself. A big part of the campaign focused on Burma being anti-immigration, which then leaned into being more nationalistic. You started to see smaller ethnic groups fighting for recognition and respect in the new government, and unfortunately, that struggle would never really go away.
In the decades since, the nation has been unable to break out of poverty and low levels of development, relying heavily on foreign aid to sustain its citizens. The reason for this can largely be traced back to its general instability. Throughout its history, there have been years of military control interspersed with years of attempted-democratic progress.
So let’s look at that history briefly.
Back in the 1940s, Aung San became a beloved figure in Myanmar’s history for helping to negotiate independence from the British empire, though shortly afterward, he was assassinated. To this day, he’s still a highly-revered figure in Myanmar. His daughter, Aung San Suu Kyi, would leave the country for the UK where she would study philosophy, politics, and economics at Oxford University. She would also meet her husband there and go on to start a family.
Back in Myanmar, after a few years of attempting to create an independent governing body, the military staged a coup in 1962, creating a military junta. The junta immediately set out to assert its authority and effectively control the populace. And what’s one of the easiest ways to unite a group of people? You give them a common enemy.
So, I’m sure you’ve heard about the Rohingya. They’re a group of Muslims living along the western coast of Myanmar. They’ve been making headlines for a few years now because they’ve drawn the ire of the junta. The junta decided to lean all the way in on Buddhist nationalism, so naturally, the Muslims out west became the “others.” There had already been some tension between the Rohingya and the Buddhists going back to World War II, though. The Rohingya sided with the British forces, their then-colonizers, and the Buddhists sided with the Japanese, their wartime occupants, in the hopes that the Japanese would help them win their independence from Britain after the war. So as you can guess, it was fairly easy for the junta to light an already glowing spark.
You may be thinking - aren’t the tenets of Buddhism sort of… anti-nationalistic? Peace-loving? Of course they are, and you’ll see examples of peaceful protests organized by the Buddhists throughout this story, but humans are fallible and imperfect creatures. I, personally, don’t know a single person who fully abides by the teachings of their chosen religion to the point of being immune to their own personality flaws, misguidance, and generally just missing the point altogether. And I’m sure I don’t need to point this out to you, but claiming a religion does not exempt a person from personal accountability or introspection or betterment.
I was watching 30 Rock the other day (again) and Kenneth, the very religious, naive, and well-intended page, asked Liz, “When has religion ever caused any trouble?”
I think the only response Liz could muster was a very, very confused and concerned look, like… “Where have you been for… all of… ever?”
We all know firsthand how divisive and corruptive religion can be and has been throughout history, especially as it’s exalted to a point that’s often beyond criticism or even honest exploration. Leaders assert moral superiority based on their faith all the time, and it’s a really easy way to get other followers of the same faith to fall in line. It’s almost too easy, and unfortunately, many aspiring leaders know this.
I want to be very clear here - this isn’t a dig at any particular religion, nor at religion as a whole, as an idea, or as an institution. We’re just talking about it in the context of world events and how messages and affiliations are often bastardized and weaponized to serve a larger, more sinister purpose. In this case, Buddhism has been weaponized against Islam, regardless of how misaligned and confusing that all is.
Anyway, we saw this all play out several separate times over the proceeding decades. In 1978, for instance, Operation Dragon King, which is a bonkers name, claimed that the Rohingya were illegal immigrants from Bangladesh even though their roots in Myanmar could be traced back several centuries. This meant that the Rohingya were denied citizenship and many of the rights and protections that came with it. By means of violence and rape, over 200,000 Rohingya were driven from their homes and into Bangladesh. Eventually, though, most of them returned to Myanmar.
Again in 1982, the government issued the Citizenship Act, which failed to recognize the Rohingya as one of Myanmar’s ethnic groups despite their prominent population.
1991 - Operation Clean and Beautiful Nation! This time, an estimated 250,000 Rohingya were driven from their homes.
As the years went on, tensions continued to rise between the two groups. The Rohingya mainly populate the northern portion of the Rakhine state on the western coast of Myanmar, with Buddhists primarily living in the southern part of the state. Fears spread amongst the Buddhist community that their own population and lands would be overtaken by the Rohingya, however grounded or ungrounded those fears were. Prevalent media propaganda didn’t help, but as bad as things already were, they took a turn for the worse in 2012 with the Rakhine State Riots. Four Rohingya men were accused of raping and killing a Buddhist woman. A series of attacks and riots erupted across the state with the Buddhist nationalists being backed by police and military forces. Over 90,000 people are estimated to have been driven from their homes, with both sides incurring loss of life and loss of property. Following the riots, the then-president proposed a plan that would settle the Rohingya abroad, but the plan was rejected by the UN.
Before we get any further into recent events, let’s back up to 1988.
Remember Aung San Suu Kyi over in England? Well, her mother got sick, so she left her family in the UK and returned to her home country to take care of her mom. As the well-educated and well-spoken daughter of a national hero, she was welcomed back with open arms, with locals looking to her to lead.
So in the same year that Suu Kyi would return to Myanmar, as fate or circumstance or whatever would have it, a series of pro-democracy protests were taking place across the country. This would come to be known as the 8888 Uprising, deriving the nickname from the events being on or around August 8, 1988.
The Uprising was a critical point in Myanmar’s governance. Up until that point, Myanmar had been ruled by the military junta for over two decades. In that time, the nation was burdened with debt, its currency was a disaster, its people became impoverished and lost their savings, and its government championed an isolationist and nationalistic agenda.
It started with university students staging protests in the capital, and it quickly escalated and expanded to include people from all over the country from all walks of life protesting the military’s one-party rule and demanding democracy. As you can imagine, the military and police forces retaliated against the protesters, killing thousands, depending on various estimates, though official records only acknowledge a few hundred deaths and casualties.
It was during this time that Suu Kyi addressed the public, encouraging non-violence and becoming a figurehead for the pro-democracy movement in Myanmar, especially on the world stage. However, by the end of the protests, the military had reclaimed its authority by just killing indiscriminately until the protests had been subdued. And then - they cracked down even further. They issued propaganda against the protesters and limited media communications. And remember - this was before social media was a thing. When we talk about limiting media, we’re talking about silencing journalists, news reporters. As for the protesters? Over the coming years, the ones who hadn’t been killed directly in the protests were left to die in prisons, being subjected to cruel and inhumane treatment, like being denied the basics - food, water, sanitation, medication. The idea was to stifle any lingering revolutionary ideals and to set an example for aspiring activists and intellectuals.
Did it work? For a while, sure. But then in 2007, another round of protests, The Saffron Revolution, erupted that proved that the discontent from 1989 hadn’t gone anywhere. And why would it have? Things had not improved economically for Myanmar. It was ranked one of the poorest countries in the world and there were increasing and visible levels of inequality between the people and the government officials. The protests were triggered when the military-led government decided to roll back subsidies on the price of fuel - the fuel that they controlled and distributed. The protesters championed a non-violent approach, but they were again met with a harsh crackdown. The junta even went so far as to raid monasteries and attempt to bait UN officials and journalists by setting up fake protests. Communications were limited to state-run media outlets, and eventually, internet access was cut.
The international response included economic sanctions against Myanmar and its military officials from the US, the EU, Canada, and Australia, and many members of the international community even called for a boycott of the 2008 Olympics in Beijing since China refused to condemn the Myanmar government. But my favorite response has got to be “Panties for Peace.” Yes. Apparently, the military generals thought that women’s underwear could take away their power…? So women from around the world started mailing them panties…
So, you may be wondering, where was Suu Kyi for all of this?
She was under house arrest… again.
She went back to Myanmar in 1988, and for a huge chunk of the time since, she’s been under house arrest. She was seen as a threat to the junta, so there was no way they could just, you know, leave her alone.
In 1990, the junta agreed to hold democratic elections, seemingly in an effort to appear amenable to the international community. However, before the election even took place, Suu Kyi was placed under house arrest, preventing her from running for office. Suu Kyi’s party, the National League for Democracy Party, or the NLD, still won in a landslide, much to the military’s surprise. So naturally, they claimed fraud and refused to recognize the results. Even some of the NLD members who had been elected to Parliament were either arrested or exiled.
So much for democracy, right?
While under house arrest, Suu Kyi was awarded the Nobel Peace Prize for her commitment to non-violent protest, but that would later become a point of contention. In 1995, she was finally released, but in 1996, her motorcade was attacked by a group of men in what seemed to be a coordinated attack. Security forces did little to nothing to stop the attack.
Then, remember how she had to leave her family back in the UK when she moved to Myanmar? Well, her husband had been diagnosed with terminal cancer. He asked the government for permission to go visit his wife one last time, but he was denied. Instead, they said she could go see him in the UK. Obviously, the plan was to not let her back into the country once she was out, so Suu Kyi stayed put and was unable to see her husband before he passed.
For most of the 2000s decade, she was back under house arrest, with a short break from it between 2002 and 2003 when she suffered another attack, this one worse than the last. Four of her bodyguards were killed in the attack, but she made it out, only to be put back under house arrest.
Finally in 2012, she won a seat in Parliament! With the world watching, Myanmar attempted to at least appear to hold free and fair elections because they wanted those economic sanctions from 2007 lifted. That was the condition they had to meet. The election was another landslide for the NLD and another blow to the military.
In the 2015 election, the NLD won the majority of seats in Parliament, meaning that Suu Kyi, as the leader of the party, should have taken over as president. Here’s where it gets a little tricky, though. She couldn’t assume the presidency because the Constitution said that anyone who married a foreigner or had foreign-born children could not be president. To get around this, they created a new role for her, State Counsellor, and she became the de facto leader of the government.
Now, I know I said the NLD won the majority of seats in Parliament, but 25% of the seats were not actually up for election. Those 25% of seats are reserved for military officials. Conveniently, a vote of over 75% of Parliament is needed to amend the Constitution, meaning that this can’t be done without buy-in from the military.
In the coming years, with Suu Kyi as the de facto head of the Myanmar government, the nation would come under intense scrutiny for its treatment of the Rohingya. I mean, I’m sure you’d heard about it way before this podcast episode dropped. It’s been all over the international news and social media. But Suu Kyi’s response, or rather, her lack of response was also headline news. She’s been hailed as a hero for the people, a champion for democracy, and a Nobel Peace Prize-winning non-violence advocate… so why was she so reluctant to denounce the actions of the military against the Rohingya?
She’s said in interviews that there was "no ethnic cleansing” going on in Myanmar, even using a “both sides” argument on a few occasions. We all know how well those go over. So what is it? Is her power being limited by the military, so she can’t actually say or do anything about the humanitarian crisis? Is she attempting to play nice with the military publicly while hopefully, maybe fighting against them on the down low? Is she a political genius and this is all just a part of her long game? Is she afraid of alienating her Buddhist supporters who make up the majority of the nation’s population? Is she, as she’s been accused, reluctant to relinquish what power she has for one reason or another? To be fair, there are good reasons for people to want to hang on to power besides just being power-hungry or corrupt, but at the end of the day, we can only speculate as to what her reasonings may be. People from around the world have gone so far as to ask for her Nobel Peace Prize to be recalled because of this, and I’m not gonna lie, some of her interview responses are hard to listen to, especially coming from someone purported to be so pro-peace that they gave her an award for it.
Alright, I think we’ve finally got enough background info to finally move into 2021.
Myanmar held elections in November 2020, and as you can probably assume by now, the NLD won big and the military did not. Consistent with their past behavior, the military immediately claimed fraud, alleging that there were something like 10 million irregularities to the voter lists. You know how it goes - the losing party claims fraud and everyone else scratches their heads looking for the evidence.
Because there isn’t any.
Or if there is any, the military has found it and they’re not sharing it with the public… because they know the truth and the rest of us will just have to trust them.
On February 1, 2021, the military staged their latest coup (they really like coups) and took over the government, placing Suu Kyi under house arrest again. She must be used to this by now.
Now, the country is being led by a senior general and commander-in-chief of the Tatmadaw, the Burmese military police force. His name is Min Aung Hlaing and after spending his entire career slowly climbing the ladder, he’s finally reached the top. During his tenure in the military, he’s been accused of genocide and ethnic cleansing, and his troops have been accused of rape, violence, and arson against the populous. So naturally, he was promoted through the ranks. Last year, the Trump administration imposed sanctions against him and other high-ranking military members in response to the genocide.
During the time that Suu Kyi was the de facto leader of the government, he seemed to play nice with her, even as he came under international scrutiny for the military’s actions against the Rohingya. This is one of those times where it was unclear as to whether or not Suu Kyi actually supported his actions or if she either couldn’t do anything about it or didn’t want to for some reason. Again, she’s publicly denied or downplayed the military’s campaigns against the people.
Min Aung Hlaing, who is butting up against his retirement age of 65, has now assumed power and declared a year-long state of emergency. He essentially found a loophole that would allow him to retain power beyond 65. He’s now focused on investigating all of the voter fraud that didn’t happen and he’s thrown out the November election results. He says that Myanmar will hold a do-over election soon, but we’ll have to see how that goes.
This part is weird, though. For all of their claims of election fraud, they detained Suu Kyi on the grounds that she violated import/export laws… nothing to do with the election she supposedly stole. Apparently, she had some walkie-talkies that she shouldn’t have had, which was enough of a reason for her to be placed under house arrest. Another leader, President Win Myint, has been detained for violating COVID restrictions.
Now, the question is…
What happens from here?
Protests have already broken out across the country with people demanding the release of Suu Kyi, and China has expressed its support of the coup. In the U.S., President Biden has quite a lot to deal with. The U.S. had been working with governments in Southeast Asia to bring democracy to the people, but during the Trump administration, authoritarian leaders had been able to regain some traction. The unfounded allegations of election fraud have even been referred to as “Trumpian.” For a group of nations surrounded by China, this doesn’t bode well for the U.S.
The U.S. has officially declared this a coup, which means that we’d normally cut off any aid we’re giving to the country. Considering the circumstances, though, most of the aid we give them is for humanitarian purposes, so Biden has expressed that the people would not be made to suffer further because of the military’s actions. Both Biden and Mitch McConnell have expressed interest in imposing sanctions against the illegitimate government, indicating bipartisan support on the matter.
To call that ironic is maybe an understatement because the fact that the U.S. recently suffered its own capital insurrection on the basis of unfounded claims of voter fraud has tarnished our reputation and leverage in Asia. Americans like to take the moral high-ground on these issues, especially abroad. Now, it’s a little harder for us to do that without sounding wildly hypocritical.
China is also more economically involved in Myanmar than the U.S. is, so their response could have much bigger implications, i.e. Myanmar may not need U.S. support if they get it from China. That said, China knows how volatile Myanmar’s politics are, so they may exercise caution when dealing with them. They want to remain friendly with Myanmar because they want easy access to the Indian Ocean.
A special session of the UN Human Rights Council will meet on Friday to discuss the coup.
And that’s where we leave off! Thank you so much for listening. I hope you learned a thing or two, and I hope you continue to explore this story. If you’d like to read a transcript of the audio, you can head over to the blog at globalthread.org, and be sure to subscribe to the podcast for updates.
Talk to y’all soon, bye!