As a current Political Science undergrad, and aspiring International Affairs grad student, the situation in Myanmar has weighed heavy on my mind. It’s a place I was mildly familiar with before the events of February 1st, but since then, I have done a lot more reading into the recent history of this Southeast Asian nation. I’d like to share with you some of what I’ve learned about this incredibly complex place. I’ll start with the name, which is something even its own people don’t agree upon.
The nation now known as Myanmar has historically been referred to as Burma, and that’s what many of its citizens still call it. Burma was a colony of the British Empire until 1948. 14 years after independence, the first of now three military coups took place. The Burmese Socialist Party began a reign of military dictatorship that lasted until 1988, but that wouldn’t be the end of totalitarian governance. Another Burmese general seized control of the nation and created the State Law & Order Council also known as SLORC. It was under this second military dictatorship that the nation’s name was changed to Myanmar. Though the General and SLORC promised free and fair elections, when their party lost, they refused to give up power and would continue to hold onto it until 2011.
In March of 2011, the military junta was finally dissolved. This didn’t mean much though, as the recently held “free elections” awarded the military-backed Union Solidarity and Development Party control over the nation. In reality, these elections were heavily rigged, the new democracy was simply a façade. It wouldn’t be until 2015 that Myanmar had a real election. After decades of struggle by people within Myanmar and outside forces like the UN promoting democratic growth, their effort was finally rewarded. Aung San Suu Kyi’s National League for Democracy Party won an overwhelming majority and the Burmese people tasted true liberty for the first time. Aung San Suu Kyi is perhaps the most influential figure in Myanmar politics since 1988 when she took part in the national uprisings. The fight for democracy in Myanmar literally cannot be talked about without bringing her up. Her background includes an education at Oxford University and a Nobel Peace Prize she received in 1991 for her role in pursuing liberal democracy. She has been, and continues to be, enormously popular among the people of Myanmar. Her popularity in the West took a plunge however after her ascension to the top of Myanmar’s political ladder.
Ethnic strife is unfortunately a struggle that never ends in Myanmar. With over 100 different ethnic minorities in the country, Myanmar has been engaged in some kind of a civil war at least since its independence if not stretching back farther. Perhaps the largest, most shocking instance of ethnic strife involves the Rohingya Muslims of western Myanmar. The military has been engaged in a genocide against the Rohingya for years. Thousands of them have been displaced into neighboring countries, and those who stay face the constant threat of harassment or death. The hope was that under the leadership of Aung San Suu Kyi, she would put a stop to the military’s disgusting acts. Instead, she allowed the genocide to continue, perhaps in an effort to appease the military’s leadership. This failure to rectify the Rohingya Crisis is what caused the decay of the West’s admiration for her.
Seemingly, Aung San Suu Kyi’s attempts to appease the military junta failed. Once again Myanmar has fallen under the dark shadow of dictatorship. The now former State Counsellor has been placed under house arrest and dozens of other NLD leaders are also jailed. The military junta has imposed a 1 year state of emergency rule, but it seems unlikely it will end even after that year is up. Despite the people of Myanmar’s hunger for democracy and freedom, the military keeps wresting away the levers of institutional power. Perhaps if the nation’s ethnic groups would stop fighting each other, and instead fought their dictators, they would be able to finally cast aside the shackles of tyranny. There is a lot to the situation in Myanmar. Thousands of years of history precede this moment. It’s crazy to me that some random country in Southeast Asia on the other side of the world could be so fascinating and complex. That’s what I love about global affairs. It takes you outside of your world, your country. It makes you realize that just as our people have problems and have a shared history, so too does every single nation on the planet. Just as I hope we overcome our challenges as a nation, so too do I hope that the people of Myanmar overcome theirs.