Myanmar’s democratic experiment on a murky path

Aung San Suu Kyi’s National League for Democracy (NLD) claims victory in the November 8 election, the second freely-contested poll since Myanmar broke away from complete military dictatorship in 2011. But, the military-aligned Opposition party refuses to concede. As it turns out, the country’s democracy stares at a gloomy prospect.


The Southeast Asian nation of Myanmar, with its 37 million eligible voters including 5 million first-timers, went to polls on November 8 in its second free and openly contested elections since the former British colony came out of military dictatorship in 2011. But, the army still yields considerable influence in the ruling establishment.

Incumbent State Counselor (equivalent to the role of a prime minister), the75-year-old Aung San Suu Kyi’s National League for Democracy (NLD)claims to have won the election held in earlier this week to retain power.

But, the military-aligned Union Solidarity and Development Party (USDP) in the Opposition refused to accept the results terming it as ‘unfair’ and called for a fresh vote, adding up to the political turmoil in presumably Asia’s newest democratic experiment.

Suu Kyi is still the country’s most popular politician, the youngest daughter of Aung San, father of the modern nation of Myanmar. And her party, the NLD, has a strong nation-wide presence, particularly among the majority ethnic Bamars, who makes up 70% of the country’s population.

In its first free election held in 2015, the NLD had won a landslide victory improving the prospects for institutionalization of democracy in the predominantly Buddhist state. However, whichever party wins, it has to share power with the military for which 25 % of non-elected parliamentary seats are constitutionally reserved for, and additionally three key ministries in the government.

In total, 87 parties competed in the 2020 election. Many were ethnic parties, and most of the other parties were founded by Suu Kyi’s former aides who broke away from her later. Historically, the military has resisted attempts aimed at reforms that would reduce its power. It was in 1962 Myanmar fell to a military dictatorship that would remain in power for the next five decades.

Suu Kyi returned to then Burma in 1988 after completing her studies abroad. Witnessing the abuses of the military junta, she led the calls for the country’s democratization. In the aftermath of the pro-democracy protests, she formed the NLD as a political platform to discuss democracy and human rights.

Even though the NLD contested and won the elections held in 1990 the military refused to accept the results and prevented a civilian government from forming. Suu Kyi was placed under house arrest by the military in the next year.

She continued her struggle and went on to receive the Nobel Peace Prize in 1991. She was held in house arrest for almost two decades with intervals in between. Elections were held again in 2010. The military junta was officially dissolved in 2011, and a nominally civilian government was installed, ending nearly five decades of military rule.

Four years later, in Myanmar’s first free and openly contested election in 2015, the NLD won a landslide victory, a sign of Suu Kyi’s popularity among the masses. Burmese people respectfully called her ‘Amay Suu’ (Mother Suu) or simply ‘the Lady’.

The renewed political system paved the path for an economic recovery and development, reaffirming that an inclusive democracy can deliver prosperity. But, the government’s treatment of ethnic minorities, curtailment of press freedom, and looming intolerance to the ethnic insurgencies attracted criticisms from around the world.

In 2017, a black stain clouded the Suu Kyi government’s image as it approved a military crackdown on the 1.1 million-strong Rohingya Muslim ethnic minority belonging to the Rakhine state on Myanmar’s western coast, accusing them of militancy, and led to at least 750,000 of them fleeing to nearby Bangladesh, India, and elsewhere, eventually leading to a refugee crisis and many internally displaced too.

Deprived of citizenship or statehood, the Rohingyas are widely seen in Myanmar as illegal ‘Bengalis’ even though they have lived in the predominantly-Buddhist country for generations. The Rohingyas were subjected to ‘clearance operations’ by the military including arson, rape and extra-judicial killings. The United Nations consider them as the most persecuted minority in the world.

Since 2015, the Suu Kyi administration has arrested scores of students, artists and farmers, simply for expressing their political views in the past five years. Her democratic ideals gradually disappeared,owing to the military’s continuing influence on her decisional autonomy as the head of government and possibly her continued political leadership itself.

Year 2019 saw the former Peace Nobel laureate nose-diving from a champion of democracy and human rights icon to genocide denier when she defended the crackdown on Rohingya militia while appearing on behalf of the Burmese government at the International Court of Justice in The Hague, Netherlands, denying all charges of genocide and ethnic cleansing against her government and the military.

Western-led organisations such as the European Union and the United Nations had expressed their disappointment with the Lady’s changed behaviour that contradicted the very ideals she previously stood for during her struggle against the junta-rule in the 1990s and 2000s. Similar concerns have been expressed by a handful of other organisations and countries the West, as well.

Following the 2020 election, the EU commended the high voter turnout and peaceful polls but also called for the full inclusion of all ethnic, religious and minority groups of the country, hinting atthe Rohingya crisis.

With Buddhist ultra-nationalism thriving with hate and fear mongering monks dominating public discourse with an opaque power sharing arrangement between the civilian and military ruling classes, Myanmar’s internal democracy and social cohesion between the majority and the minorities lie on a murky path.

With the Lady effectively playing second fiddle to the military, Myanmar stares at a gloomy future. Rising Chinese economic interest in the Bay of Bengal littoral state could also prove detrimental to the democratic project’s long-term prospects and the region’s stability.

Bejoy Sebastian
Bejoy Sebastian
Bejoy Sebastian writes on the contemporary geopolitics and regionalism in eastern Asia and the Indo-Pacific. His articles and commentaries have appeared in Delhi Post (India), The Kochi Post (India), The Diplomat (United States), and The Financial Express (India). Some of his articles were re-published by The Asian Age (Bangladesh), The Cambodia Daily, the BRICS Information Portal, and the Peace Economy Project (United States). He is an alumnus of the Indian Institute of Mass Communication (IIMC), New Delhi, where he acquired a post-graduate diploma in English journalism. He has qualified the Indian University Grants Commission's National Eligibility Test (UGC-NET) for teaching International Relations in Indian higher educational institutions in 2022. He holds a Master's degree in Politics and International Relations with first rank from Mahatma Gandhi University in Kottayam, Kerala, India. He was attached to the headquarters of the Ministry of External Affairs (Government of India) in New Delhi as a research intern in 2021 and has also worked as a Teaching Assistant at FLAME University in Pune, India, for a brief while.