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A crumbling Thai monarchy and the people’s longing for democracy

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As a nation, Thailand has escaped colonial subjugation. But, in the past one year, the Asian kingdom faces an unprecedented political crisis at home. Both the monarchy’s legitimacy and the military-linked government’s power are questioned by a legion of dissenting youth. How did things turn out this way? Here, I analyse.

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At the centre of the city of Bangkok lies the Democracy Monument. It commemorates the historic Siamese Revolution of 1932 which led to the establishment of a constitutional monarchy in what was then the Kingdom of Siam, by its military ruler, Field Marshal Plaek Phibunsongkhram who saw the monument as the central point of what he envisioned as a new Bangkok, Westernized and democratized in outlook.

But, people’s direct rule in the city and the Thai nation at large is still a distant dream for many, particularly the dissenting youth. The monarchy still has an influential role in Thai society, culture, and politics.

The Southeast Asian nation of Thailand, previously Siam, is ruled by the royal House of Chakri for the past three centuries. However, since the last 88 years, following the Siamese Revolution of 1932, it has been a constitutional monarchy, with king as a nominal head of state and the prime minister as the head of government. But, the country has a history of coups soon after this transition, making the military an influential player in its domestic politics.

So, what is happening in that country since early 2020? Why are the youth and the students protesting against the ruling establishment consisting of the king and the prime minister? What lies ahead?

People demands power transition

Protests began in March, this year, but it lost momentum due to the raging pandemic before starting again in July. Tensions escalated in mid-October when tens of thousands of young protesters took to the streets, mostly in Bangkok but also in other parts of Thailand.

The demonstrators demanded the resignation of General-turned-PM Prayuth Chan-ocha, a new and reformed democratic constitution, a reformed monarchy, more transparency in the government, and an end to the harassment of democracy activists. Police have responded with water cannons and by arresting protesters. The government has also issued an emergency decree prohibiting gatherings to curb the protests.

A section of the protesters went further with a list of ‘10 demands’ of intended reforms. They say, they do not seek to end the monarchy, rather reform it from within. But, on the other hand, there are pro-monarchy conservative royalists who support the government led by the military-aligned prime minister.

The protesters even tried to directly communicate with the king by the symbolic act of posting letters as an expression of their discontent with the establishment. The police have arrested hundreds of protesters so far. But, the unrest in Thailand has only intensified and spread to larger sections of the population.

Origins of the crisis

The origins of the current political stand-off began in the aftermath of the long-awaited March 2019 elections that brought five years of military junta rule to an end. Since a 2014 coup toppled the elected government of former PM Yingluck Shinawatra the kingdom has been reeling under junta rule that installed then General Prayuth Chan-ocha as Prime Minister.

But, after last year’s election, Prayuth resigned from the army, so he could run for Prime Minister’s office again as a civilian. He was supported by military-backed political parties and the election results were disputed by the Opposition parties, as he returned back to power as PM. But, his continuation indicated that Thai military remains a strong force in Thailand’s political scene, even though a civilian rule exists in paper.

In the disputed election, most Thai youths who are now at the forefront of protests supported the third largest party, the Future Forward Party. But, in February 2020, a court order ruled that the party should be disbanded. Young Thais, angry at the ruling, protested soon after. Then came the pandemic-induced lockdowns that restricted protests before it re-emerged in July.

A note on Thai monarchy

Thailand arguably has one of the world’s strictest lese-majeste rules that are aimed at curtailing public behaviour classifiable as criminal offences against the dignity of the reigning monarch and prohibits insults to the royal family. However, the Thai monarchy entered a period of transition after the death of former king Bhumibol Adulyadej, the father of the present king Maha Vajiralongkorn, in 2016 who reigned for long seven decades.

Adulyadej was largely seen as a unifying force in the Thai nation that has endured years of political turmoil, unlike his pompous and extravagant son who had spent much of his time in Germany since ascending to throne. While his people fiercely protested, the king stayed away from all that commotion in a foreign land away from home enjoying luxury quarantine in the Bavarian Alps with public money.

Thai protesters had earlier sought the German government to look into whether he had conducted state business while on German soil, such as the signing of royal commands and the annual expenditure act that would be unbecoming considering the behaviour expected from their king.

Moving against the flow

The latest protests by the youths and students raise justifiable questions on the legitimacy of the regal power in Thai ruling establishment. They intensely hope and raise their voices for a transition to full democracy, creating a sensitive backdrop to the grievances raised against the military-backed government, on the other side.

Meanwhile, PM Prayuth has repeatedly rejected the protesters’ demands to step down. With the looming pandemic affecting normalcy of life and the Thai government planning to extend the nation-wide state of emergency until mid-January next year, there is no foreseeable reprieve for the demands raised by protesters soon enough.

Bejoy Sebastian is an independent journalist based in India who regularly writes, tweets, and blogs on issues relating to international affairs and geopolitics, particularly of the Asia-Pacific region. He also has an added interest in documentary photography. Previously, his bylines have appeared in The Diplomat, The Kochi Post, and Delhi Post.

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Southeast Asia

Myanmar: Exploiting lessons learnt in the Middle East

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Demonstrating for the third week their determination to force the country’s military to return to its barracks, protesters in Myanmar appear to be learning lessons from a decade of protest in the Middle East and North Africa.

By the same token, Myanmar’s protesters, in stark contrast to public silence about the military’s brutal repression of the Rohingya minority in recent years, seem to want to forge a national identity that supersedes past emphasis on ethnicity and/or religion.

In doing so, they, like their counterparts in Lebanon and Iraq, reject sectarian policies that allowed elites to divide and rule and distract attention from economic and social grievances held by all segments of the population.

As they resist the military’s February 1 coup that nullified a democratic election won in November in a landslide by Aung San Suu Kyi’s National League for Democracy (NLD) because of alleged electoral fraud, protesters confront many of the same obstacles that demonstrators in  Thailand, Turkey, Sudan, and Algeria face.

The ability to address desperately needed reforms with a buy-in from the military will shape a return to democracy and the sustainability of the transition. Taking military concerns into account reforms will have to include civilian control of the military, defining the military’s mission in national defence rather than ideological terms, and regulating the armed forces’ vast economic interests.

The Middle East and North Africa provide cautionary tales like Egypt that eight years after a coup has become a brutal dictatorship and Libya, Syria and Yemen that are wracked by war, as well as potential models, that would serve Myanmar’s democratization well.

Tunisia, the one Arab country to have pushed political transition relatively successful, was able to do so because Zine El Abidine Ben Ali, the Tunisian autocrat who was overthrown in 2011, had ensured that the military had no vested interest in the country’s political system.

Mr. Ben Ali decimated the military leadership, severely cut the budget of the armed forces early on in his 24-year rule and sidelined the military, relying instead on security forces and law enforcement. As a result, the military effectively stood aside when protesters staged mass anti-government demonstrations.

The positioning of Tunisia’s armed forces may not offer Myanmar immediate options, but it highlights the need for a military that understands itself as a national institution rather than a party with vested political and economic interests.

Of more immediate importance to Myanmar is the fact that Mr. Ben Ali as well as the leaders of Egypt, Libya and Yemen were toppled by an informal alliance between civil society and either factions of the military or the armed forces as a whole. They shared a short-term interest in removing the incumbent from power.

The same is true for Southeast Asia’s people power revolts in the Philippines and Indonesia in the 1980s and 1990s. In Myanmar, it was the military that opted for a degree of political liberalization following decades of intermittent mass protest.

It took Tunisian civil society’s engagement with the security forces as well as other segments of society and the existing power structure to nurture the democratization process. By contrast, the process was derailed in much of the Middle East by a post-revolt breakdown of the alliance, often aggravated and/or manipulated by external forces.

The Tunisian approach enabled all parties to manage the inevitable divergence of interests once Mr. Ben Ali had been toppled, juxtaposing civil society’s quest for wholesale political and economic reform with the security forces’ insistence on the preservation of their economic and political interests and rescue of as much of the ancien regime as possible.

In Tunisia, like in other post-revolt countries, the divergence kicked in the moment the incumbent was removed. The Middle East and Southeast Asia’s experience demonstrates that the pitfalls are embedded in the compromises made to establish a transitionary government.

Inevitably, the military and/or security forces either constitute the transition government or are a powerful part of it. Their track record is one of taking liberties in protecting their interests.

Like in Myanmar this month, the military crosses red lines when the transition endangers those prerogatives. Learning how to counter the pitfalls of perilous but inevitable cooperation with at least segments of the military and/or security forces is a work in progress.

Turkey provides a different set of lessons. President Recep Tayyip Erdogan’s turn towards repression and authoritarianism in the wake of a failed military coup in 2016 suggests that civilian control does not offer a magic wand even if the takeover was foiled by protesters who set aside their social, ideological, and political differences.

If this is a cautionary tale, Turkey also offers solutions to at least one of the issues: the military’s economic interests. Turkey’s military, even before the imposition of civilian control, put its economic house in order by creating a conglomerate, one of the country’s largest, that is owned by the military pension fund and subject to regulation, civic and commercial law, and markets like any other privately held institution.

As civil obedience in Myanmar persists, protesters have certain advantages.

Rather than being on their own, the protesters benefit from being at the forefront of a wave of defiance and dissent that for the past decade and no doubt the next is fueled by a breakdown in confidence in political systems and leadership.

With the pandemic, the widespread mismanagement of public health responses, the global economic downturn and dislocation, and technological change, the coming decade promises to be perhaps even more turbulent.

In addition, Myanmar protesters’ may be beneficiaries of the electoral defeat of US President Donald Trump and the rise of Joe Biden, who has pledged to make human rights a central plank of his foreign policy.

Granted, US adherence in its foreign policy to its human rights values has at the best of times been checkered.

Nonetheless, Mr. Biden’s approach, even if imperfectly applied, erases the permissive environment that autocrats enjoyed during the Trump years.

There is, moreover, a reason to believe that Mr. Biden will be truer to his pledge because it is key to US efforts to repair the credibility and reputational damage suffered by the United States because of Mr. Trump’s America First policy; disdain for multilateralism, international institutions, and international law; empathy with autocrats; and disregard for human rights.

Playing into Mr. Biden’s emphasis on human rights is the fact that the protests, like in Lebanon and Iraq, appear to have broken down ethnic and religious fault lines.

Yangon’s usually hidden Rohingya community has openly joined the protests four years after detained democratically elected Myanmar leader Aung San Suu Kyi stood by and later defended the military’s ethnic cleansing of the Rohingya, more than 700,00 of which fled to Bangladesh.

Burmese who in recent years used Twitter to attack and threaten Rohingya activists living in exile have apologized since the February coup, recognizing that military rule poses a threat to all.

Political transition, like reconciliation, is a long-drawn-out process that can take up to half a century to play out. It is a process of two steps forward and steps backwards as Myanmar is discovering now. 

The Myanmar military understands that tacit Russian and Chinese support may not be as much of a lifesaver as it was in the past. That may explain the military’s reluctance to crush the protests even if the likelihood of an imminent crackdown is high.

If the experience of Egypt is anything to go by, the military can brutally suppress and keep a lid on unrest for a period of time. It may preserve the military’s interests for a while, but it cannot provide sustainable economic solutions or ensure stability.

In contrast to Egypt, protesters in Myanmar have the advantage that they are demanding recognition of a current election outcome that could put a new government in a position to redefine the role of the military and regulate its economic interests.

Based on the experience of Egypt, one core bone that the government would likely have to throw the military is immunity against prosecution for past crimes. That may be a bitter pill to swallow and violate principles of truth and accountability as an important pillar of transition.

As Egypt demonstrates, it offers no guarantee of keeping the military in its barracks. But it may be the carrot that helps entice the military to make the concessions needed for a democratic transition.

For now, Myanmar cries out for non-partisan independents capable of helping the military and the protesters to back away from a zero-sum game that seems destined to result in bloodshed.

That is likely to prove a gargantuan task as Indonesian Foreign Minister Retno Marsudi spearheads efforts by the Association of Southeast Asian Nations (ASEAN) to mediate a way back from the brink.

In the words of former International Crisis Group Myanmar analyst Morten B. Pedersen “when a military obsessed with order and stability…confronts an essentially leaderless popular movement driven by youthful anger and shattered hopes, compromise is perhaps the hardest thing of all.”

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How International Law Sight Towards the Coup D’etat Process in Myanmar

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The Union of Myanmar is a sovereign state, where the Capital City is located in Yangon before moved to the Naypyidaw on November 7th, 2005 by the action of Junta’s Military Governance. As known, in the historical background, Myanmar is a country that has been through the grip of a military dictatorship for over six-decade.

Previously, in the brief story of Myanmar, in the 19th century, (in the Konbaung Dynasty),Burma took control of an area that includes a modern territory of Myanmar, also briefly controlled Manipur and Assam. In that era, Britain dominated Myanmar after three of the Anglo-Burma War and thus this country was colonialized by the British. Myanmar got independence in 1948 to be a democratic state but was being coup d’etat by the military in 1962, which General Ne Win wrested the governmental mandate from Prime Minister U Nu, who was in power since 1948. At that phase, this country got passeda tough regime, which gave an unsavory impact, particularly in economic aspect and various inhuman acts, such as against ethnic, where United Nations and many International Organization always reported a significant case about human rights there. In 2011, Junta’s Military was dissolved after the elections in 2010, but this country is still can not refuse all the criticism in the previous measures of the old government to the towards minority ethnic.

In the general elections 2015, Aung San Suu Kyi Party is the winner of the majority parliament, where this is can be the historical point to Myanmar to get a democratization opportunity. Based on the general election result in November 2020, Aung San Suu Kyi’s National League for Democracy Party (NLD) won 396 of the 476 parliamentary seats, while the military-backed opposition, Union Solidarity and Development Party (USDP), only got 33 seats. However, Myanmar’s Military is still the major force in politic, since The 2008 Constitution (which the controversial rules) is granted the military rights to control the government and that is constitution also reward the Tatmadaw Military to get 25% parliamentary seats in the important aspect in the national security sector, which includes the ministries of interior, border, and security affairs. Specifically, even the NLD dominated parliamentary seats, the military stronghold still controls the government. Hence, the military insists refused the result of the election, and the Press Secretary of the USDP, Doctor Nandar Hla Myint believes there is a fraud of the mass elections, and if this case is not handled in advance, this could make damage or political chaos. The General of Military, Min Aung Hlaing also stipulated, the evaluation of elections is indeed a non-fair and dishonest practice. Thus, before the trial was open by the parliament, the coup d’etat happened by the military. The NLD party led by Aung San Suu Kyi began to gain a political arena until finally today Myanmar falls into the hands of the generals again.

This is the second time the military success to dethrone through democratic governance, previously the coup d’etat itself happened many time, such in 1988 when General Ne Win pension from the military and replaced by Sein Lwin who is well known as a person that brutally to the Pro-Democratic, thus he has been beaten back by the mass action, and Doctor Maung Maung replaced him at that time. But not long after that, there is a coup d’etat internal by the military which takes over by General Jaw Maung who has also established a new party, named State Law and Order Restoration Committee (SLORC).

Various international sanctions have been imposed on Myanmar. In 1996, the European Union decided to ban arms sales to Myanmar. The United States has also imposed sanctions since 1988, prohibiting new investment by its citizens in Myanmar in 1997, then closing the gap for imports of products from Myanmar in 2003.

Regarding the actions by Myanmar’s Military, several International Community has constituted Myanmar as a breach of international values and some country has banned a few aspects to Myanmar as mention above, however, how the International Law views it?

International Law Perspective

Based on the UN Charter views, under Article 1 (1) affirmed, should take effective measures to prevent and thrown a threat of peace where have a correlate with Resolutions of the UN Security Council which called upon States not to recognize a certain authority or even decided that the Member States should refrain from recognizing a certain authority would hardly have been necessary if recognition had no legal meaning. It concludes, the prohibition to recognize new governance from the coup d’etat result, because in case of the legal commitment to the democratic government of a State, the other States only may continue to recognize the exiled democratically elected government a revival as a measure for the protection and consolidation of democratic government. Other than that, as examine in Article 1 of the Montevideo Convention on the Rights and Duties of States is has to fulfill 4 qualifications, a permanent population; a defined territory; government; the capacity to enter into relations with the other states. In this convention sight, especially in Government point, it complies with the sovereign government that holds the highest power and is formed to carry out the running of the government of a country. As known, Myanmar is currently being a democratic state as the result in the general elections 2020 where Aung San Suu Kyi has won the vote, thus the state should honor and deem in this democratic regime. However, the military is trying to take over the governance back, this form of breaches the democratic rules, wherein this system did not recognize dualism of leadership, as did by Myanmar’s military. Even Myanmar did not sign and ratified this convention, it still ought to be legally binding, since this is recognized by civilized nations as one of the basic international agreements in international law.

Accordance to the coup of Myanmar’s military is not in line with ASEAN’s Charter which contains many democracy references, wherein in the preamble conduct, “Adhering to the principles of democracy, the rule of law and good governance.” Especially Article 1 lists “strengthening democracy, enhancing good governance and the rule of law as among ASEAN’s main purposes.” And also in Article 2 on the organization’s “principles” includes “adherence to the rule of law, good governance, the principles of democracy and constitutional government.” Therefore, Myanmar as a member of this charter since 1997, ought to uphold the purpose of this agreement.

Subsequently, the Coup D’etat action by Myanmar’s military is a tantamount form of treason towards a democratic system, which the legitimate government is defeated by the military without a concrete reason, lack of evidence, and unclear accusations, that is just a prejudice of fraud in the elections by Myanmar’s military to the Aung San Suu Kyi party, and most United Nations officials and diplomats voiced alarm at the February 1, 2021 coup and the brutal response to some of the massive protests unsteady Myanmar because fails to comply with the basic rule of law principles.

Myanmar’s Military action is also indeed not in compliance with customary international law that honor by many countries, where refuse to recognize any government set up under these circumstances or any Government elected as a result of these illegal actions. For instance, in some state practices, firstly, there is a Canada action that declares all the Organizations of the American State (OAS) won’t recognize any governance that is made by the coup d’etat, which is Norway to the Haiti Government. Secondly, British action that did not recognize the governance in Cambodia since the genocidal Pol Pot Government of Cambodia and the Rawlings Government in Ghana by the public and the media, which considered formal recognition as tantamount to moral approval. Thirdly, the Belgian Government refused to recognize Mao Tse-tung instead of Tshiang Kai-shek as the Government of the Chinese State, and so on. Since based on both principle and State practice of recognition of the government in International Law.

Protest also provoke by the International Community, Britain, and the European Union that refuse those action by did not recognize the new governance, because the way the military did is indeed unprocedural, as affirmed in Tobar and Wilson doctrines of formally denying recognition to governments coming to power by unconstitutional means and combining them with the element of continued recognition of the democratically elected governments forced into exile by coup d’état or revolution. Strengthen in Stimson Doctrine, examine about the condemn all recognition of new situations by third States is an important mechanism in international relations, and this doctrine was the start of a process of customary international law formation for a rule prohibiting recognition of situations resulting from unlawful acts that in line with the international legal order, as a coup of Myanmar’s Military did to the Aung San Suu Kyi governance.

ASEAN (Association of Southeast Asian Nations) role as an international organization has presented in the ASEAN election of Myanmar’s general election in 2020 as a form of election observation that is chasing to get an additional handling a political crisis without a coercive way by ASEAN, which should be more legitimacy to the election process, and this might dilute the Tatmadaw prejudice to justify the coup. Moreover, ASEAN responded to this current issues that represent by Brunei as an ASEAN’s rotating chairmanship stipulated, “dialogue, reconciliation and the return to normalcy” in Myanmar, that statement is indeed a democratic principle in the ASEAN Charter since it implied with a non-coercive form of intervention to the internal affairs that honor by each party. Consider sanctions of a breach of this charter is nonexistent, thus it’s only come with the increased statements of concern regarding Myanmar’s internal affairs from each member in the recent years to condemn the coercive instrument. Even if, there is no significant settlement to Myanmar’s coup, this organization still tried to stands to learn important lessons from its actions for developing regional crisis management and prevention mechanisms to fulfill ASEAN’s aspirations of strengthening democracy.

For the foregoing reason, Myanmar’s Military action is indeed opposed by many sources in International Law, contemplate the democracy is the government of the people and for the people (Hans Kelsen), hence in the democratic system is really honor the freedom of speech and the recognition of fair government, and due to Myanmar’s Military measures to NDL Party that led by Aung San Suu Kyi it ought void because no relevant all on times.

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The Mosaic of Defiance: Is Resumption of Democracy Enough?

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photo: Wikipedia

Horns blaring, roads crowded and pots clattering in twilight; this is the new reality of Myanmar. A reality that no one envisaged but developed after years, decades even, of pent-up frustration, anger and subjugation. The recent military coup launched by General Min Aung Hlaing has sketched a passage for the citizenry to break away from the shackled history of the country, to stand beside the leader they admired for decades. Yet, as streets are flooding in protest, resignations being flaunted to register defiance and graffiti colouring the walls in pure rendition of support to the dethroned government, the question stems: Is the government even a true manifestation of democracy? And is reconciliation of the elected government actually what the country needs?Ever so desperately!

After ruling the state for almost six decades, the military, notoriously known as ‘Tatmadaw’ has clinched its talons again after a brief tryst with what apparently was hailed as ‘Democracy’. Wading through the years of tyranny, the public aficionado rose up in the face of Aung San Suu Kyi. Her legacy trailed from her martyred father, Aung San, who etched his name in history through his remarkable struggle towards the independence of Myanmar. Her tireless effort spieled her devotion to the cause of ordinary people, the people tormented at the hands of the ruthless military. Her house arrest post-election debacle in 1990 raved the supporters and her party: National League of Democracy (NLD), swiftly transcended from being an underdog to the archival of Junta for decades to follow.

Her acquittal followed by her landslide victory of the elections marked rejoice as both the military receded and the people-favourite Suu Kyi rose up the ranks to harness the nascent democracy of Myanmar. Yet, backstab doesn’t nearly describe the treatment reciprocated by the venerated figure in power now. The pleas and cries of the oppressed remained unheeded as the hapless witnessed the desecration of humanity whilst Suu Kyi greeted the military leaders with harmony. While NLD revelled in power and control, the tyranny of the military never receded,but only intensified. The raping spree, the economic disparity, the faltering education, the barbed freedom of speech and expression. The unfathomable reality in what was envisioned to be a paradise, a liberation from the draconian rule only proved to be much worse.

Another subsequent landslide victory to NLD was often confused with the popularity and admiration. Suu Kyi lost the reverence years ago when she monopolised the sentiments of the victims. The superficial democracy functioned under the Military chartered constitution. The democratic institutions functioned but with a quarter-quota to the military totalitarians. The world looked at the pretence of a prospering and progressing Myanmar yet it rotted from within. The world questioned the military brutality against Rohingya and Suu Kyi blatantly denied each crime committed; crimes riddled with pain of rape and pillage spanning decades and well into her tenure. More than a million innocent Muslims displaced from their own country as Suu Kyi acquiesced the massacre as if she never truly believed in their innocence. As if she always stood parallel to the totalitarian narrative regarding Rohingya;always visioned them as ‘Terrorists’ and ‘Invaders of the Nation”.

Victory bestowed on NLD yet again however, the minorities were ridiculed and barred from voting. The democracy that never really evaded the drapes of the fascist regime since 2011, started to unknot from the military’s interest. Allegations of mass rigging were chanted yet the disenfranchisement of the minorities like Rohingya was never the part of the picture. The sudden coup took the world by surprise as Suu Kyi, along with the top tier of NLD, descended back to the era of house arrest under falsified charges. The patriots took charge of the streets and the faltering effort to defy the military is in effect ever since.

The schematic arrangement of the military, however, was never questioned by the proponents of peace and tranquillity today. When the minorities suffocated under the guise of democracy, no protests ensued in support. When their celebrated leader joined hands with the tyrants and trampled all over the years and years of struggle and sacrifice of the oppressed, no defiance surfaced. Instead, term after term, Suu Kyi grabbed a majority mandate while the cruelty continued at the same rampant pace either in the name of ‘Ethnic Cleansing’ or ‘National Interest’. Now, the country is witnessing the first peace protest campaign against the military, identical to the like of Thailand and Hong Kong: demanding democracy. No sane mind reflects and questions the tents of democracy itself. The world pushed sanctions in hopes of the revival of the displaced government yet no one questions the authenticity of the rule. The military promises democracy and protestors naively feel vindicated. All that has unfolded and even what is about to transpire is perplexing. What is coherent is the fact that the country that lacks the rudimentary concept of democracy might be able to win back the government but it would never witness the light of true freedom.

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