Myanmar: Hope for Democracy Disappearing

The Civil war in Myanmar is intensifying, while hope of a democratic election is evaporating.

Upon the two year anniversary of Burma’s military coup, on February 1, the opposition, joined by a coalition of 18 unions and the overwhelming majority of the civilian population called a general strike, grinding the country’s already faltering economy to a standstill.  Hundreds were arrested, while thousands were fired, adding to the list of those whose lives have been disrupted or ended by the military regime.

Since the military coup in 2021, fighting has spread to most of the country, transforming a low-intensity conflict into a full-blown civil war. So far, government military forces, called the Tatmadaw, have been blamed for the murder of 2,940 civilians and the arrest of 17,572 people, including opposition party members, journalists and other critics of the regime.

Burma’s military junta surprised the world last month, when they announced they would move ahead with national elections, although no specific date has been set. Originally, the military junta, the State Administration Council, had promised to hold elections by August 2023, but, there is still little hope of  a fair and democratic election process.  All opposition parties have been banned, leaving only   military-backed parties in the running.

A total of twenty-three parties, all led by former military officers, have applied for registration for the the election. Once their registration has been completed, 18 of these will run at the local, state, or regional level. The five which will run at the national level are the Union Solidarity and Development Party, National Unity Party, Union Democratic Party, Public Contribute Students Democracy Party, and Shan Nationalities Democratic Party.

In March, the junta released a list of 40 parties which had been banned, including the National League for Democracy (NLD) the party led by Nobel Prize Winner Aung San Suu Kyi. The NLD is seen as the hope for democracy and won both of the previous elections they were permitted to run in. The remaining 39 banned parties were largely ethnic minority parties and smaller parties, opposed to the junta, but unlikely to win at the national level. Of the parties remaining in contention, the Union Solidarity and Development Party (USDP), an election proxy for the military is the strongest candidate. This is the party that ran the country in a quasi-civilian/military government under then-president President Thein Sein. If re-elected, the USDP will serve as a public face of legitimacy, legislating policies supporting the military junta.

The fighting in Myanmar (which the opposition calls Burma) began in 1949, shortly after the country gained independence from the UK, Myanmar’s population of 54 million consists of 135 ethnic groups, speaking at least 111 languages. Burmans are the majority, about 68 per cent, and hold most of the political and military power at the national level.

Each of the seven largest minority groups officially has its own state: Chin, Kachin, Kayah (Karen), Kayin, Mon, Rakhine (Arakan and Rohingya) and Shan. The size of these groups varies widely, with Shan and Karen being the largest with 5 to 6 million people each, and Rakhine with about 3.2 million. Many ethnic groups were hesitant to join the Union of Burma when it was established in 1947, fearing they would not be treated fairly by the Burmans.

The ethnic groups felt that they were being marginalized and that their cultural and political rights were being ignored by the Burman majority. The Shan, Karen, and other minorities were concerned that they were not being given equitable control over resources found in the ethnic areas, and that their languages were being suppressed. The Karen were the first to run into conflict with the Burmans. Many of the Karen had converted to Christianity during the 19th Century. As a result, they had a closer relation with the British. They encouraged their children to learn English and to attend British schools in Karen State, as well as the Baptist college in Yangon. During World War II, the Karen served alongside the British, fighting the Japanese. After Burma gained independence from Britain the Karen were the first to stand up for their rights in the new Union of Burma. Karen students took to the streets and the Karen independence movement started in 1948. Other ethnic minority groups soon followed suit, demanding greater autonomy or outright independence from the Burmese government. In 1949, the Karen National Union (KNU) became the first ethnic group to declare war on the Burmese military.

Since the Karen began their independence movement, the country has almost never known peace, with various ethnic groups forming armies and joining in the fight. More than 40 armed groups have been formed over the past 70 years. Some were short lived, while others have endured and are still fighting. The KNU has about 15,000 soldiers, while the Shan State Army (SSA), active since about 1964, is estimated to have at least 12,000. The Arakan Army may be the largest, with 30,000 soldiers. The United Wa State Army (UWSA), also with approximately 30,000 troops, is considered the most powerful group with helicopters, heavy vehicles and its own factories for the manufacture of weapons and equipment.

The political roots of the war begin with Aung San (1915-1947), who is considered the father of Burmese independence. He was assassinated in the year the Union of Burma was formed, so he did not live to see his dream realised. Since that time, the country has been under military rule, with Aung San’s daughter, Aung San Suu Kyi, serving as the face of democracy and the person on whom all hopes were pinned for a free and democratic government.

Aung San Suu Kyi was the leader of the National League for Democracy (NLD) party. She was not allowed to run for president because of a rule excluding candidates with foreign spouses or children. Her husband, who passed away in 1999, and her two sons are British and have remained outside of the country for security reasons.

In 2015, when the generals finally allowed an election to take place, Aung San Suu Kyi led the National League for Democracy Party (NLD) to a resounding victory. Although not allowed to be president, she served as the State Counsellor of Myanmar. Her position was complicated, however, as the State Counsellor was recognized by the people and by foreign heads of state, as the de facto leader of the country. But in practice, NLD rule was only nominal. In 2008, the military had redrafted the constitution, giving themselves the power to appoint 25% of the seats in the parliament which was enough to veto any legislation which the military did not approve of.  Although the political situation was far from perfect, it was still closer to a democratic, civilian government than Burma had ever been. The people were hopeful that change would come in the future, and the fighting died down.

Elections were held again in 2020, and the NLD won by an even greater margin. Shortly after, in February 2021, the generals nullified the elections, arrested several parliamentarians, and seized control of the government. Consequently, fighting broke out again across the country. Unlike previous conflicts, this time, many Burmans, even those living in cities, took up arms. The ethnic armies, which city dwellers had previously called terrorist groups, were now perceived by many as freedom fighters. In many instances, Burmans sought out ethnic resistance armies to provide them with training, so they could fight the Tatmadaw.

The war in Myanmar has always been a very messy affair, with ever-shifting alliances and rivalries. The ethnic states are abundant in minerals, gems, precious woods, poppies and other valuable forest products. Much of the fighting has resulted from the Tatmadaw committing atrocities, such as mass rape, murder, torture and forced relocation, in order to harvest these resources and sell them to its primary buyer, China. Meanwhile, various ethnic armies have switched sides over the years, or agreed to ceasefires, in return for ‘taxes’ paid on the extraction of natural resources. In order to protect its investments, China supports the Tatmadaw. But, over the years, China has also backed several armed ethnic groups. For example, the UWSA, which has economic ties to China, has a ceasefire agreement with the Tatmadaw. But, as is often the way in this very unique war, the UWSA is also manufacturing and selling weapons to other ethnic resistance groups which continue to fight the Tatmadaw.

Immediately after the coup, Aung San Suu Kyi was charged with several minor offences, including importing walkie talkies. Additional charges were added, in closed-door trials, and in November of 2021, she was sentenced to four years in prison. Further trials and further sentences followed and by the close of 22, she was facing 33 years in prison. At 77 years of age, it is unlikely that she will survive. The junta has thus extinguished their political opposition, but the people continue to fight. And the military continues to respond with violence.

Since the coup, over one million people have been internally displaced. Officially, 80,000 have fled the country altogether. This number only includes those living in refugee camps in other countries. The real number may run into the hundreds of thousands.

Sun Ti Mar, a Shan refugee, tried to hold on to his farm and his business as long as he could, but multiple armies were killing, raping and robbing civilians near his home.

Now, barely surviving in a refugee camp which lacks funding and food, Sun Ti Mar has had a chance to hear the stories of both civilians and former soldiers who also escaped from Burma. The stories have left him demoralised. When asked about the future of his country, he said: ‘I feel the civil war is endless. Normal people are trying to survive under military armed conflict, so the next generation might have a chance.’ But, in the end, he believes there is no chance. ‘Hopeless of peace’ he concluded.

Antonio Graceffo
Antonio Graceffo
Antonio Graceffo, PhD. China-MBA, is a China economic-analyst who has spent over 20 years in Asia, including 7 in China, and 3 in Mongolia, where he teaches economics at the American university. He is a graduate of Shanghai University of Sport and Antai College of Economics & Management, Shanghai Jiao Tong University. Additionally, he conducted three years of post-doctoral studies at School of Economics Shanghai University, focusing on U.S.-China trade, and currently studies national security at the American Military University. He is the author of 5 books about China, including Beyond the Belt and Road: China’s Global Economic Expansion and The Wushu Doctor. His writing has appeared in The South China Morning Post, The Diplomat, Jamestown Foundation China Brief, Lowy Institute China Brief, Penthouse, and others. He is a frequent guest on various TV shows, providing China commentary on NTD network in the United States.