Myanmar celebrates the 70th anniversary of its independence on 4 January. It’s a good occasion to examine its flawed legacies. The country has witnessed long-running civil wars and is currently in the news for the Rohingya crisis. This unending turbulence is seen both as cause and consequence of weak political institutions—which explains why the generals were in command for so many decades after the military coup in 1962 that ended Myanmar’s first experiment with democracy. Even today, the military continues to wield political influence—although over the past decade, the military-drafted 2008 constitution has enabled piecemeal empowerment of civilian leaders following two general elections in 2010 and 2015.
Indeed, since last August, the Rohingya crisis overwhelmed Aung San Suu Kyi, once a global icon of the democratic struggle against Myanmar’s military regime. She is seen to be acquiescing, if not conniving, with the military’s treatment of the Rohingyas. One online petition calling for revocation of her 1991 Nobel Peace Prize has accrued nearly 4,36,000 signatures. Oxford University’s St Hugh’s College—where Suu Kyi earned her degree in politics—has decided to take down her portrait and remove her name from the title of its common room. Britain’s second largest trade union, Unison, has suspended Suu Kyi’s honorary membership. Journalists shout questions at her as she refuses to meet the press. Given that India and the Association of Southeast Asian Nations (Asean) have decided to keep a safe distance from the entire affair, a desperate Suu Kyi is compelled to seek support from the same China that had backed Myanmar’s military junta which kept her under house arrest for 15 years.
The Myanmar military too continues to engage Beijing, which has thwarted UN fact-finding missions from investigating human rights violations in Rakhine state that was home to 1.3 million Rohingyas. Of these, some 750,000 have been displaced. The UN calls it a “textbook example of ethnic cleansing” with secretary-general António Guterres making personal appeals to Myanmar to end the violence.
Yet, commemorating 70 years of the Myanmar air force last month, senior general Min Aung Hlaing, commander-in-chief of the Myanmar armed forces, commissioned 10 aircraft provided by Russia, France and the Netherlands. A week later, he oversaw the induction of seven new naval vessels. In February, the Myanmar military will participate as an observer at the US Pacific Command sponsored multinational annual Cobra Gold military exercises in Thailand. As Asia’s oldest and largest military exercise, Cobra Gold involves thousands of military personnel. Last year, 29 nations participated in it. All this leaves no doubt as to the fact that Myanmar continues to enjoy the major powers’ blessings.
Exuding that confidence in his 15 December speech last year on modernizing the army, Hlaing shared plans to procure new weapons, build relationships with foreign militaries and improve recruitment and training. This enthusiasm on the part of one of South-East Asia’s largest armed forces—numbering around 400,000—is bound to further undermine any hope of change in the Myanmar civil-military equation. This weakens the country’s experiment with installing a popularly elected civilian government. What lessons can be drawn from this?
“The truth is that only some form of dictatorship, either of a man or a party, can bring order to Burma and maintain it”, is how the 9 April 1947 edition of The Times (page 5) had prophesied Burma’s (known as Myanmar since 1988) future. It was the day of elections for its Constituent Assembly as per the January 1947 agreement that Britain had signed with Burma’s interim government. The latter consisted almost entirely of members of the Anti-Facist People’s Freedom League (AFPFL) led by the youthful Aung San who had fielded 200 candidates for 210 seats. Of this, 56 were elected unopposed and the rest were pre-decided as the opposition chose not to participate.
Just like Muhammad Ali Jinnah in Pakistan and M.K. Gandhi in India, Aung San did not live long enough to participate in building his newly liberated nation. The last seven decades of Britain’s former colonies in South Asia clearly highlight the significance of grooming a second rung of leadership and their role in building and maintaining strong political norms and institutions. At the young age of 32, Aung San was assassinated along with six others of the AFPFL. The burden of leading the freedom struggle fell upon his compatriot U Nu, who guided the process of a new constitution being adopted in September 1947. Burma became independent on 4 January 1948.
A pious Buddhist and former schoolteacher, U Nu was popular for his personal integrity. Yet, intra-AFPFL factionalism contributed to his failures with economic planning as also in dealing with communists, ethnic minority revolts and the Kuomintang that had been driven out from China to eastern Burma. This dissipated his energies and empowered the armed forces. In 1958, U Nu asked general Ne Win to be the prime minister of a “caretaker government” until the elections. It was the same Ne Win who overthrew U Nu’s elected government in 1962.
In short, in these 70 years, the Burmese people have witnessed a democratic experiment during 1948-1962, a revolutionary period during 1962-74 and a socialist phase during 1974-88 which ended with the military’s brutal crackdown killing several thousand protesting students, monks and children. Unfortunately, there is no respite for ordinary Burmese yet in sight.
Swaran Singh is professor at the School of International Studies, Jawaharlal Nehru University, New Delhi.
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