Did you hear about the disputed election held back in November? No, not that one. Surprise! One occurred in Myanmar, the country previously known as Burma. Weren’t aware of it? I’m not surprised.
Americans are so self-centered; we tend to ignore what is going on in far away places. But it would behoove us to keep up with events in other parts of the world. Why? For one thing, doing so will likely give us a different perspective on our own national situation. For another, what’s happening in Myanmar is forcing newly elected U.S. President Joe Biden to face his first major foreign policy test. Welcome to the job, Joe!
So, let’s begin at the beginning–always a good place to start. I’m betting most of us would be hard pressed to point out Myanmar on a world map. Well, the country’s located in Southeast Asia and shares borders with Bangladesh and China to the northwest, China to the northeast, Laos to the east, and Thailand to the southeast. As of 2017, it’s population was 54 million, 87% of whom are Buddhist. Myanmar is ethnically diverse with 135 different national races identified. Imagine how long their census form must be for race identification….
Myanmar gained its independence from Britain in 1948. A coup in 1962 began a half century of military rule. For approximately the last decade, the country has experienced democracy and was emerging from decades of strict military rule and isolationism. But that progress came to a screeching halt with a military coup on Monday. Tanks appearing outside the gates of the Parliament building tend to interrupt the normal flow of daily (and democratic) activities.
Monday’s a difficult day to begin with, but a pre-dawn raid made things especially dicey for Myanmar citizens. The country’s military detained recently elected (or not depending on which side you believe) President Suu Kyi and seized control of the country. The junta also removed 24 ministers and deputies from the government alleging election fraud. Around 400 members of Parliament are reportedly being detained in a large guest house (well, duh, it would have to be large to accommodate 400 “guests”) in the city of Naypiydaw. House party!!
So what happened in the November election? (In Myanmar that is.) The incumbent president’s National League for Democracy won the election by a landslide, taking 396 out of 476 seats. This result allowed the president to continue in power for 5 more years. The military-backed Union Solidarity and Development Party won only 33 seats, and they were none too happy about their poor showing. In fact, they were very sore losers.
The military alleged “voting malpractice” claiming millions of irregularities in voter lists. Nevertheless, the country’s election commission announced on January 29th that there was no evidence to support such claims. The evidence of fraud was deemed, at best, “disputed.”
The commander of Myanmar’s military, Gen. Ming Aung Hlaing, had a letter sent to the president ordering a recount of the election results and a delay in the opening of Parliament “or else.” Oooooh! The “or else” of course was Monday’s coup and the president’s detention.
For President Suu Kyi, this result is déjà vu all over again. She and the military go way back–and not in a good way. Aung San Suu Kyi won the 1991 Nobel Peace Prize for her non-violent resistance against the military dictatorship that kept her under house arrest for 15 years. At age 75, she may not make another 15 years of detention.
Gen Hlaing has now assumed (translate “grabbed”) power. The armed forces, so he says, are only assuming control for one year under emergency powers granted under Myanmar’s constitution. (And another emergency is likely to conveniently appear at the end of that one year, I’m thinking.) Myanmar’s military, officially known as the Tatmadew, already has its fingers pretty deep in the country’s political pie. The constitution, ratified back in 2008, guarantees the military 25% of the seats in parliament. Who wants 25% when you can seize power and have 100%?
And what does assuming power look like for Gen. Hlaing and the Tatmadew? It’s repressive. Phones, TV broadcasts, and the internet were cut or hindered by the military to counter dissent. Needless to say, Gen Hlaing doesn’t see eye to eye with the U.N. which considers the internet to be an essential mechanism for people to exercise their right to free information.
Back in the U.S., news of the coup has been met with concern and disapproval. In years past, the U.S. showed its disapproval of military rule of Myanmar with economic sanctions. Since the Southeast Asian country is heavily dependent on overseas aid, money speaks louder than words to Myanmar.
U.S. sanctions were lifted in 2016 after elections were held and a civilian government was established. Moves towards democracy meant more U.S. aid. President Biden has called on Myanmar’s military to relinquish power. To back up this request, he has threatened the imposition of sanctions. Moves away from democracy mean economic backlash for Myanmar. But perhaps General Hlaing is in it for personal power and not the financial stability of his country….
The tale of the disputed November election in Myanmar is a sad one. It also played out quite differently than the tale of the disputed November election here in the U.S. Both situations involved claims of election fraud, calls for an investigation of voting irregularities, segments of the country being unhappy campers at the results, and concerning incidents at the seat of government.
But unlike Myanmar, it was rioters, not tanks, showing up at the legislative seat of the U.S. Our government did not undergo a fundamental transition. Our democratic process remains intact; the change we experienced was the in name of the president and the political party in power.
Both countries are facing difficult times and have citizens with vastly different views as to how things should be run. As bad as Americans believe things are in our country right now, I’d still rather be in the U.S. than in Myanmar. And I have free access to the internet to tell you that.
Had you heard there had been a coup in Myanmar? Does democracy have a chance of succeeding when the military is entrenched in the legislative process? Does the U.S. have a right to voice an opinion as to how another country should be governed? If there’s going to be an election dispute, would you rather be in Myanmar or the U.S.?