The Tragedy of Myanmar

Ideas and Issues

February 3, 2021       

            New Orleans      News of another coup, if we could call it that, where the Myanmar military took back powers that it had loaned to the people for the last several years, seems to be greeted with more “I told you so’s” than surprise, but that doesn’t lessen the huge tragedy it represents for the hopes of popular empowerment of its people. The military claims it will hold elections in another year, but such a pledge is virtually meaningless in the way politics are being defined now in the country.

A delegation with the Organizers’ Forum visited Yangoon in the fall of 2013. We came hopefully in order to see the promised democratic transition based on agreements negotiated with the military, political and civilian leaders, including longtime political prison and Nobel laureate, Daw Aung San Suu Kyi.         Our delegation included a variety of union members from Canada and the United States and representatives from community and other organizations in the United States. We met with a wide range of groups from civil society, labor, and the press. We visited with activists trying to begin work in this opening. We even visited with top officials of the main opposition party, The National League for Democracy.

We found Yangoon to be an interesting city in a fairly spectacular country. We didn’t find happy valley. Elections were coming. There was uncertainty about whether the military would really allow them to be held even though they had negotiated a guarantee of 25% of the seats in the parliament and their own propped up party was contending. We met with human rights groups that warned even then of the attacks and discrimination among the Rohingya and other ethnic and religious groups.         The aura that had surrounded Aung San Suu Kyi from affair and in the press was deeply tempered by Burmese on the ground. Signs of her authoritarian tendencies within her party and on the issues were already emerging, including around minority groups, some of which were still armed and active in other parts of the country.

The NLD did turn out to be a powerhouse, whipping the military and other parties badly in two elections over the last five years. Granted the fragility of her position and the ongoing tensions with the military, Aung San Suu Kyi’s position was always tenuous, but her leadership became questionable and her defense of the genocide of the Rohingya domestically and internationally were disappointing, and heartbreaking to many whose hopes for her leadership were so high. More recently, she had also slapped the bear, as the saying goes, proposing to reduce the military’s representation in parliament to only 5%. After fifty years in power the military is not just guns and boots on the ground, but is also an economic behemoth, owning significant pieces of important parts of the national economy.  Combining their political failure with Aung San Suu Kyi’s diminished status internationally, seems to have emboldened the military to act with impunity and seize total power again putting political and cultural leaders in detention.

Not only did this not end well, even more tragically, there is now no end in sight for the people of Myanmar and their dreams of democracy.

For more on our visits to Myanmar see:

Whistle Help in Myanmar and Beyond

On the Scene Report on the Myanmar Election