Tensions Rise as Myanmar Protests Continue
March 26, 2021
Myanmar, formerly known as Burma, is a Southeast Asian country near China, Laos, and Thailand. Since February 6, 2021, large-scale protests have occurred across the country in response to the military’s control of political leaders. The protests began in reaction to the military’s declaration of a year-long state of emergency and sudden seizure of power following the general election on November 8, 2020. State Counsellor Aung San Suu Kyi’s National League for Democracy (NLD) party won, and while domestic and international election observers deemed the victory credible, Myanmar’s military declared it fraudulent and demanded a nationwide re-vote. As a new session of Parliament was set to open, the military sparked a coup that deposed State Counsellor Suu Kyi.
Suu Kyi was born in Myanmar in 1945, and in the 1990s, she gained renown for her campaign to restore democracy in the country. Between 1989 and 2010, she spent 15 years in detention after organizing large rallies calling for democratic reform. In 1991, while under house arrest, she received the Nobel Peace Prize, and in 2015, she led Myanmar’s first openly contested election. Suu Kyi is currently under house arrest again for illegally importing walkie-talkie radios, violating COVID-19 regulations, and allegedly spreading information that may cause fear or alarm.
Since Suu Kyi’s house arrest, Min Aung Hlaing, a Burmese army general, has taken power as the country’s de facto leader. He has significant political influence in Myanmar and wields great control over the Tatmadaw, the Burmese military. Nevertheless, Hlaing has garnered widespread international censure and sanctions for presiding over government attacks on ethnic minorities, including Rohingya Muslims. In spite of this controversy, after Hlaing gained control of the government and military, he asserted that the military was on the side of the people and that it would form a “true and disciplined democracy.” The military claims it will hold a “free and fair” election once the state of emergency is ended.
Since the coup, many protests have swept the country with an intensity exceeding that of the “Saffron Revolution,” a succession of political and economic demonstrations in 2007. These protests have resulted in the death of over 125 people, and the military responded to the protests, which have united people of all occupations and backgrounds, with curfews and limits on gatherings. Military and police units have used water cannons, rubber bullets, and ammunition to dissipate protestors.
UN Secretary General António Guterres describes this turmoil as a “serious blow to democratic reforms” and the US and UK have responded with sanctions on Burmese military officials. However, in many neighboring East Asian countries such as Cambodia, Thailand, and the Philippines, the issue has been treated as a domestic matter of no concern to other nations. China has even blocked the UN Security Council’s statement condemning Myanmar’s military repression. Anti-China sentiments, which stem from the two countries’ shaky relations as bordering nations, have since been exacerbated in Myanmar, resulting in two Chinese-financed factories being burned down and the deaths of dozens of protesters.
The violence between protesters and Myanmar’s military has now persisted for over six weeks and does not seem to be de-escalating. On March 5, 2021, the United Nations independent human rights expert on Myanmar, Tom Andrews, demanded “decisive and unified action” against Myanmar’s military aggression. Still, no immediate resolution to the conflict seems in sight as casualties rise, with at least 149 protestors killed to date.