[REPORT] Myanmar: a long quest for democracy & freedom

Kareem Salem
Myanmar’s national flag waving in the wind. Source: Planet Volumes

Geographically situated between India and Bangladesh on the one hand, and the People’s Republic of China (PRC), Laos, and Thailand on the other, contemporary Myanmar is a country of many ethnic-religious and political shifts. The country officially has 135 ethnic groups, none of which belong to a homogeneous ethnic-linguistic group. Unrest has been a regular occurrence in Myanmar: following the aftermath of independence from the British in 1948, a civil war broke out between the Burmese Buddhist majority (Bamar) and a myriad of ethnic and religious minorities. Shaken by the chronic violence, Prime Minister Thakin Nu enlisted General Ne Win in September 1958 to establish a provisional military administration. The military’s management of current affairs brought an apparent calm, allowing general elections to be held in February 1960.

Nu’s return to power as Prime Minister provoked the irritation of the military, particularly because of his religious policies, which were strongly resisted throughout the country, especially by the Kachin and Shan ethnic groups[1]. These racial groups make up 10.5% of Myanmar’s ethnic composition. The secessionist temptations of the local minorities thus weighed in the decision of Ne Win and his principal staff officers to carry out a military coup on March 2, 1962. This dynamic saw the General suspend the Constitution and abolish the function of the President of the Republic. In parallel, he introduced a socialist economy and abolished the parties in favor of a single party, the Burmese Socialist Program Party (BSPP), or Lanzin Party.

Since then, the Burmese military, the Tatmadaw, has exercised a notoriously tight grip on the political system, despite pressure from democratic movements, including the campaign of female politician Aung San Suu Kyi in the late 1980s. The daughter of General Aung San, the father of independent Myanmar, was placed under house arrest and incarcerated in Insein prison for 15 years after winning the general election in May 1990. Although she and her party, the National League for Democracy, won the 2015 elections, the democracy movement has been undermined by the Burmese junta, which remains ever more prominent in Burma’s political landscape.

An internal logic

The Tatmadaw is Myanmar’s only institution and is based on a high degree of control and surveillance that is extensive throughout the country. Gatherings of more than five people are banned, and no official is allowed to belong to a trade union or political party, except for a handful of government-sponsored organizations, including the Union for Solidarity and Development Association (USDA) – the regime’s flagship organization established in 1993 by Than Shwe, whose membership card is compulsory for all government officials, students, and soldiers.

Any political initiative, especially if it goes against the interests of the regime, is quickly repressed. The 1988 rebellion is a case in point. The uprising of Burmese youth fell far short of overthrowing the military regime. In 1987, the financial resources of students and the working classes had been depleted by the demonetization of the Myanmar currency, leading to food shortages. Against the backdrop of growing poverty, students at Rangoon University marched to the streets to demand better living conditions and, above all, the arrival of democracy on August 8, 1988. This led to a brutal repression of the demonstrators by the military junta with more than 3,000 deaths and thousands of arrests.

Fast-forward to the 2010s, the popular uprising campaign in the Middle East had done little to change the military’s place in Myanmar’s political sphere. The military junta managed to maintain its pre-eminence by ceding power to a younger civilian government led by Aung San Suu Kyi. The military junta controlled three key ministries: the Ministry of Home Affairs, the Ministry of Border Management, and the Ministry of Defense.

The Burmese constitution prevented the “Lady of Rangoon” from leading the country on a democratic and peaceful path. It is noteworthy that anyone with foreign children is not allowed to hold the Presidential office. Since Aung San Suu Kyi had two children, Alexander Aris, born in London in 1973, and Kim, born in Oxford in 1977, she was forced to use the title of state advisor and borrow from the military’s domestic and international narratives to exercise and maintain power. This was particularly visible on December 11, 2019, when the Burmese leader refuted Gambia’s accusations of genocidal crimes propelled by the military junta against the Sunni Arakanese Muslims, the Rohingya. In a country where ethnicity is the almost exclusive framework for political subjectification, the Rohingya are considered outsiders. For the military junta, the Rohingyas arrived at the time of British colonization at the end of the 19th century and are therefore illegal migrants from neighboring Bangladesh. Their citizenship was revoked in 1982 by then General Ne Win.

Aung San Suu Kyi at a national rally, 17 November 2011. Source:  Htoo Tay Zar

The Burmese junta is capable of intervening at any time. It is able to use force as soon as a political dynamic turns against its interests. The last uncontested victory of the National League for Democracy in the 2020 parliamentary elections is a demonstration of this. On February 1, 2021, Tatmadaw leader General Min Aung Hlaing staged a coup and overthrew the civilian government, arresting and imprisoning the Lady of Rangoon. Since then, the Burmese junta has held full power, characterized by a bloody repression of any form of dissent. In twelve months, the military regime has made 14,000 arbitrary arrests.

Major external partners

Bilateral relations with the PRC and the Russian Federation are vital to the military junta. They are increasingly indispensable on the political-military level amidst the national security crisis. The PRC and Russia are delivering a whole arsenal of military equipment to consolidate the authority of the Tatmadaw. They are showing their indifference to the military junta’s abuses against civilians by supplying fighter jets and military vehicles, missiles, drones, and artillery. On the diplomatic front, Beijing and Moscow reject any attempt by the United Nations to impose sanctions against the military regime: in April 2022, the Russian and Chinese delegations rejected the idea of a new Security Council economic coercion package.

The situation in Myanmar directly involves the PRC’s interests. Beijing and Naypyitaw share a 2,000 km long border marked by tremendous ethnic and religious diversity. Since the mid-1980s, the PRC has openly stated its ambitions in Myanmar. Rich in natural resources and with direct access to the South Sea, Beijing has embarked on a real strategy of influence since the fall of General Ne Win, investing extensively in port infrastructure, helped by the country’s economic liberalization. Myanmar has thus become one of the critical centers for the deployment of its Belt and Road initiative – the flagship geo-economic project of Chinese President Xi Jinping. These investments reinforce the military junta’s dependence on Chinese investors while strengthening Beijing’s ambition to use the Burmese territory to bypass its “Malacca Dilemma“: a geographic area about 930 km long that is controlled by the Americans and through which Chinese oil and gas supplies mainly flow.

General Hlaing is, however, well aware of the close ties Beijing has with the country’s communist rebel groups. Myanmar’s leader has since begun a charm offensive with Vladimir Putin. The Tatmadaw leader has visited Russia three times since the start of the Russian invasion of Ukraine, more than any other country. In September, General Min Aung Hlaing was invited by the Russian President to the Eastern Economic Forum. As a reward, the General received oil and an agreement from Russia to explore nuclear energy in Myanmar. Russia could also supplant the PRC as Myanmar’s main arms supplier. From 2001 to early 2021, Myanmar purchased $1.7 billion worth of weapons from Russia, equivalent to the amount supplied by the CCP over the same period. In an interview with the Russian news agency Rossiya Segodnya, the General noted that Russian defense equipment was of “very high quality“. As Moscow benefits from its relations with the military junta, both diplomatically and economically, it is not excluded that this cooperation will go even deeper over the coming months and years.

General Min Aung Hlaing meets Russian President Vladimir Putin on the sidelines of the Eastern Economic Forum, Vladivostok 7 September 2022. Source: Sputnik/AFP

Is ASEAN powerless?

The Burmese crisis has left the Association of Southeast Asian Nations helpless. Weakened by Moscow’s and Beijing’s politico-military support for the Burmese generals, as well as internal support from three member countries – Thailand, Vietnam, and Laos – the situation has remained desperately deadlocked. In recent weeks, ASEAN leaders have issued a series of equivocal statements summarizing the organization’s failures in Myanmar. Singapore’s Foreign Minister Vivian Balakrishnan said in November that the conflict in Myanmar “is not just a repeat of the ethnic armed conflict” but “a fight for the heart of the Bamar majority, between the Tatmadaw on the one hand and the NUG led by Aung San Suu Kyi. That same day, former Indonesian Foreign Minister Marty Natalegawa said the Burmese junta “must be part of the ASEAN dialogue”.

To understand this ambiguous diplomacy, it is necessary to analyze the foundations of this regional organization. It brings together states with different political systems – from Indonesia, the world’s only Muslim democracy, to socialist regimes, to one-party market economies – and is one of the most heterogeneous regional groupings in the world. Since its inception in 1967, ASEAN has not prioritized human rights and democracy in its agenda. Instead, member countries have promoted the concept of Asian values, arguing that human rights are a Western concept and are therefore extrinsic to the region; economic development is a far more important issue than civil and political rights. While human rights are explicitly mentioned in Europe as a normative criterion in all regional treaties, this is true for only 26% of those signed in Asia, where the importance attached to human rights remains minor. The norms and values regularly recalled by the organization’s treaties and agreements emphasize the importance of the nation-state and the Westphalian principles of non-interference and national sovereignty in inter-state relations. 

ASEAN national flags. Source: sarawuth702

In the heat of the moment, ASEAN is demonstrating that it remains unable to respond to the demands of civil society. It took five months to appoint a special envoy and to impose it on the Burmese junta. In the person of Erywan Yusof, Brunei’s deputy foreign minister of Brunei, the envoy’s attitude towards the junta’s general has been complacent, even defensive, implying an almost diplomatic recognition. In April 2021, ASEAN established a five-point consensus with the Burmese junta: a plan that has never been respected in view of the daily exactions and abuses committed by military power. On July 25, 2022, the Burmese junta executed four prisoners, including two opponents, even though the death penalty had not been applied for decades. With this decision, the Tatmadaw explicitly rejects ASEAN’s calls for an end to the violence, underscoring the regional organization’s limited influence in ending the armed conflict. 

The Western position

The Burmese military takeover remains a major setback for the West. The United States, the European Union, the United Kingdom, and Australia had invested heavily in supporting the economic and political transition under the NUG administration, despite the slowdown in this progress since the Rohingya crisis. Within months, they were forced to reconfigure their aid programs, adjust their trade agreements and impose trade and financial sanctions.

The US has taken the lead, but not in the same way as its overwhelming support for Ukraine. In the absence of UN resolutions (an embargo on arms sales had been considered), due to resistance from the PRC and Russia, Washington decided to suspend a trade agreement in March 2021 and to subject Burmese companies and officials to sanctions. The UK followed suit by announcing sanctions targeting the military’s financial interests in mid-May 2021, to deprive it of “key sources of funding.” The EU took action in April 2021, the new sanctions include a ban on travel to or through the EU and freezing of the assets of eleven Burmese military personnel across the Union.

Australia has also been hesitant to impose wider sanctions from the start. The Albanese government had hoped that by avoiding sanctions, it would leave room for constructive and low-key dialogue and engagement. But in the face of the Tatmadaw’s murderous violence against its own people and its disregard for basic principles of international humanitarian law, Australia has been forced to rethink its policy toward Myanmar. In February 2023, Canberra introduced new measures, targeting 16 members of the State Administrative Council and two military-controlled economic entities.

While these measures affect the interests of the Myanmar military, they have little impact on the overall situation. According to the Burmese Political Prisoners’ Assistance Association, the number of imprisoned people has now risen to more than ten thousand women, men, and children who have been imprisoned for participating in the civil disobedience movement or for simply showing their hostility to the junta. Myanmar activists and civil society organizations have repeatedly called for a global arms embargo on Myanmar and more targeting of the regime’s sources of revenue, such as timber and gemstone exports.


In the darkest hours of the Covid-19 pandemic, Myanmar has slipped precipitously back into the grasp of military power. While day after day, the country’s youth, determined to fight for their future, staged dense, high-profile protests from Rangoon to Mandalay, against the Burmese junta, militarily supported by the PRC and Russia, the fight has proven to be too formidable. The repressive machine has led to hundreds of arrests of prominent activists and political figures, including Nobel Peace Prize winner Aung San Suu Kyi, the regime’s bête noire and perennial traitor, symbolized by her studies in the UK and her marriage to a non-Buddhist, non-Bamar British academic. Russian Mi-35 helicopter gunships and Chinese JF-17 Thunder fighter jets are often used by the Tatmadaw to remove control from anti-government armed groups, particularly against rebel groups in Kachin, Chin and Karen states, leaving a trail of blood and destruction. Despite Beijing’s concerns about the unstable security situation in Myanmar’s northern territories, where it has close ties to the Karen rebels, Xi Jinping cannot break ties with the military junta, on which it depends for economic and geostrategic reasons.

In the midst of the bloody abuses and the razing of villages by the Burmese junta, the Western community remains reluctant to invest massively in such a quagmire. While the war in Ukraine may resemble that in Myanmar, with the Burmese fighting for freedom and democracy, the sad reality is that the country’s deflagration has largely escaped the attention of the West. Admittedly, there are significant differences between the two crises. Russia, a nuclear power, invaded a sovereign state on NATO’s borders, upsetting the basic principles of international law and the foundations of international peace and security. In Myanmar, the military acted within its borders, plunging the country back into civil war between the Bamar army and various ethnic movements. While some countries, including the United States, have taken action against the Burmese junta, the Western response has been inconsistent in comparison to its support for Ukraine.

It is urgent that the West reconsiders its current position on Myanmar, and in particular on the NUG and allied groups. Unlike in Ukraine, these groups have received little political or military support to resist a bloodthirsty army of cruelty not seen in Southeast Asia since the Khmer Rouge. The manner in which Western military assistance is succeeding in changing the dynamics on the front lines in Ukraine is well documented. To achieve this, the US must strengthen cooperation with ASEAN countries: Indonesia, Malaysia, the Philippines, and Singapore. These countries have vehemently opposed the military coup. This effort is more urgent than ever, especially in the current context of great power competition in Southeast Asia.

Suggested Readings:

Yun Sun. “The Civil War in Myanmar : No end in sight”. Brookings, February , 2023.

Wicaksana, I. Gede Wahyu, Demas Nauvarian, and Putu Shangrina Pramudia. “ASEAN, COVID-19 and Myanmar crisis: Dealing with critical juncture.” International Area Studies Review, 2023.

Zulueta-Fülscher Kimana. “The Struggle for Legitimacy in Post-Coup Myanmar”. Carnegie Europe, April 2021.

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[REPORT] Myanmar: a long …

by Kareem Salem time to read: 11 min