In February 2021, Myanmar took international headlines by force when a military-backed coup foiled Myanmar’s short-lived experiment with democracy. To understand the significance of this moment, it is important to understand the history of Myanmar. Once a British colony that gained independence in 1948, what was then known as Burma formed itself as a parliamentary democracy. This was short-lived: in 1962, Gen. Ne Win led a military-backed coup and seized power for nearly 30 years until 1988.
Burma found itself embracing isolationist policies, which were detrimental to its economy, leading to the widespread participation of its citizens in black market operations. In response to deteriorating economic conditions, students began kicking off protests, which were met with violent force. In 1988, 3,000 protestors were killed and many more were displaced. Following these events, Ne Win stepped down from power in 1989, and the new military regime changed its name from the Union of Burma to the Union of Myanmar. The reason for the name change came from the association of Burma with the Burman ethnic majority—the name Myanmar was found to be more inclusive.
Saffron Revolution & A New Government
In 2007, a combination of factors led to tensions boiling over and the Saffron Revolution, an event coined for the saffron-colored robes worn by Buddhist monks who participated, to begin. There are many reasons for the revolution—one being a price hike in fuel. Following these protests, shifts in Myanmar occurred. In 2008, a new constitution pushed forward by the military junta gave the military power even under civilian rule. This constitution is still in effect today, even after the military junta unexpectedly dissolved in 2011. The 2011 dissolution led to Prime Minister Thein Sein becoming president and set the stage for Aung San Suu Kyi to eventually take power.
Suu Kyi is most known for becoming a popular figure who resisted the military junta in power. After being arrested for participating in the protests, she was placed on house arrest for over 15 years, finally securing freedom in 2010. A notable achievement came in the form of securing the Nobel Peace Prize while still confined to her home. Suu Kyi has received criticism and backlash for appeasing the military faction of her government by downplaying the violent mistreatment of its Rohingya minority population. The International Court of Justice, a top UN Court, ruled that the Rohingya have suffered at the hands of an ethnic genocide.
In order to understand the current humanitarian crisis unfolding in Myanmar, it is important to understand the country’s unique ethnic makeup. Iowa’s United Nations Cedar Valley Chapter President Ed Gallagher shed some light on the diverse ethnic make-up of Myanmar. He explained that many of the refugees from Myanmar who live in Waterloo practice Christianity. According to the Council of Foreign Relation’s data collection, 68% of the country is made up of “Burman” peoples and they occupy the top tier of Myanmar’s society, including ranking members of the military. 9% of the population is Shan, 7% Karen, 4% Rakhine, 3% Chinese, 2% Mon, 2% Indian, and 5% other. This is important, as citizenship is largely based upon ethnicity, and these ethnic divides have led to internal and civilian conflicts that have left tens of thousands dead in the nation. Other human rights abuses have been reported such as forced labor, torture, rape, and the use of child soldiers.
In fact, ethnicity is so central to being a citizen of Myanmar that only ethnic groups that were present in 1823, before Britain ruled parts of the country, are full citizens, according to the 1982 Citizenship Law. This is why the Rohingya people, as a minority Muslim ethnic group, living in Myanmar have found themselves stateless and unrecognized as citizens before the law. They also do not have the full protections of the constitution offered to them, which protect citizens from discrimination, equal opportunity, and freedom of expression. Of the nearly one million people who have fled Myanmar, most of them Rohingya, many find themselves facing extreme violence at the hands of the state military, known as the Tatmadaw. The Gambia filed a lawsuit against Myanmar for committing ethnic cleansing against the Rohingya, which the nation’s leaders have denied.
Current Refugee Crisis
The situation with the Rohingya population has led to thousands of refugees fleeing into surrounding areas such as Bangladesh. Gallagher asserts the conflict arising is that Bangladesh also does not want the minority Muslim population. The International Crisis Group, a branch of the UN’s refugee agency, published an article about the proposed risk that would come with returning the Rohingya to Myanmar from Bangladesh, “It would not only violate Bangladesh’s international legal obligations and jeopardize the safety of the refugees but risks triggering violence and greater instability on both sides of the border. Bangladesh and Myanmar should immediately halt the plan. The UN, including the secretary-general’s special envoy and the UN refugee agency, should continue to firmly oppose it, both in public and in private, and establish a process whereby Rohingya refugees are consulted about their future.”
Outside Intervention from China & U.S.
The history of outside intervention into the region is mutually constitutive with the country’s long history of political turmoil and strife. Once a British colony that gained independence in 1948, the region became one of the Cold War battlegrounds in the U.S.’ long waged war against communist forces. The tension to gain outside influence into the region has persisted between democratic and communist ideologues ever since.
One concern of the international community surrounds the growing influence of communist China upon the military-run government in Myanmar. International anxieties have begun to boil as Beijing has leveraged its international influence to offer military support, protect military generals who participated in the coups, and prevent an arms embargo.
The U.S.’ intervention into Myanmar is an ongoing history that recently involves the U.S. placing sanctions upon the country. The majority of which took place in the 1990s. Following Myanmar’s transition to democracy, these sanctions were lifted. However, following the coups that took place in 2021, the Biden administration has signaled that there may be targeted sanctions to come. His administration has begun a review of U.S. sanctions law as a tool to “support democracy and the rule of law,” according to a report from the Council on Foreign Relations.
As talks about outside intervention into the region continue to grow, it is important to reflect upon the historical destabilizing effects that outside intervention has had upon Myanmar throughout its history. The construction of borders following decolonization has left ethnic groups living in Myanmar without a home and has left them vulnerable to increasing violence. The crippling effects of economic sanctions, and the influence of outside political forces, have worked to destabilize the country following colonization. This is why conversations about outside intervention must be evaluated, even in the name of preserving democracy, through a more critical understanding of the realities faced from political intervention in an increasingly globalized world where the effects of colonization and Cold War violence still linger.