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Military Rule in Myanmar : A History

Shruti Mishra

Myanmar or Union of Myanmar, re-named from Union of Burma in 1989, officially got its independence in 1948 after remaining under British control since 1824. However, even after gaining independence from Britain, Myanmar couldn’t follow a progressive streak. It has had a troubled history full of widespread poverty, civil wars, poor governance, military rule etc. The most recent military coup of February 2021 has further crushed any hope of a democratic form of government in Myanmar, and hence that of peace.

Current Military Junta Chief Min Aung Hlaing was appointed as commander-in-chief in 2011 as Myanmar began a transition to civilian government after five decades of military rule [File: Ye Aung Thu/ AFP]

However, the question here is, ‘Was the state of Myanmar always like this or the state has stooped to a historical low for the first time in its history?’ Well, let’s find out.

Myanmar saw its first military takeover in 1958 with Army Chief of Staff, Ne Win as the head. After the coup he called for general elections in the year 1960 and former political leader of the AFPFL, U Nu returned to office. This prepared the stage for second military takeover in Myanmar which took place in the year 1962.

The aim of this military takeover was to make Myanmar a socialist state. To achieve this purpose, the foundation of a party was laid which was called as the BSPP, Burma Socialist Programme Party. Ne Win also suspended the constitution of 1947 and a new constitution was promulgated in 1974. He ruled Myanmar with Revolutionary Council which was made up of several senior military officers. Under him, much of Myanmar’s commerce and industry was nationalised and investment in agriculture was sacrificed for industrial growth. Also, important positions in the administration were given to the military instead of civilians. However, these measures did not lead to an improvement in Myanmar’s economy.

The next elections were held in 1974 and Ne Win came to power again, after which the economy grew steadily. Considerable funding was received from Asian Development Bank, International Bank for Reconstruction and Development and from Japan as well. However, by the early 1980s, economic growth fluctuated and insurgencies from the communist and ethnic groups expanded throughout the country throughout the 1980s, students and workers continued to protest. Hence, amid the rising intensity of protests, President Ne Win resigned in 1988. On September 18, 1988, General Saw Maung took the power who then suppressed these demonstrations killing thousands of unarmed protestors and imposed martial law over the country. The country was now being governed by a new military body called the State Law and Order Restoration Council, SLORC. It gave some hope for just elections in the past 30 years in Myanmar as it called for multi-party elections and also ordered the revision of the 1974 constitution. However, all the hopes were dashed when the SLORC did not accept the results of these elections held in 1990 which were won by NLD, the National League for Democracy with a huge margin. As a result of this unjustified refusal of election results, the US imposed economic sanctions against Myanmar in 1997 and restricted its contact with the state. The European Union also restricted its trade and interactions with Myanmar and the United Nations did not fail in condemning Myanmar’s violations of human rights. This forced SLORC, which changed to SPDC, State Peace and Development Council in 1997, to release around 200 political prisoners in 2001 including Aung San Suu Kyi. To further improve the situation, the government, in 2008 decided to put a new draft of the constitution in a public referendum, but the process got interrupted by a powerful cyclone named Nargis that killed some 138,000 people including those reported missing. This new constitution which ensured that the military plays a major role in future governments of Myanmar, finally got ratified in late May 2008 and was set to come into effect after elections scheduled in November 2010.

These November 2010 elections were expectedly won by the military government and the new legislature was convened on January 31, 2011 with Thein Sein, former army general as the new President of Myanmar. As promised, the new constitution also came into effect. During this time, Myanmar followed a progressive streak as it witnessed ease in restrictions and improvement in social and political reforms for the first time in ages. It was the result of these relaxations only that the country did not witness another military rule. Instead, it was the NLD which emerged victorious not only in the April 2012 by-elections but also in the November 2015 parliamentary elections in both the legislative houses. This new government of 2015 elected Htin Kyaw, Aung San Suu Kyi’s close friend as the new President. Aung San Suu Kyi created various posts in the government and herself retained the post of the most powerful and controversial position, the state counsellor post. However, the military retained power over areas like defence and police. Thus, the government, though elected democratically shared power with the military, but more surprisingly, it defended the unjust actions of the military including its brutal attacks on Rohingya Muslims of the Rakhine state that led to fleeing of around 800,000 Rohingyas from Myanmar.

But despite this initial backing, Myanmar’s military recently lead a coup against this government. What might have given it a reason to do so is a constitutional amendment introduced by the NLD in March 2020. This amendment sought to reduce the minimum number of legislative seats reserved for the military. It also talked about decreasing the military’s emergency powers. However, these amendments could not be passed and the country prepared for next parliamentary elections which were scheduled to be held on November 8, 2020. Victory in these elections was once again claimed by the NLD but the military-aligned USDP refused to accept the results and led the military coup.

Thus, a careful look at Myanmar’s political history reveals that the state was never entirely free from the clutches of military rule. Even if the government was elected democratically, the military either refused to accept the results or found ways of intervening in the functioning of the government and the future seems no different. Just like in Myanmar’s historical past, unfortunately, the military will rule the country as per it’s wish in the future as well. It will continue to nullify the progressive results achieved by democratically elected governments and will give rise to more and more violence in the state. This military coup has dashed any hope of peace on Myanmar’s land in the near future.

About the author

Shruti is a BA student at the School of Languages, Jawahrlal Nehru University.

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