Syed Badrul Ahsan
Countries need armies. Some armies need countries. There have been soldiers in modern times who have occupied their own countries and kept them in their grip for long periods of time. The Myanmar army needed a country, to have the country beholden to it. It has had it, for as long as we have known.
It is hardly any surprise, therefore, that General Min Aung Hlaing has commandeered Myanmar and has bravely engaged in the act of placing the country’s elected leaders in detention. It has not occurred to him that in this day and age, coups are frowned upon.
Men like him and Thailand’s Prayut Chan-o-cha are a throwback to dinosaur times, when overthrowing governments in Asia, Africa, and Latin America were a cheerful game for soldiers tired of being in the barracks and taking orders from civilian governments. But they do not understand the lessons of history. And so they make a mess of history.
Notwithstanding history, or the finer elements of it, there is the larger question: When has Myanmar, or Burma as it used to be, ever been free of the clutches of its military? The only noble military man in its history was General Aung San, but it was soldiers who gunned him down in July 1947, only months before Burma gained freedom from Britain.
In the chaos that followed, his friend U Nu bravely tried to have a civilian government run the show even as he remained wary of the soldiers. U Nu was the quintessential politician whose good fortune was that he had on his team such brilliant men as U Thant, who was later to become secretary general of the United Nations after the tragic death of Dag Hammarskjoeld in the Congo in 1961.
In September 1958, with Burma careening from crisis to crisis economically as well as politically, with its many ethnic groups giving the government a hard time, and of course with the army engaging in reconnaissance missions on a possible capture of power, Prime Minister U Nu invited the army chief, General Ne Win, to take charge of the country for a brief period. That was a mistake, for whenever an army is invited by a civilian political leader to take over, ambitions are fuelled in soldiers.
Such ambitions are dangerous, as today’s Myanmar knows only too well. In December 1960, the military administration of Ne Win organized general elections, which returned U Nu to power with a landslide. Ne Win and his fellow soldiers grudgingly went back to the barracks. Things looked good for the country.
But that impression of political placidity turned out to be deceptive, for less than two years later, in March 1962, General Ne Win came marching back. His soldiers swiftly removed U Nu’s government, clamped a ban on politics, and let the world know that they would be there for a long time. Indeed they were there for a long time. Giving Burma its own brand of socialism — the military regime called it the Burmese Way to Socialism — the new rulers put the country into isolationist mode.
All politicians, including U Nu, were in prison. In an era of the Cold War, the world did not complain about the army takeover. Ne Win found himself feted in such important places as the White House in Washington, where President Kennedy had a good conversation with him.
The Ne Win regime was to last till 1988, when growing street protests forced it to quit. It was a time when Aung San Suu Kyi emerged into the limelight, but power did not come to her. It went, once again, to a new group of senior officers in the army, led by General Saw Maung. The country remained in the hard grip of the soldiers, despite the elections the military supervised in 1990.
Suu Kyi’s National League for Democracy won the vote convincingly, but could not assume power. What followed were 15 years of detention for Suu Kyi and an equal period of pitch darkness for the people of Myanmar. Democracy was an ambition far-fetched. It was not to come to the country, despite the impression of a slight opening of the door in 2011, despite Suu Kyi’s putative assumption of power in 2016.
It is a mistake to think that these past few years in which Suu Kyi has been in the forefront, domestically and globally, have been a time of democratic flowering in the country. The generals made sure, through drafting and imposing their own constitution on Myanmar, that pluralism would not dig deep roots in the country. With 25% of seats in the legislature reserved for the military, it was no democracy.
Neither was it democracy when the constitution did not permit Aung San Suu Kyi to assume office as the country’s president or prime minister. Her children were born abroad and she had married a foreigner, spurious arguments the soldiers placed in her way to prevent her from formally being head of state or head of government. She was state counsellor. And she was content playing that insipid role.
Suu Kyi and whatever the nature of the administration she was symbolic of were anything but democratic. Suu Kyi never challenged the military’s role in politics; she never made any move to have the soldiers loosen their 25% hold on parliament. Her status as a global voice of protest, as an icon of democracy, was gradually whittled away when she failed to protest the genocide against Myanmar’s Muslim Rohingya population.
Her silence on the travails suffered by the Rohingya, her defense of the indefensible when the Gambia brought the Rohingya issue before the International Court of Justice, were clearly motivated by her own desire to hold on to office without alienating the army. She was in office. She was not in power.
The army kept Suu Kyi in detention for years. It loomed over her as she tried to give the world the impression that Myanmar was transitioning to political pluralism. It has now again taken charge of her destiny. In these past few years, the Myanmar army has never given the world to understand that it has become reconciled to liberalism, to the concept of elected civilian rule. It has remained the army that was fashioned by Ne Win and the likes of him between 1962 and 2016.
But Aung San Suu Kyi changed, in ways the world has not been comfortable with. Her period in what looked like power but was nothing of the sort was fundamentally an endless appeasement of the military. Her silence on the atrocities perpetrated on the Rohingya was a clear, rude departure from the image she had projected in her years of democratic struggle. She is a diminished figure inasmuch as Myanmar is once more a diminished country — before the rest of the world.
Syed Badrul Ahsan is a journalist and biographer.