The Tatmadaw declared a year‐long state of emergency, after which it plans to hold new elections—which no doubt will be rigged. Such democratic retrogression is unfortunate, though many Burmese will barely notice the change.
After a decade of semi‐democratic development, the system was going nowhere fast. The military was still in ultimate control of the state and dominated the policies that concerned it most. The civilian authorities, which began with great expectations at home and abroad, lost their humanitarian sheen. Indeed, Nobel Laureate Suu Kyi resolutely defended the military’s brutality against its own people. Once seen as a paragon of democracy, she appeared to go over to “the dark side.”
Thankfully, the situation doesn’t matter much to America, though you wouldn’t know that from the Biden administration’s rhetoric. Blinken warned: “The United States expresses grave concern and alarm.” In truth, virtually nothing in Burma is important enough to cause Americans “grave concern and alarm.” But this was just more State Department boilerplate, since just about every adverse foreign development causes Washington to express “grave concern and alarm.”
For years, even decades, Uncle Sam has mimicked the God of the Bible. Explained Jesus: “not a single sparrow can fall to the ground without your Father knowing it” (Matthew 10:29). Similarly, no country anywhere on earth can do anything without Washington knowing—and trying to do something about it. Hence the administration’s reflexive demand that the Tatmadaw reverse course.
Notably, concern for democracy is much greater outside than inside the region. Burma’s Southeast Asian neighbors care little about the Tatmadaw’s decision to publicly formalize its dominance. Laos is a communist dictatorship. Cambodia is a formerly communist dictatorship. Thailand spent more than six years under a military junta, which rewrote the constitution to ensure that it could continue to rule behind a thin democratic façade.
In fact, Bangkok’s military rulers dismissed the developments in Thailand’s neighbor. Deputy Prime Minister Prawit Wongsuwan observed: “It’s their business. It’s their domestic issue.” Indeed, Burma’s generals may plan to revamp their government along the Thai lines, in which the military manipulates the electoral system to assure control while piously proclaiming its democratic credentials.
Unfortunately, Washington’s efforts are likely to be but an exercise in futility. The U.S. already tried once, in an effort that spanned years, to reform Burma. A second round isn’t likely to yield better results.
Burma’s armed services originally took power in 1962 and ruled unilaterally until 2011. Repression was brutal, as was combat with numerous ethnic groups seeking autonomy. (I spent years working with the largely Christian Karen, or Kayin, in Burma’s east.) Then the Tatmadaw began to slowly loosen its controls, allowing elections and a civilian administration.
The junta most likely yielded formal control to end country’s pariah status and Western economic sanctions. In particular, the Tatmadaw hoped to reduce Burmese dependence on China, whose embrace became uncomfortable. However, the military retained the security ministries, ignored civilian authorities, and claimed veto power over constitutional changes. Most important, it disqualified Suu Kyi, whose party had won the previous election in 1990 from ever holding the presidency.
Suu Kyi became a global figure after receiving the 1991 Nobel Peace Prize. She suffered through 15 years of house arrest before the military finally stepped aside. In 2015, her National League for Democracy won the election in a landslide. She bypassed the Tatmadaw’s rules by creating the position of State Counsellor, allowing her to oversee the country’s nominal president. With her rise, Western governments enthusiastically embraced the new Naypyitaw government, dropping sanctions, encouraging commerce, and upgrading relations.
Yet her tenure was marked by great disappointment. Despite her genuinely heroic struggle for democracy, she turned out to be a Burman nationalist with little interest in confronting the military or protecting ethnic minorities.
Five years into her stewardship, Freedom House rated the country as “not free”: