Civilians vs army

Published March 16, 2021

DESPITE a brutal crackdown by the Myanmar military, civilian resistance to the Feb 1 coup has refused to abate, with regular demonstrations against the junta in the country.

This is despite the fact that the protesters have paid with their lives; over 120 have been killed in the demonstrations, as per one count, with the police and military at times firing live rounds into crowds. While generating such momentum can take time, in Myanmar the people came to the defence of the democratic system from the day the generals toppled the elected order.

This is not the first time the generals have struck in Myanmar, while it is also true that mass pro-democracy movements had taken shape in the late 1980s and 2007 as well. The resolve of the country’s people is reassuring for all pro-democracy forces across the globe.

While Myanmar’s hybrid democracy was far from perfect, there was absolutely no justification for the junta to overthrow an elected government however flawed. In other parts of the developing world, there have been mixed results where civilian power confronting extra-constitutional players is concerned. Myanmar’s neighbour Thailand saw the military stage a coup in 2014 and though sustained protests have continued in that country as well, Thailand’s powerful generals remain entrenched.

Meanwhile in Egypt, a brief democratic experiment was derailed by the military in 2013, when the Mohamed Morsi-led dispensation was sent packing. While the Muslim Brotherhood-supported government was trying to implement its agenda too hastily, the military had no business overthrowing an elected government. Bangladesh, on the other hand, has been something of a success story, with the civilians managing to maintain their supremacy, despite decades of military rule. However, the Awami League-led dispensation has displayed autocratic tendencies, though these deficiencies must be handled by the political opposition, not extra-constitutional ‘saviours’.

Perhaps one of the reasons that unelected adventurers succeed in thwarting democratic movements is the support they receive from established democracies. The latter will initially censure the coup-makers, but then start dealing with them under the doctrine of necessity. This was witnessed in Egypt, while Pakistan saw similar situations during Zia’s and Musharraf’s military rule. Perhaps Western states can change tack and keep up the pressure on Myanmar’s generals to return to the barracks.

A triumph for democracy in Myanmar will embolden constitutional movements everywhere, while the opposite will send the message to adventurers that they can overthrow elected administrations and get away with it.

Published in Dawn, March 16th, 2021

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