Crisis in Myanmar, Silence From the World
By: Ryan Lafferty
If you’ve been following the news over the past several years, you've probably heard the word “Myanmar” come up a considerable bit, which might come as a surprise, given their minimal international influence as a small nation in Southeast Asia
But nonetheless, international media scrutiny has been well-warranted and needed.
Since 2016, the Myanmar government has perpetrated a brutal genocide against the Rohingya people, a minority ethnic group within Myanmar with a rocky historical relationship with the state. Murderous ethnic cleansing, spearheaded both by government and military officials, has led to the deaths totaling in the hundreds of thousands. North of seven-hundred-thousand members of the Rohingya minority have been forced to flee to neighboring countries like Bangladesh. International bodies like the UN have condemned the unacceptable actions of the Myanmar government, but the situation has hardly improved.
So for any casual observer of international affairs, the situation didn’t exactly look like it was absolute to get worse. And then February 1st, 2021 happened.
But before we get there, some context is needed. The military within Myanmar – officially known as the “Tatmadaw” – has long held enormous power within the Myanmar society. Since 1962, Myanmar had been a de facto “military junta,” meaning that the military wielded supreme political and government authority. But – partially as a result of international sanctions imposed by the West – senior military leadership within the Myanmar military agreed to reform the country’s constitution, eventually leading to democratic elections in 2010 that led to the ousting of dictatorial military rule. However, while the Tatmadaw agreed to grant power to the victors of democratic consent, the military reserved twenty-five percent of all seats in parliament exclusively for the military. Thus, while Myanmar has had reasonably stable democratic infrastructure in place over the last decade, the risk of autocratic backsliding has always been high.
That takes us to November of 2020. Routine elections yielded a landslide victory for Aung San Suu Kyi’s National League for Democracy party, with north of 80% of votes going to the NLD. As a reminder: the military in Myanmar is guaranteed a quarter of the seats in parliament, but when one party – namely, the NLD – claimed such an enormous victory, the political power of the military declined greatly. The Tatmadaw – which has always been a power-hungry institution, always eyeing new ways to seize control – sought to contest the results of the elections, given their unfavorability for military interests. On February 1st, 2021, the military launched a coup d’etat, deposing the democratically elected government, imprisoning high-profile NLD politicians (including the President of Myanmar!), and cracking down violently and brutally on protests that arose as a result. The military has seized control. Martial law has been declared. Activists have been gunned down in the streets. The situation grows more bloody each and every day.
All the while, the Rohingya crisis continues to worsen.
But problematically, thus far, the response from world leaders has been, frankly, abysmal. Targeted sanctions have been imposed on leaders within the Tatmadaw, and select nations have imposed arms sanctions on Myanmar, but overall, substantial and meaningful action is long overdue. Forceful confrontation of Myanmar should’ve happened long ago – the systematic purging of an ethnic minority is grounds for much more than a slip on the wrist from the UN – and the continued escalation of violence under military rule indicates the dire position that the people of Myanmar now find themselves in. Bold, structural action isn’t just past-due, it’s absolutely imperative – should nations like the US fail to take more radical action against Myanmar, more innocent lives will be lost.