(Editor’s Note: This article is the latest in a Just Security series on the Feb. 1, 2021 coup in Myanmar, which brought together expert local and international voices on the coup and its broader context. The series is a collaboration between Just Security and the International Human Rights Clinic at Harvard Law School).
Today, Feb. 1, 2022, marks the one-year anniversary of the Myanmar military’s attempt to wrest political control of the country away from its elected officials. Not every military attempt to impose its will on a country is a generational moment, but this one was. The actions of the military (known as the Tatmadaw) last year sparked an unprecedented series of events that are still rippling across the nation. The resistance to the military’s attempt to take control started with the Civil Disobedience Movement (CDM), a mass movement led by youth and joined by workers who stayed home and consumers who boycotted military-owned businesses to protest the takeover. A movement on this scale has not been seen in a generation. Other developments over the past year are entirely unprecedented in Myanmar. This past year thus marks the end of one era and the beginning of a new one. The shape of that new era is still being determined by the people of Burma, who are writing their next chapter with each passing day.
To understand the importance of Feb. 1, 2021 (“1221” or “2121,” depending on which date convention is used), we first must look back. For Burma followers, the start of the era proceeding 2021 can be traced to the 8888 Uprising (named for another significant date, Aug. 8, 1988, when that mobilization began), which saw a military crackdown against mass street protests across the country. The 8888 Uprising was the beginning of the end of the Ne Win era, a period of military rule which began decades earlier. Yet in the wake of 1988, the military dictatorship continued — first as the State Law and Order Restoration Council (SLORC), a name which aptly captured the mass human rights abuses perpetrated by this military junta, and then, with a 1997 rebrand, as the State Peace and Development Council. Despite these cosmetic tweaks, little else changed. The consolidation of power by Than Shwe as the main military strongman in the early 2000s only demonstrated the continued military dominance. Even after the 2008 constitution and three subsequent national elections, including 2010 which featured a boycott by the National League for Democracy (NLD), the military was ever present, and the hopes of a full transition to democracy and peace failed to materialize. (For a fuller discussion of the history of democracy movements in Myanmar, see here).
Yet this post-1988 era was never really defined by the military leader as it had been during Ne Win’s time. Instead, the 1988 to 2021 period was defined by its opposition leader. When history is written in the years to come, it will be known as the era of Aung San Suu Kyi. From her “non-violent struggle for democracy and human rights” while under house arrest and her leadership of the NLD as it earned landslide national victories in 1991, 2015, and 2020, to her silence on the ongoing persecution and coordinated campaigns of violence against the Muslim Rohingya minority, Aung San Suu Kyi shaped this era of Burma in a way no other figure did.
The lead up to the military’s attempted takeover on Feb. 1, 2021 did not presage how seminal a moment it would become for Myanmar. After the NLD won an overwhelming majority of the parliamentary seats in the November 2020 general election (396 out of 476 seats, a margin of victory even greater than in 2015 and reminiscent of a 1990 landslide victory for the party), the Tatmadaw laid the foundation to dispute the results. Just like after the 1990 election, which it never recognized, the military was intent on preventing the duly elected officials from taking their seats as representatives of the people. Throughout late 2020 and early 2021, the Tatmadaw alleged irregularities and poll fraud. Several nations, including the United States, warned that the Tatmadaw might attempt to seize power in the days leading up to Feb. 1. Despite these warnings, the military was able to successfully detain Aung San Suu Kyi, President Win Myint, and other NLD leadership on the morning of Feb. 1 (many of whom have since been criminally charged and sentenced in thinly veiled political persecutions). The Tatmadaw ordered an unconstitutional one-year state of emergency, and state television broadcasts announced that political authority had been transferred to Senior General Min Aung Hlaing and the State Administration Council.
Looking back on the past year, it has been filled with familiar hallmarks of the Tatmadaw’s oppression: horrendous loss of life (conservatively at least 1,400 killed), countless arrests (estimates now run at nearly 8,800), and mass displacement. And as in eras past, the Tatmadaw has adopted these practices to retain power by whatever means necessary — including suppressing freedoms, curtailing rights, and terrorizing the population — and to fend off a burgeoning non-violent movement comprised of a new generation of leaders who have glimpsed the potential of democracy in Myanmar over the past decade.
But the past year has also been different – and remarkably so – for it has signaled not only the end of an era but the emergence of a new one.
A New Era
The story of 2021 must start with the CDM — and the sea change that this movement represents among a generation that had not been born in 1988. Led by youth and women, the movement has used civil disruptions, work stoppages, and boycotts to hamper the Tatmadaw’s attempts to consolidate their power. In the process, the movement has signified not only a generational shift but a change in the representation and make up of political activity in Myanmar.
For many Burmans (the major ethnic group), participating in the movement has also prompted a sort of revelation, causing them, for instance, to question the misinformation espoused for years by the military that historically marginalized ethnic nationality groups were a threat to Burma. For so long, the country has been defined by its divisions — but the CDM has represented something new and distinctive as it has embraced and celebrated Burma’s diversity as a strength instead of a weakness.
The National Unity Government
The National Unity Government (NUG), which was announced in April 2021 as a “shadow” or interim government, represents the country’s first unity Comprised of members of the NLD, ethnic nationality groups, and other minority parties, the creation of the NUG parallels, in governmental structures, the bridge created between Burman communities and ethnic nationalities by the grassroots organizing of the CDM. What stands out about the NUG is that it is not a government comprised wholly of the Burman-led NLD but one that at least symbolically bridges ethnic divides in new ways.
Yes, there are legitimate questions on the depth of the unity, but this development nevertheless marks a first in Burma, and if it holds, it will define the new era in profoundly different terms from the previous one. During the 1990s through the first two decades of this century, there were calls for tripartite dialogue between the military, the NLD, and the ethnic nationalities, but never did the NLD unite with the ethnic groups in a government or other formal alliance.
The NLD’s treatment of the Rohingya crisis — ignoring or exacerbating severe human rights violations — has left deep distrust. Even here, however, there have been signs of change over the past year. One of the NUG’s interim cabinet ministers issued a public apology to the Rohingya for the government’s role in oppressing the group, and the NUG announced a new policy in June promising to end human rights abuses against the Rohingya and grant them citizenship. Given past experience, caution is still warranted as to whether there will be follow through on these pronouncements, but this much is clear: the NUG represents a potentially new political era.
The End of an Era
The emergence of the CDM and the NUG as well as the simultaneous generational shift has also signaled the beginning of the end of the era of Aung San Suu Kyi and others from her generation. From a towering symbol for human rights and democracy as a Nobel Peace Prize winner to a defender, at the International Court of Justice (ICJ), of the military’s genocidal actions and now returning to house detention once again, feelings towards Aung San Suu Kyi have grown more complicated over the past few years to say the least. And while she and the NLD remain beloved by many in Burma, this last year has brought into stark relief the aging leadership of the party. While criminal sentences against the Aung San Suu Kyi and other senior NLD leaders still make the news, the base of power has begun to move beyond these elders. Transitions take time, but this one is underway.
The End of the 2008 Constitution
The 2008 Constitution enshrined military impunity and placed the Tatmadaw permanently beyond the reach of either civilian political control or judicial oversight. The February 2021 actions of the military ironically have caused a break with the Constitution that it wrote. Though the military allegedly attempted to force NLD President Win Myint to step down so they could take power under the veneer of legitimacy, his refusal and their subsequent attempt to seize power through force undermined the 2008 Constitution.In April, the predecessor to the NUG announced that the 2008 Constitution was no longer valid and promised a system with equal protections for all. A proposed replacement constitution, called the Federal Democracy Charter, was published with the announcement. Recently, a revised draft of the Charter was approved in a People’s Assembly held by a broad coalition (the National Unity Consultative Council or NUCC), confirming that the diverse membership of the NUCC considers the Charter to be the country’s interim constitutional document. While some have expressed skepticism, fearing that the lofty promises of equal protection are rhetoric without substantive, feasible strategies for improving the lives of ethnic and religious minorities, it is almost impossible to imagine a return to the 2008 Constitution.
The End of a Failed Peace Process
For the past decade, the Tatmadaw (and the NLD) consistently suggested to the world that efforts were ongoing to achieve lasting peace to conflicts in various border areas where ethnic nationalities tend to comprise the majority of the population and which have been in conflict with the Tatmadaw for decades. For example, in 2016 the Tatmadaw announced a “national” “ceasefire” agreement, a misnomer both because it did not involve all the major armed groups and because fighting has persisted and even intensified over the past decade. This past year has refuted the existence of any credible peace process, paving the way going forward for either ongoing conflict or, more hopefully, some entirely new peace initiative.
ASEAN Slights Min Aung Hlaing
The Association of Southeast Asian Nations (ASEAN) has been rightly criticized for failing to adequately respond to the military’s actions in Myanmar; none of the points in its five-point consensus plan from April 2021 to address the situation have seen significant progress. Yet during its October summit, ASEAN boldly excluded the Tatmadaw, and several countries at the summit directly criticized the military leadership. The issue of attendance remains unresolved, and expecting much more from ASEAN may be unrealistic with Cambodia — itself an autocracy — as the chair during the next year. Yet the fact that the group directly confronted the Tatmadaw in the way it did in October 2021 is unprecedented. It signals that ASEAN is keeping its options open as to where to place its allegiance in the new era and no longer blindly supporting the military.
In September of last year, the United States and China reached an informal agreement barring the Tatmadaw from being seated at the United Nations, undermining its attempts to gain international legitimacy. The General Assembly recently agreed to defer action on who would represent Myanmar at the United Nations, meaning that the current ambassador, Kyaw Moe Tun, who is loyal to the NUG and has in fact been “fired” by the Tatmadaw, will remain in place until the issue is resolved. While not a definitive win for either the NUG or the military, as with ASEAN keeping its options open, the recognition stalemate means that the military can no longer assume that its power grabs will lead to a place at the table internationally.
The old era included an opening up of the country to foreign direct investment, including to vast natural gas deposits in the early 1990s. The Tatmadaw benefited immensely from international investments, enjoying both material profits from partnering with international corporations to extract natural resources and gains in legitimacy that came with these partnerships. But in response to the deteriorating political and human rights situation over the past few months, Chevron (which bought Unocal, the original investor in Burma) and TotalEnergies (Total) announced earlier this year that they were withdrawing from Myanmar after 30 years. Woodside Petroleum followed Chevron and Total shortly thereafter, and other companies have pulled out as well. While this is not the only time businesses have exited the country, it is a dramatic reversal from the last ten years. Moreover, the inclusion of giants Chevron and Total in the exodus is a telling indication that even the most stalwart of holdouts from the previous era have broken with the military.
The International Criminal Court and International Accountability
While there has been significant progress around international accountability in Myanmar in recent years — from the Gambia’s case at the ICJ, to the International Criminal Court’s (ICC) investigation, to the creation of the Independent Investigative Mechanism for Myanmar (IIMM), to the acceptance by an Argentinian court of jurisdiction over crimes committed against the Rohingya — the NUG’s deposit of a letter with the ICC accepting jurisdiction by the Court for international crimes dating back to 2002 anywhere in the country is a major development. This letter signals the NUG’s commitment to join the international community, adhere to the rule of law, and address grave crimes throughout the country. The ICC should recognize the letter and authorize additional investigations beyond the Rohingya into international crimes, both historical and ongoing.
Prospects for Conflict or Peace
Despite these major developments and potential promise of this new era, many see a grim immediate prognosis defined by an escalation in violence as the conflict expands geographically and intensifies militarily. Predictably, civilians are likely to pay the largest price. The dominant view is also that for the foreseeable future, neither the military nor the NUG and Ethnic Armed Organizations (EAOs) can achieve outright military victory, raising the specter of a protracted and messy conflict.
Nonetheless, as Myanmar enters this new era, a crucial question remains: what is the recipe that will change the balance of power to permanently end the Tatmadaw’s continuous destabilizing effects? After all, the destabilizing force in Burmese politics over the last 75 years has been the Burmese military. Despite three elections over the past decade, never have civilians been given genuine power to guide the country forward and never has there been a concerted effort to achieve a lasting peace across ethnic lines. With this in mind, possible paths toward such peace and stability will require the following elements.
First, the CDM has the capacity to transform into a durable generational political movement that can continue to learn from its membership, evolve, and persist. The momentum behind this grassroots movement is reminiscent of the long-term political impacts of the civil rights movement in the United States and the struggle to end Apartheid in South Africa. In order to move Myanmar further forward (and away from military hegemony), the CDM’s core values of civilian power and celebration of the diversity of Burma must also persist, heralded by the youth leaders who see the opportunity for fundamental change.
Second, as the NUG continues to gain legitimacy and implement initiatives like the National Unity Consultative Council, a body designed to expand the alliance against the junta and establish a roadmap for a federal democratic system, there is an open question about whether this new governing body will live up to its name. In one possible version of the future, the NUG’s eventual composition would reflect the leadership of the CDM, developing a new generation of political leaders who are committed to the “Unity” element of the NUG. The NUG has already taken certain steps in this direction, making an unprecedented public statement acknowledging the injustices suffered by Rohingya Muslims and promising that it will seek “justice and accountability” for the military’s crimes against the Rohingya and other ethnic groups. This move toward cross-ethnic solidarity in the highest levels of government will be key to establishing a new kind of durable peace in Myanmar. However, many NUG members come straight from the NLD, and traditional fissures of distrust between the NLD and ethnic nationality leadership could easily reemerge if the NUG does not commit seriously to the equality and unity of all peoples in Myanmar.
The third critical factor in this equation is whether and how long the Tatmadaw can sustain its campaign of terror without cracking under the pressure. Desertions are reported by some as being at an all-time high, including both rank-and-file soldiers and officers. The Tatmadaw’s strategy to maintain nationwide control in the decades preceding the coup included a cycle of temporary ceasefires with certain ethnic groups, allowing the military to rotate its resources from suppression of one group to another. But because the military alienated nearly every group over the past year, ending many already tentative ceasefires, the Tatmadaw is now stretched thin trying to gain control in areas where it faces combined opposition from EAOs and representatives of the NUG’s Peoples Defense Force. With soldiers leaving the Tatmadaw to join the opposition and with additional collaboration between opposition forces, an increasingly desperate but still well-armed military has the potential to do enormous damage. The fighting is likely to get worse before it gets better, especially for civilians. However, this trend toward desertion combined with a unified civilian population sheds light on the cracks in the military’s grip.
Finally, China, ASEAN, the West, and the international community writ large must align against the destabilizing force that is the Tatmadaw. China may speak more in terms of avoiding civil war (given its interest in stability). ASEAN may speak more in terms of political solutions and dialogue amongst all the parties (given its practice of non-interference). The West may speak more in terms of rights and sanctions. But the common interest of these players should be a permanent and durable solution with civilian rule in Burma. Such a solution would meet the interests of the key regional and international players to end the conflict, find a politically satisfying outcome, and uphold human rights and the rule of law.
Like 8888, February 1, 2021, will be a date for the history books. Whether this next chapter of Myanmar’s history will bring an end to continued military rule and violent conflict and lead to a transition to democracy and peace is yet to be determined. As we mark the first anniversary of “1221” (or “2121”), however, one thing is clear: the events of the past year have reshaped Burma in fundamental ways, ushering in a new era with flickers of hope for true national unity at last.
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 The military’s actions have been described as “a coup”, or even “a successful coup.” But while that may be the military’s intent, that simple description is belied by the continued resistance of the people of Myanmar. We refer to the events of Feb. 1, 2021 and after, therefore, as an attempted takeover, attempted coup, or by reference to the military’s specific actions.