Baba’s Explainer – Political Crisis in Myanmar

  • IASbaba
  • July 27, 2022
  • 0
International Relations
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  • GS-2: Effect of policies and politics of developed and developing countries on India’s interests.
  • GS-2: India and its neighborhood- relations. 

Context: On July 25, Myanmar’s junta(military) executed four pro-democracy activists. The junta spokesperson called the executions “lawful” and said it was “justice for the people.”

  • They were sentenced to death in a closed-door trial that rights groups criticised as being unjust.
  • News of the killing was met with intense criticism from opposition groups and human rights organisations.
  • In 2021, the country’s military seized power, an event which triggered widespread demonstrations, prompting a military crackdown on pro-democracy protesters, activists and journalists.
What is the brief history of Myanmar post its Independence?
  • 1948 – Burma becomes independent with U Nu as prime minister.
    • U Nu, together with Indian Prime Minister Nehru, Indonesian President Sukarno, Yugoslav President Tito and Egyptian President Nasser co-found the Movement of Non-Aligned States.
  • 1962 – U Nu’s faction ousted in military coup. The military inaugurates “the Burmese Way to Socialism” – nationalising the economy, forming a single-party state with the Socialist Programme Party as the sole political party, and banning independent newspapers.
    • Coup d’état, also called coup, is the sudden, violent overthrow of an existing government by a small group.
    • The chief prerequisite for a coup is control of all or part of the armed forces, the police, and other military elements.
    • Unlike a revolution, which is usually achieved by large numbers of people working for basic social, economic, and political change, a coup is a change in power from the top that merely results in the abrupt replacement of leading government personnel.
  • 1991 Aung San Suu Kyi (pro-Democratic activist) awarded Nobel Peace Prize for her commitment to peaceful change.
  • In 2008, the military had written a new Constitution that made sure the military’s interests would be protected even if there is a transition.
    • 25% of the seats in parliament and local legislatures are reserved for military (giving it a veto over any move to change the Constitution).
    • Also key ministries like Home, Defence and Border Affairs were reserved for Military.
    • The President must have military experience and the President himself, his spouse or children “shall not be subject of a foreign power or citizen of a foreign country”. Ms. Suu Kyi, whose two sons are British citizens, cannot become President.
  • The political climate in the junta (military)-led Myanmar started changing around 2010, where the military had agreed to an experiment of quasi-democracy
  • In 2011, following a general election, a nominally civilian government was installed. So even when the Army allowed power to be transferred to an elected government, it made sure that it would continue to drive defence and internal security policies, and that the USDP (Military’s its political party), has an edge over other parties in elections with the reserved seats in Parliament.
  • In the next five years, the Army loosened its grip on the government and society. Political prisoners, including Ms. Suu Kyi, were released.
  • Suu Kyi’s political party (NLD) also changed its earlier position and accepted the Army-written Constitution. The NLD won the 2015 election, the country’s first free and fair election participated by multiple parties, and formed the government.
  • Aung San Suu Kyi came to power as state councilor in 2016 and her ascension to leadership was seen as a critical moment in the transition of Myanmar to democracy from military dictatorship.
What led to military Coup in 2021?
  • In 2017, Army launched a brutal crackdown on Rohingya in Rakhine State in the name of fighting terrorism, which forced over 700,000 Rohingya Muslims to flee Myanmar to neighbouring countries, mainly Bangladesh.
  • In her first term (2015-20), Suu Kyi had tried to buy peace with the military especially on the Rohingya issue. In 2019, she represented Myanmar at a trial in the International Court of Justice, at which she defended it against accusations of ethnic cleansing.
  • The 2015 and 2020 election results showed the growing popularity of Ms. Suu Kyi and the unpopularity of the military.
  • In the general elections held in Nov 2020, Aung San Suu Kyi’s Pro-Democratic Party NLD party had a resounding victory
    • With 166 seats reserved for the military, the USDP (military’s political outfit) wanted only 167 seats to form the government and appoint the next President. Whereas the NLD needed 333 seats for an outright victory.
    • In 2020 elections, the voters gave the NLD 396 seats, while the USDP ended up with just 33.
  • In February 2021, the military (Tatmadaw) seized power from the democratically elected National League of Democracy (NLD) party.
  • Military regained power because they feared that after the resounding electoral victory in 2020 elections, Aung San Suu Kyi may move to change the Constitution that curbs the military’s powers.
  • Following the coup, Aung San Suu Kyi and several other leaders of the NLD were detained immediately and are still in detention.
How has the situation unfolded after the Military Coup in 2021?
  • With military unseating the popularly elected government, mass protests, called the ‘spring revolution’, against the military regime began.
  • Also, a parallel government — the National Unity Government (NUG) — was formed. It has an armed division known as the People’s Defence Force (PDF), which is supported and trained by several armed ethnic groups. However, they have not been able to make a dent against the junta’s repressive measures.
  • The military has arrested some 14,000 political prisoners, of which over 11,000 are still in prison. More than 2,000 civilians have been killed and thousands of houses have been burnt, rendering millions homeless.
    • Suu Kyi has been convicted on half a dozen flimsy charges in secret trials and sentenced to 11 years in prison. The military has slapped her with many other charges that could effectively keep her in prison for the rest of her life.
  • Recently, by executing four political prisoners, defying all international appeals, Myanmar’s military rulers has sent out a clear message that it has no plans for any political settlement.
  • But despite these repressive measures, the junta has not managed to establish even a semblance of order.
  • While in the past, pro-democracy activists followed non-violent means of protesting against military rulers, now they have built a violent underground movement and joined hands with the country’s ethnic rebels, who have been fighting the military junta for decades.
What led to the latest executions?
  • The repressive measures by military have failed to suppress the public hostility towards the military regime. Perhaps there is growing restlessness within the military for failing to establish control and legitimacy despite being in power since February 2021, which has led to these executions.
  • The second reason could be to boost the morale of the military under the leadership of Senior General Min Aung Hlaing. His promises of an election in two years, forming a caretaker government and declaring himself as a Prime Minister in August 2021 have failed to appease the people.
    • Some military and police officials have even joined the pro-democracy movement. The government is grappling with a resistance movement, ethnic conflicts, terror attacks and a failing economy. To gain back the internal control of military organisation, these executions were carried sending a message that dissenters will not be tolerated.
  • Third, perhaps the regime sees the global focus on Ukraine (and Sri Lanka) as an opportunity to carry out something in its own backyard.
Will the executions reduce hostility or lead to a flare up?
  • The opposition is likely to increase. Calling the executions unforgivable, the Deputy Foreign Minister of the National Unity Government said: “ The executions have made us more determined to topple the regime.” Both the activists were youth icons and prominent leaders of the pro-democracy movement.
  • If Aung San Suu Kyi’s freedom is a hope that helps the pro-democracy movement to sustain, these executions will act as a catalyst. In the coming days, the junta might face probable retribution.
  • Will the executions impact the ethnic conflict between the groups? Unlikely. The equation between the ethnic groups and the junta is likely to remain unstable; however, the equation between the ethnic groups is less likely to be impacted because of the executions.
Is the international response adequate?
  • The execution has been condemned by individual countries and international organisations.
  • Regionally, the strongest voice has been from Cambodia, the chair of the Association of Southeast Asian Nations (ASEAN), of which Myanmar is a member.
    • He had requested the Myanmar military ‘to reconsider” and “refrain” from such action as it was causing “great concern among the ASEAN members and its external partners.”
  • Neither these condemnations nor the earlier sanctions levied by countries and organisations, including the U.S., Canada, Australia, the U.K., the European Union and others, have made an impact on the regime.
  • Successive military regimes have resisted external pressure — both from within the region and the rest of the world.
  • Besides, there is support for the regime from its allies. Russia has strongly supported the junta since the coup. The friendship has been well displayed by political and economic collaborations.
  • China, the military’s oldest ally, was one of the first to give it de facto recognition after the coup.
    • China has a high stake in Myanmar due to its infrastructural projects and investments. It also wishes to avoid conflict within its borders.
  • Among ASEAN members, Thailand’s proximity to the junta is a known fact.
  • While there are regional and international sanctions on the regime, there is also support from crucial actors. The latter sustains the regime against the former.
What are the implication of Military coup for India?
  • Erodes Progress made in last decade: The quasi-democratic experiment that Myanmar had started a decade back has now been aborted. India was champion of Democracy in Myanmar and had provided guidance in its Democratic transition.
  • Rise of China: The growing international isolation of Myanmar government led by the Army could once again push the country into dependence on China. During its earlier stint from 1962-2011 (military rule), China & military government had a full-fledged working relationship.
    • On the other hand, India who was supportive of Pro-Democratic faction took an ideological stance which had caused restraints in its working relationship with ruling military government (however, this started to slowly change in post-liberalisation era where economic factors were the driving force for any bilateral relationship-
  • Obstacles in Foreign Policy Agenda: Recent developments in Myanmar pose a serious policy challenge to India. Instability in Myanmar hurts India interests, where a stable Myanmar is an important element for the success of India’s ‘Neighbourhood First’, ‘Act East’, and ‘Indo-Pacific’ policies
  • Delayed Connectivity Projects: Peace in Chin and Rakhine states of Myanmar is essential for the completion of the Kaladan Multimodal Transit Transport Project and the Trilateral Highway project. The political instability slows down these connectivity projects further delaying the sub-regional integration
  • Border & Regional Security: The political instability in the post-coup period is expected to divert the attention of the Myanmar Army from its periphery and its borders. This may create tensions at border areas in India (refugees, insurgents, illegal movements)
  • Refugee Issue: The refugee influx from Myanmar to Manipur and Mizoram (due to common ethnic links and family ties) is a matter of concern for India due to Political instability in Myanmar
What has been India’s stance?
  • India expressed its concerns that the democratic gains made by Myanmar over the previous decades should not be undermined.
  • India reiterated its “support to the process of democratic transition” and assured that India’s developmental and humanitarian efforts in Myanmar aimed at the socio-economic development of the country will continue.
  • India’s envoy to UN told to UNHRC that the rule of law and democratic processes in Myanmar must be upheld and the detained political leaders released

Mains Practice Question –What lessons can be learnt from the recent political upheaval in Myanmar?

Note: Write answers to this question in the comment section.


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