Recent developments in Myanmar have three big lessons for supporters of democracy worldwide. First, liaisons between military generals and champions of democracy can lead to disastrous consequences. Two, there is no such thing as a ‘half democracy’. Democracies must not allow army to fiddle with institutions, and elected governments and military can coexist only when boundaries are clearly drawn and respected. Third and most important, the cause of democracy must not be allowed to weaken just because a champion of democracy made compromises to stay in power.
There is no doubt that 75-year-old Aung San Suu Kyi, a product of liberal institutions — Oxford and Lady Sri Ram College in Delhi where her mother was posted as a diplomat — disappointed the international community by defending actions of her country’s army that brutally raped, maimed and killed thousands of Rohingya Muslims. Hundreds of thousands of minority Rohingya were force to flee following a military crackdown in 2017. Suu Kyi defended the military action at International Court of Justice (ICJ) where Myanmar’s Junta is facing charges of genocide.
To international supporters, Suu Kyi’s actions were baffling as she was known to invoke Martin Luther King and Mahatma Gandhi while she fought her own battles against the generals in seeking free elections in her earlier avatar as the defender of democracy. During the decade and a half she spent in custody from 1989 to 2010, Suu Kyi, a winner of Nobel Peace Prize in 1991, became a global symbol of peaceful resistance. After winning elections in 2015, Myanmar saw the first installation of a civilian government in 50 years, an outcome of her decades of non-violent struggle.
It is clear that despite Suu Kyi’s support of Junta’s actions, the military generals never fully accepted her party’s landslide election victory in 2015 and 2020. The military coup on February 1 is a proof of the fragile nature of democracy in this Asian nation. Since the military coup and Suu Kyi’s subsequent detention on flimsy charges of keeping wireless radio equipment, thousands of pro-democracy activists are staging protests in New Delhi, Seoul and Bangkok. The Junta has reacted by banning Facebook and arresting protesters.
Despite the failings of Suu Kyi, international community must support pro-democracy voices in Myanmar. Toppling of an elected government, even if it was symbolically led by a person of doubtful integrity, must not be condoned. Voices of democracy must be strengthened in Myanmar so that they are able to hold the Junta accountable and seek answers from Suu Kyi for her record on Rohingya issue.