On the Burma coup


On February 1, the military of Burma took power in a coup d’état against the civilian government of Aung San Suu Kyi. Immediately, the international reaction poured in, with many Western countries, all allies, condemning the coup. The White House, for one, issued a statement that “the United States is alarmed by reports that the Burmese military has taken steps to undermine the country’s democratic transition.” The truth of the matter is, however, that there was no such “democratic transition” occurring in Burma at all.

While the military coup should be rightly condemned, and while we should have no sympathy for the Burmese military, the truth is, as in the case of Thailand, that the military has always been in power. While allowing elections to take place in 2015, and allowing a civilian government to develop, this development was mostly for the sake of appearance, with the military not only retaining one-fourths of the seats in parliament, but also control over its operations and heavy influence over the executive branch. So, this “coup” does little more than allow appearances to once again match reality, as the Burmese military formally reasserts control of the country. Perhaps more important here, however, is questioning if things would really be all that different if the civilian government actually did have power.

One result of this military coup is it frames Aung San Suu Kyi and her administration as the martyrs in this operation, and the narrative becomes framed around their successful return to power as the goal. Protests outside the Burmese Embassy in Thailand included people holding framed photos of Suu Kyi, advocating her return to power. However, heroizing Suu Kyi is an inherently fraught gesture, and one that the international community has already partook in.

Of course, before “coming to power” Suu Kyi was awarded the Nobel Peace Prize for her supposed “struggle for democracy.” However, Carlos Sardiña Galache, in his phenomenal text The Burmese Labyrinth, notes that, even when campaigning, Suu Kyi and her political party never spoke of a concrete political program, or advocated for any set of policies. All in all, Suu Kyi’s speeches consisted of empty platitudes about supporting democracy. There were even signs before Suu Kyi was elected that members of her party were quite reactionary when it came to the “Rohingya question.”

Once Suu Kyi was elected, it became clear that she did not have real power, and was now simply in collusion with the very military that she had verbally lambasted for decades. This was the inevitable conclusion, since the military had willingly allowed this civilian administration to form, and they had no reason to willingly give up power. Suu Kyi merely became that civilian face, “democratically” legitimizing the actions of the military. But it is also unclear that Suu Kyi even wants anything different. Perhaps most notably, when the military began and continued its genocide against the Rohingya, Suu Kyi was quiet on the entire issue. She even trafficked in far-right conspiracy theories herself that the Rohingya were not actually Burmese but in fact recent immigrants from Bangladesh. This conspiracy theory has been used by elements of Buddhist nationalists to rhetorically buttress the genocide against the Muslim minority, and Suu Kyi was repeating this very same talking point, hence why defending Suu Kyi is so dangerous.

The Burmese military should not be in power in Burma. They are the ones who began the genocide against the Rohingya. However, that does not mean that Suu Kyi should be in power either. It is not clear that if this was the case, that the situation of the Rohingya would drastically improve. Against the right-wing, Buddhist nationalist military actively carrying out a genocide, and the tepid, “pro-democracy” yet also Buddhist nationalist centrists, there must be a third way.

It is clear that “democracy” for Burma only means the continued annihilation of the Rohingya, so perhaps the only true option is a step beyond democracy, not backwards into the military regime again, but a form that transcends democracy, that can finally bring an end to the genocide of the Rohingya through engendering a collectivity that exceeds ethnic affiliation, and the nation itself.