Guest Column

Myanmar’s Current Tragedy Will Have Dire and Continuing Consequences

By David I. Steinberg 27 January 2022

Anniversaries, even those associated with marriages or unions, can be profoundly sad. And what has happened in Myanmar was not a marriage. Consent was not involved. Rather, rape may be the most appropriate metaphor. No one, including the Myanmar military, would call the coup of 1 February 2021 an auspicious occasion. But the first anniversary of the violent dyadic relationship, forced as it was between the military and the diverse civilian elements of the population, is akin to rape. Such relationships result from the actions of internal actors. However one defines it and whatever its motivation, it destabilizes the country and is a connection that must evolve and endure if what we know as the state of Myanmar is to continue to exist. The bloody origins of this forced relationship will be remembered and will influence whatever develops. The current tragedy of Myanmar will have continuing and dire consequences, 

In the West, the traditional anniversary wedding present for the first year is paper, perhaps because that is the least expensive of presents, the values of which grow to silver and gold and diamonds as the years progress. Perhaps this custom resulted because the first year may be the most tentative of all future years in a normal marriage, in which continuity is often questionable. In this case, this present cannot be given to the Myanmar people by those abroad, those who cannot control internal dynamics. Rather, it is an internal mutual present that the diverse elements of the population must provide each other.

In Myanmar, this paper present is potentially the most valuable of any gift, and also the most elusive. Gold, silver, oil, gas, rubies, jade, and other extractive elements have more intrinsic immediate value, but paper is the ultimate present. That paper is a constitution under which the State can unite in some form acceptable to the diverse peoples of the Republic of the Union of Myanmar. 

Three constitutions have been issued and enacted. All of them failed to satisfy critical elements of the population on important issues of power, distribution of assets, and the protection of rights. The result has been continuing and expanding rebellions and insurgencies, crime, and now urban warfare. The 1947 constitution was supposed to be federal in nature. It was not; it exacerbated ethnic and political rebellions. The 1974 constitution of the Burma Socialist Programme Party was based on a single-party political and socialist economic system based on an Eastern European communist model that was unsuited to the then Burma. The military-authored 2008 constitution ensured the primacy of that element of the population. All three constitutions did not deal adequately with the demands of many of the ethnic peoples for localized power and access to resources, and civil rights were variously constricted.

The National Unity Government has denounced the 2008 constitution, and the junta has labelled its members “treasonous”. All bridges have been burned, and the future path is without maps. There is thus a tendency to look to foreign models. The Myanmar military may try to emulate the Thai military, but they lack a monarch of whatever capacity around whom to rally. The civilians and some ethnic groups look to varied Western models, which may lack relevance to the needs of the country and local aspirations.

The level of mistrust is pervasive and consistent, both on personal and institutional levels. There is yet no indication that compromise is possible. 

The military regime has indicated that it plans to return to normal governance after two years (originally they indicated one year) and after elections. But elections require one of two conditions: either a system of rules on how such elections will be held, and the resulting structure of governance, or that the elections will be for those who would write such rules. In other words, a constitution. The last two of Myanmar’s constitutions were approved by fraudulent referenda. The 1990 election results, swept by the National League for Democracy, were ignored by the then junta, but even what that election was for, a government or a constitutional convention, was disputed.

Alas, any of the likely scenarios would not produce a product acceptable to major elements of the country. The legitimacy of any ensuing election or government would thus be widely questioned. The prognosis is thus for continuing violence. And no foreign state, no matter how much regional power it may hold, could impose a system on the country that would ensure stability and would be acceptable in that highly nationalistic environment.

We are close to the diamond anniversary (60 years) of another event in Myanmar’s history: the 1962 coup that ushered in a half century of military rule. Celebrating either anniversary would be to validate repression, but ignoring their dire importance would be to underestimate their historical, and detrimental, relevance.  

Starting anew, an anniversary, a year, a new endeavor, with a sense of hope is almost a required ritual in most societies. Yet at this exceptional time in Myanmar, it is necessarily absent. And it will be the diverse peoples of that country who will suffer.

David I. Steinberg is distinguished professor of Asian Studies emeritus, Georgetown University

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