Becoming Myanmar – does this sound familiar?
By Basil Fernando
The recent coup in Myanmar has created an interest in looking into the impact of military rule that began with the 1962 coup and continued up to 2011.
Burma (now Myanmar) was a British colony with a style of British administration and gained independence around the same time as India and Sri Lanka. Prior to independence, a leadership emerged from among the freedom fighters of Myanmar who were preparing to be the new rulers of the country. The acknowledged leader was General Aung San. However, Aung San and his colleagues of his who were tipped to be the Cabinet of Ministers were all assassinated while they were having a meeting.
Thus at the beginning of the independence there was a vacuum of leadership. After few years of independence, the first coup was attempted and lasted for a short time. Thereafter there was a brief period of democratic government, which was overthrown by a coup led by General Ne Win in 1962.
The entire system of governance changed with the replacement of the norms of liberal democracy and the rule of law with any orders issued by General Ne Win.
The structure of public institutions changed and the administration was entirely controlled by the military. During the colonial period, the Burmese has developed a sophisticated civil service structure. Within this structure able leaders have emerged. After the coup, many of them left Burma. They held senior positions in international organizations as well as in the administrations of other countries. Among them was U-Thant who became the Secretary General of the United Nations. There were many Indian civil servants who had migrated and assimilated into the Burmese society. The military regime expelled most of them.
The result was that the administration was conducted through the military officers chosen by General Ne Win. Unlike at the time of the colonial rule, there was no legal order that the military was bound to follow, which meant that the rule of law was completely replaced. As a scholar has put it, “the rule of law was replaced by un-rule of law”. This meant that all the guarantees of fairness that were inbuilt into the rule of law philosophy were discarded and in their place the rules of preserving the military regime were installed.
The electoral system that was to be the means by which representatives were to be selected to govern the country was discontinued. Instead the leader of the military, with those who he chose personally to hold senior positions, ruled over the country.
The system of the administration of justice established during the colonial period was replaced. The independence of judiciary was discarded and the defence of the military regime became the main task assigned to the judiciary. The complete executive control of the judiciary happened over a period of time and the tradition of the independence of judiciary established in the earlier period was discarded. Various types of theories were developed to justify this change. This went on to such an extent that even after the end of direct military rule in 2011, the courts read judgements that were dictated to them by the executive. There are instances where the judges, before reading such judgements, apologized to the litigants stating that he was merely handing down the judgement that was given to him from above.
The policing system was changed completely by displacing all the rules that were introduced to protect personal freedom by preventing illegal arrests and detentions. Large numbers of people were arrested and imprisoned for long periods of time for any activities trying to promote democracy and rule of law, which were seen as subversive and for which it was possible to imprison people for indefinite periods of time.
The marked feature of the military period was the acquisition of public property for private purposes by military leaders. Myanmar is a country with many natural resources and these resources were plundered by the military for their use. The process that was started by General Ne Win acquiring enormous wealth for his personal gain was followed by his closest colleagues. Then it spread to the rank and file of the military.
Military officers started acquiring land in different areas. As a result, people fled to unclaimed forests where they cleared land and began to cultivate it. But when harvesting time came, military officers would come to grab what they produced so there was increase of poverty and even the instances of starvation. In short, Myanmar became a place controlled entirely by the military where neither personal freedoms nor the right to personal properties were respected or protected.
There were protracted armed struggles led by minority groups. The military approach to these conflicts was not to seek political solutions but to engage in armed confrontations, resulting in long periods of conflict that the military used to justify its own arbitrary powers not only to control the minorities but also to control the entire population.
Gradually Myanmar became a mafia state. The large scale production of illegal drugs such as heroin became industries controlled by the military. Every kind of illegal activity was allowed for those who had the patronage of the military leaders.
During the military regime, Myanmar came under severe international condemnation and there were impositions of sanctions. It was a bankrupt state with which other countries did not want to engage in normal business transactions. Burmese currency was worthless and devaluations took place constantly. This affected international and internal trade as well as the living conditions of the people.
Myanmar became one of the most corrupt states in the world, leading to an exodus of people to other countries such as Thailand where they lived as illegal migrants working in slave conditions.
It was all this that led to the people’s struggle against the military that climaxed in an uprising in 1988 and a demand for rapid transfer to democracy. However, that too, was a protracted struggle. Aung San Suu Kyi, the present leader of the National League Democracy (NLD), was kept under house arrest for several years and many political prisoners spent years in prisons because of their support for the democracy movement.
For the first time, a democratic government was elected in 2015. However, the actual control of governance as well as the economy was still in the hands of the military. It was a difficult compromise for the newly elected democratic government. Due to the long period of the military rule and the complete destruction of the infrastructure of democracy, the process of democratization was a slow one which had to be done within a framework where the military was still controlling most aspects of life.
Despite a lacklustre performance by the first democratic government, the people re-elected the NDL with a larger mandate in November 2020, where the party won 83% of the votes. That showed the level of disgust among the people about the manner in which the military had destroyed their country.
However, the military perceived such a massive victory with an overwhelming mandate as a threat to the continuity of military control over the affairs of Myanmar; with such an overwhelming mandate it was possible for the NLD to pass stronger legislation to strengthen democratic institutions and to strengthen the economy. National resources being reclaimed from the military would have benefitted the nation as a whole.
In Sri Lanka, the process of attacking democratic institutions and the rule of law took place without a military coup. The 1972 and 1978 Constitutions introduced the idea of a semi-dictatorship. The 1978 Constitution gave all power to a single person by creating the position of executive presidency.
Major changes from 1978 up to now have affected Sri Lanka to a great extent in the same way that military rule affected Myanmar. The acquisition of national properties for private use has become a major threat to the Sri Lankan economy. The mismanagement the economy has made Sri Lanka one of the most indebted nations in the world. In the area of the protection of civil liberties, there have been heavy losses and the constitutional protection of rights has been undermined severely by the use of various types of draconian national security laws. The use of enforced disappearances since 1978 has weakened the criminal justice process. The arrest, detention, torture and killings followed by disposal of bodies is what is meant by enforced disappearances.
In one aspect, Sri Lanka’s experience in extra-judicial killings by various means such as enforced disappearances is much worse than in Myanmar where though imprisonments were more, killings after arrest were less.
In Sri Lanka, after the election of the new president and the government, the military is directly running public affairs. If this process of militarization continues and if the basic concept of semi-dictatorship as introduced through the 1972 and 1978 Constitution is not replaced, the country will acquire the same problems experienced by the people of Myanmar, which has acquired the reputation of being a pariah state in the international community from the point of view of economic as well as political relationships. If Sri Lanka continues in its present path, it cannot avoid falling into the same trap.
Both in Myanmar and Sri Lanka, the State is dysfunctional and is incapable of carrying out the normal functions of governance. In Myanmar people are decisively intervening to restore democracy and the military coup is an attempt to counteract and stop the process of restoring a functional governance that is responsible to the people.
-This article was originally featured on groundviews.org