Myanmar experienced a coup early this week under the guise of protecting free and fair elections. It concerns and saddens me for a variety of reasons.
A week ago, preliminary reports emerged that a military takeover may be underway in the country of Myanmar (colonially known as Burma.) Unfortunately, the worst came to light, and the armed forces detained civilian leaders in a blow to democratic reforms that had reopened the country less than a decade ago.
The Myanmar military discredited parliamentary elections. Nobel Peace Prize winner, Aung San Suu Kyi’s party won the election. This isn’t the first election Kyi has won. She was State Counsellor of Myanmar (effectively Prime Minister) from 2016 until she was deposed last week. Her pro-democracy NLD party also won in 1990 by a landslide though military rule remained in power.
She spent decades under house arrest until the 2010s when a civilian government was finally put in power.
The international community has been outraged. The UN Security Council met and the Secretary-General had this to say,
“The U.N. chief told a news conference it is “absolutely essential” to carry out the Security Council’s calls for a return to democracy, respect for the results of the November parliamentary elections, and release of all people detained by the military, “which means the reversal of the coup that took place.” – The Hindu
President Obama was incredibly supportive of Kyi during his administration. President Joe Biden has responded with strong support as well:
“The United States removed sanctions on Burma over the past decade based on progress toward democracy,” Biden said in a statement. “The reversal of that progress will necessitate an immediate review of our sanction laws and authorities, followed by appropriate action. The United States will stand up for democracy wherever it is under attack.” – AP
The US Commander-In-Chief didn’t suggest military action by the United States but didn’t close the door either. The military of Myanmar who took control of the city of Yangon stated they will remain in power for one year, though these timelines don’t often remain firm.
I found that this comes at a precarious time. Let me lay out the scenario in another light. Free and fair election results are questioned, rumblings of a coup take hold before key events, elected officials are detained, the military places itself in charge for one year on the basis that fraudulent election results weren’t thoroughly investigated.
Some on the right and the left in the United States referred to the January 6th, 2021 Capitol events as an attempted coup. I’m not here to debate that, but I think it does make it very difficult for the US to take any type of leadership role in important global matters like this.
I also think that this points out to those that suggested it was an attempted coup, that in truth coups are much different than what happened that day. Many on the right felt the military should have stepped in for what they thought was a “stolen election.” They clearly had never seen what that would really look like.
My wife and I have visited and lived in Thailand during military juntas as well as clashes between the “red shirts” and the “yellow shirts.” On the night of our return to England (where we lived at the time), we heard the clap of gunfire in the distance and saw smoke rising from burning tire barricades throughout Bangkok. We passed through police checkpoints just to get to the airport.
That’s a long way from what happened in January, and thankfully so.
Matthew touched on his own trip in 2013 that was closely related to mine. I’ve linked his so please read up on his experience, but I also want to share my own personal connection.
I began writing this very blog in 2012 when my wife and I were living in Thailand and secured a trip home to the United States. We boldly booked one-way tickets to Thailand as part of a year-long sabbatical and had no prior route home to the US.
A mistake fare due to currency exchange issues allowed bookings on a number of airlines in premium cabins for approximately 90-95% off. The particular deal we purchased originated in Yangon, Myanmar (Rangoon – RGN) and took us back to Bangkok, Thailand, then Seoul, South Korea, before ending in Los Angeles, California for about $400 total in business class.
To begin our trip, we needed to first position ourselves in Yangon. We arrived just three days after Coca-Cola returned to the country after a 25-year retreat. There were no ATMs in the city. We arrived with just $40USD in cash (because we couldn’t imagine an inability to secure more funds), and for our short 48-hour stay, that was nearly sufficient.
Unbeknownst to us, Anthony Bourdain had just visited the country days before to shoot the opening episode of his final series, Parts Unknown. If you haven’t seen it, sign up to Hulu or HBO Max and watch it.
What made Yangon so great in that window of time was its innocence, perhaps not from the military, but from the people. It was Asia pre-Starbucks, pre-McDonalds, pre-Coca-Cola. It was a rare view into what Asia might have been like without western influence.
And the people were so very sweet, so glad to have visitors there to experience Burmese culture. Crumbling buildings and a lack of modern technology (we had to take a taxi to find someone with internet) were welcome. Paper airplane tickets and little care for what was happening outside of their immediate street let alone across borders was so raw and refreshing.
It wasn’t ready then for mass consumption, but that made it even better. It was a challenge in a region where challenges had faded away. Myanmar was, for us, a renewed sense of wonder, exploration, and subtle beauty.
The people of Myanmar were saddled under military rule for long enough. Their economy, penalized by the US and other nations around the world withheld her people from progress, keeping the nation inn poverty. This coup isn’t just a foreign affairs matter, it’s a humanitarian crisis.
The beautiful country of Myanmar fought long and hard for her independence and freedom, and it should be defended by others now against those who threaten it. I long for an end to this crisis and my own return to that wonderful country.
What do you think? Should the US step up its rhetoric and action to encourage a return to democracy? Can the US play a role at all in Myanmar’s future?