Myanmar and the Worldwide Collapse of Democracy

With a pandemic ravaging the world and the global economy still in disarray, Western media outlets have largely ignored one of the most pressing international political issues: the military coup in Myanmar. The military junta of Myanmar has ousted and imprisoned the democratically-elected leader Aung Saan Suu Kyi, slaughtered hundreds of civilian protesters, and imposed draconian restrictions to personal freedoms –  all the while celebrating with luxurious parties. Myanmar’s descent into military rule represents a greater global shift into anti-democratic governance amid the death, economic collapse, and rising nationalism promoted by the global pandemic. 

The situation in Myanmar is inexpressible; one cannot accurately convey the horrors of the coup. Democratically-elected president Aung San Suu Kyi and members of her National League for Democracy Party have been ousted and arrested, replaced by the military government that had ruled the nation until San Suu Kyi’s election in 2016. Reports have offered that over 500 protestors have been slaughtered by the military regime, as the military has created “combat zones of residential areas.” Air raids have targeted hospitals and medical centers; currently, neighboring country Thailand is accepting political refugees of regime violence. Perhaps the best image of this horrendous shift to authoritarianism is a video by Physical Education teacher Khing Hnin Wai, performing exercises for her students as armored military vehicles pass by in their coup of the government. The situation in Myanmar has drawn criticism and sanctions from the Western world, still, perhaps stated best by UN Special Rapporteur Thomas H. Andrews, “words of condemnation or concern are, frankly, ringing hollow to the people of Myanmar while the military junta commits mass murder against them.” Limited sanctions and various criticisms will not subvert the military government in Myanmar.  

Additionally, it would be remiss to ignore the irony of US criticisms of Myanmar’s military coup. Though certainly on a lesser scale, the armed insurgency at the US Capitol on January 6 reflects the same anti-democratic sentiments present within the Myanmar military coup. It is also difficult to ignore the irony of the US-issued joint statement “a professional military follows international standards for conduct and is responsible for protecting – not harming – the people it serves,” seeing that the National Guard descended on Black Lives Matter protesters this past summer. Per usual, the American government’s assumption of moral superiority has ignored the same anti-democratic forces and nationalism crippling their own nation. Theories of a stolen election and municipal and state legislation serving as voter suppression mechanisms have cascaded authoritarianism to the center of US politics. A Politico poll cites that “70 percent of Republicans… do not believe the election was free and fair,” an objectively false opinion that demonstrates the distaste for the democratic system in the United States. 

 A simple historical trend offers the erosion of faith in democratic institutions following global economic collapse. Of course, the most relevant example is the rise of fascism within Western European and East Asian countries following the Great Depression, culminating in the horrific ideology of Nazism and the Second World War. Nonetheless, to cite more recent examples, after the 2008 ‘Great Recession,’ Honduras underwent a coup d’etat; Niger President Tanja dissolved the nation’s National Assembly – the legislative body – and assumed emergency powers. Although the rise of authoritarianism following the 2008 recession is more tenuous than the rise of fascists Mussolini, Hitler, and Hirohito in the 1930s after the Great Depression, the same consequences always prevail after an economic downturn. Similar anti-democratic results have occurred yet again after the recent financial collapse. 

 Yet, the military takeover of Myanmar and the Capitol insurrection in the United States represent well-documented facets of the erosion of democratic systems: this phenomenon is global.  To ignore the rise of authoritarianism and civilian cruelties in Myanmar is to ignore the anti-democratic tendencies worldwide. A report by the Freedom House offers that the “condition of democracy and human rights has deteriorated in 80 countries around the world,” including the various Western nations of France, the Netherlands, and Greece. Belarus underwent a completely illegitimate election allowing Alexander Lukashenko to remain in power and the pandemic has only exacerbated the descent into autocratic rule in Poland – a nation now lacking classification as a democracy.

Yet, too much attention has always been given to Western states and democracies. In South America, Argentinian President Alberto Fernandez’s strong populist support has allowed for constant efforts to undermine the democratic process by using emergency powers. Statistics from the Afrobarometer show the South African population now believes there is currently “less freedom to join political organizations” and “less freedom of opposition to function” than existed pre-pandemic. China has utilized the pandemic to embrace a system of mainland nationalism and has quelled pro-democracy protesters in Hong Kong. Democracy’s hold is deteriorating across the Americas, Asia, Europe, and Africa.

Myanmar represents the worst of the rising authoritarianism and global movement away from democracy. More is needed to prevent the collapse of the worldwide democratic systems than condemning statements and economic sanctions from international powers. The United Nations, world powers, and democratic activists within Myanmar must act decisively to ensure that the situation is resolved. Otherwise, Myanmar will not function as an outlier but the norm for anti-democratic regimes amidst the pandemic’s economic downturn.        

The situation in Myanmar can and must be solved. Thomas Andrews has urged UN states to “deny recognition of the military junta as the legitimate government representing the people of Myanmar.” And although China and Russia have served as obstacles to the situation, preventing the UN from condemning the junta’s coup, decisive action by the Biden administration may be able to cripple the finances and resources of the military. Various policy recommendations have been to force banks to freeze military accounts, target Myanmar exports, and prevent transnational corporations from paying remittances to the government. Unfortunately, even if the forces of democracy in Myanmar prevail, Myanmar will only represent one fixed, isolated incident within the global structure of collapsing democracy. It is the historical trend of authoritarianism and nationalism during the economic downturn that must be redressed. 

It is impossible to predict when faith in a democratic system will prevail, but everyone must be conscious of the destruction of worldwide democratic institutions at the current moment. Evidence suggests that economic recovery and a return to normalcy will resituate faith in democratic foundations; however, the global economy has not entirely recovered, and COVID-19 deaths continue. Until these conditions are satisfied, efforts must be made to prevent spurs of fascism, authoritarianism, and nationalism from dominating global governance: the atrocities in Myanmar must not become commonplace worldwide. Albert Einstein best stated, amidst the rising tides of Nazism after the Great Depression: “nationalism is an infantile disease. It is the measles of mankind.”