Democracy shut down in Myanmar

Some pundits labelled the events in Washington four weeks ago an “attempted coup”. I think the proper term is “insurrection”. What Donald Trump had been attempting over the previous two months of efforts to overturn the election result was more in the nature of a coup attempt – perhaps a “soft coup”. The abject failure of those efforts led him to incite his supporters to insurrection.

But now in Myanmar we have an actual, unequivocal, even archetypical coup. The military has arrested the government, shut down parliament and seized power: it doesn’t get more coup than that.

Yet perhaps due to confusion over the Trump fracas, the media have been rather coy about describing what happened. The Conversation yesterday, for example, reported that “the military’s actions have severely undermined Myanmar’s fragile democracy.” Well, no: when the generals explicitly take over, you don’t have a fragile democracy, you have no democracy at all.

And while western leaders have condemned the takeover (one wonders whether Trump would have done so!), the protests seem a bit muted. Aung San Suu Kyi, now apparently back under house arrest, is no longer the hero in the west that she once was, primarily due to her complicity in the military’s genocidal campaign in recent years against the Muslim Rohingya in Myanmar’s west.

The army’s persecution of the Rohingya now looks like a political masterstroke. By locking in Suu Kyi behind it – whether because she’s a genuine Burmese chauvinist or because she felt she had no choice is pretty much immaterial – it has deprived her and her government of crucial international support.

Most probably, the people of Myanmar will have to fight for democracy on their own, as they have done in the past. We already know what government they want: in last year’s election, Suu Kyi’s National League for Democracy not only retained but improved on the majority it won in 2015, which was already regarded as an almighty landslide. Military-backed candidates lost further ground.

But the military argued, without presenting any evidence, that the election was fraudulent. The electoral commission and other observers said that the claim was unfounded, but the men with guns were not going to take no for an answer.

And that brings us back to Trump. Most coups that overthrow elected governments have to claim that the politicians have abused the people’s trust or somehow forfeited their right to govern. But that’s hard to argue against a government that’s just been elected. Instead they had to claim fraud.

Perhaps they would have done so just as brazenly even if Trump had not handed them a precedent. But we mustn’t forget that this is exactly what Trump had tried to do in the world’s most powerful democracy – overturn a democratic election, by force if need be, on the basis of fabricated allegations. We owe it only to the professionalism of American officials, most especially in the military, that he did not succeed.

Its representatives may often be unworthy, but democracy needs to be defended against all comers. We need to stand firm in solidarity with the people of Myanmar: all the more so because we have learned that their predicament could easily be ours.

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