The world must get behind Burmese protesters fighting against military rule.
There is no need to pretend that Myanmar’s short-lived democracy was perfect or full before the rapacious military snuffed it out. But for all its serious shortcomings and limitations, the civilian government was the choice of a majority of the country’s people and offered the only hope for the future. The people who have courageously taken to the streets to get the generals off their backs deserve the world’s wholehearted support.
Why the military chose to take back full power on Feb. 1, after ceding some of it to civilian authorities for a decade, is not hard to deduce. In elections on Nov. 8, the National League for Democracy, led by Daw Aung San Suu Kyi, won by a landslide. Though that did not threaten the military’s reserved seats in the Parliament or the key ministries it controls, it was more than the generals could stomach — especially as the senior general, Min Aung Hlaing, was due to retire soon and would have needed the assent of the civilian leaders to stay on.
So before the new Parliament was to hold its first session, the military declared that it “finds the process of the 2020 election unacceptable” — an unintentionally honest explanation — and staged a pre-dawn coup. Ms. Aung San Suu Kyi, the de facto leader of the civilian government who previously spent almost 15 years under house arrest, along with other leaders of the N.L.D. were arrested, and a State Administration Council headed by Senior Gen. Min Aung Hlaing declared itself in charge.
Underscoring the cynicism of the coup, the generals charged Ms. Aung San Suu Kyi under an obscure import law for buying foreign walkie-talkies. The state president, Win Myint, was charged with violating pandemic rules against large gatherings.
What the generals may not have anticipated was the fury of the people, and the fearlessness of a new generation of protesters inspired by civil disobedience movements in Hong Kong and Thailand. Hundreds of thousands of people have marched in the streets or have walked off their jobs in the days since the coup. Youthful protesters have imbued the resistance with an almost carnival atmosphere, most notably by projecting on the sides of buildings defiant images of a dove of peace, the three-finger salute of “The Hunger Games” and the smiling face of Ms. Aung San Suu Kyi. General Min Aung Hlaing’s face, by contrast, has been routinely defaced on posters and online. A hacked state news media website began flashing the message, “We want democracy! Reject military coup! Justice for Myanmar!”
There is, of course, a dark side to this story. No similar mass protests were mounted against the military’s brutal hounding of the Rohingya minority, forcing many to flee to neighboring Bangladesh, or against the exclusion of many ethnic minorities from participating in the general election. The international moral standing of Ms. Aung San Suu Kyi, once a hero of democracy and human rights, was badly tarnished when she failed to publicly protect the Rohingya Muslims and defended their treatment by the military before the International Court of Justice. She has also been criticized for being intolerant of critics and blocking the rise of a new generation of leaders.
But this month’s military coup also showed how tenuous Ms. Aung San Suu Kyi’s authority was under a powerful military caste that, as has been made clear now, was never prepared to truly share power. What she might have done had she wielded independent power cannot be known, but Myanmar’s chances of shaping an equitable coexistence of its many minorities have to be far stronger under a democratic, fully civilian government than under an illegitimate military junta. However compromised her reputation in the world, to many Burmese Ms. Aung San Suu Kyi, daughter of the founding father of modern Myanmar, remains the face of opposition to the dictatorship of the generals.
The reaction from Washington was refreshingly swift and stern in condemning the coup, compared to the coddling of strongmen and disinterest in human rights during the Trump administration. President Biden’s team announced he was imposing sanctions on the generals, preventing them from accessing $1 billion of funds kept by their government in America. Predictably, China and Russia have already made clear that they will block any attempt to take action through the United Nations Security Council.
What is happening in Myanmar is not about one woman, nor even about the myriad complex problems the country faces. It is about an election that was stolen by men in embroidered epaulets with a history of treating the country as a personal fief. The Burmese in their millions have bravely demonstrated that they do not want to be ruled by a corrupt, arbitrary, abusive and incompetent military. In this, they deserve the world’s full support.