Myanmar’s Tumultuous Year

A stunning military coup in early 2021 kicked off a year of unprecedented change.

By , a senior editor at Foreign Policy.
A protester in a helmet and breathing apparatus holds a poster in front of barricades.
A protester in a helmet and breathing apparatus holds a poster in front of barricades.
A protester holds a poster featuring Senior Gen. Min Aung Hlaing during a demonstration against the military coup in Yangon, Myanmar, on March 9. STR/AFP via Getty Images

2021

On Feb. 1, Myanmar’s military orchestrated a coup, arresting civilian government leaders in the early morning hours. The takeover abruptly halted the country’s long-awaited transition to democracy, led by Nobel Peace Prize laureate Aung San Suu Kyi. Ten months later, the former state leader was sentenced to four years in prison for incitement, just the first of many charges she faces from behind bars.

A decade ago, it was easy to see Aung San Suu Kyi’s fate as symbolic of the country’s own, and Myanmar has undoubtedly suffered a year of loss. But the cracks in its experiment with democracy were beginning to show long before the coup. In 2017, the military faced accusations of genocide for its attacks against its Rohingya Muslim minority. And after the elections in November 2020, military officials issued claims of widespread electoral fraud. Aung San Suu Kyi’s National League for Democracy (NLD) party had won by a landslide.

Today, Myanmar’s political future appears bleak—certainly nothing like what many observers envisioned 10 years ago when then-U.S. Secretary of State Hillary Clinton met with Aung San Suu Kyi in Yangon, Myanmar. Under Senior Gen. Min Aung Hlaing, the military has resumed the position of power it held for decades, and outsiders, including China, are betting on it consolidating its control. It has cracked down on a robust anti-coup protest movement with extreme violence. This month, the United States imposed human rights-related sanctions on people and entities with ties to the military regime.

On Feb. 1, Myanmar’s military orchestrated a coup, arresting civilian government leaders in the early morning hours. The takeover abruptly halted the country’s long-awaited transition to democracy, led by Nobel Peace Prize laureate Aung San Suu Kyi. Ten months later, the former state leader was sentenced to four years in prison for incitement, just the first of many charges she faces from behind bars.

A decade ago, it was easy to see Aung San Suu Kyi’s fate as symbolic of the country’s own, and Myanmar has undoubtedly suffered a year of loss. But the cracks in its experiment with democracy were beginning to show long before the coup. In 2017, the military faced accusations of genocide for its attacks against its Rohingya Muslim minority. And after the elections in November 2020, military officials issued claims of widespread electoral fraud. Aung San Suu Kyi’s National League for Democracy (NLD) party had won by a landslide.

Today, Myanmar’s political future appears bleak—certainly nothing like what many observers envisioned 10 years ago when then-U.S. Secretary of State Hillary Clinton met with Aung San Suu Kyi in Yangon, Myanmar. Under Senior Gen. Min Aung Hlaing, the military has resumed the position of power it held for decades, and outsiders, including China, are betting on it consolidating its control. It has cracked down on a robust anti-coup protest movement with extreme violence. This month, the United States imposed human rights-related sanctions on people and entities with ties to the military regime.

Meanwhile, the National Unity Government (NUG)—which formed underground and includes former NLD officials as well as representatives from minority groups—now seeks to overthrow the junta outright. It lacks significant international support, but it is taking some cues from a new generation of activists. Ultimately, the coup has inspired a new vision for democracy in Myanmar that looks very different from Aung San Suu Kyi’s.

Below are five Foreign Policy stories from 2021 that illuminate Myanmar’s year of crisis.


1. Who Lost Myanmar?

By Michael Hirsh, Feb. 2

In a piece published the day after the coup, FP’s Michael Hirsh takes a somber look at U.S. strategy in Myanmar over the last decade. Hirsh identifies the tricky challenge the coup poses to the Biden administration, which includes officials who were directly involved in Myanmar policy during former U.S. President Barack Obama’s administration.

At that time, the United States bet on Aung San Suu Kyi’s political power, as her party cruised to victory in the 2015 democratic elections. A year later, Obama pledged to ease sanctions on Myanmar, even though its path to democracy still faced significant obstacles: One-quarter of its parliamentary seats remained reserved for the military. In 2017, the military carried out its campaign against the Rohingya as Aung San Suu Kyi stood by. 

Hirsh shows that Obama playbook isn’t likely to work today, with Aung San Suu Kyi’s image in tatters and autocrats emboldened around the world. “The coup that seems to have hurled Myanmar back three decades is another grim 21st-century lesson in the difficulties of democracy and the staying power of authoritarianism—and the limitations of diplomacy in building a bridge between the two,” he writes.


2. Myanmar’s Protesters Adapt Under Siege

By Andrew Nachemson, March 10

In a dispatch from Yangon a month after the military took power, journalist Andrew Nachemson reports on a shift in Myanmar’s anti-coup movement. Pro-democracy protesters had gathered in Yangon en masse, with many civil servants walking out on strike. But by March, the junta began cracking down on activists with lethal force.

“In the early weeks, protesters of all ages joined in with flashy outfits and irreverent signs criticizing Senior Gen. Min Aung Hlaing,” he writes. “Now, the protesters—mostly in their 20s and 30s—carry metal shields, helmets, gas masks, and the occasional bulletproof vest.”

Nachemson describes how rather than retreating from the streets, protesters responded to the violence by changing their tactics to creatively slow down security forces’ movement throughout the city and evade arrest. The activists’ approach differed sharply from the one taken in the days immediately after the coup as well as with that of previous protest generations.

Months later, the protest movement hasn’t faded away, even as military violence toward activists continues. And his prediction of the junta’s “extended war of attrition” against its citizens appears to have come true.


3. Protests Unite Myanmar’s Ethnic Groups Against Common Foe

By Emily Fishbein and Kyaw Hsan Hlaing, March 29

Protesters wave ethnic flags during a demonstration against the military coup in Myanmar.
Protesters wave ethnic flags during a demonstration against the military coup in Myanmar.

Protesters wave ethnic flags during a demonstration against the military coup in Yangon, Myanmar, on Feb. 18.SAI AUNG MAIN/AFP via Getty Images

As Myanmar’s anti-coup movement developed, it became clear its political objectives would also differ from those of previous generations. Journalists Emily Fishbein and Kyaw Hsan Hlaing argue that shared trauma from the military’s crackdown on protesters shifted the Bamar ethnic majority’s views toward minority groups long persecuted by the military—and even the civilian-led government.

Ethnic minorities in Myanmar’s borderlands have long fought for autonomy. After the coup, many protesters advocated abolishing the country’s 2008 constitution and establishing a new one based on federalism, devolving power to local residents. “It doesn’t matter if we are Burmese, Kachin, Chin, or any ethnic group,” one young protester told Foreign Policy. “As long as we are living in Myanmar, we have the same rights and we need the same freedom, so federal democracy is a must.”

Months later, the battle in the borderlands continues, but some ethnic armed organizations—the groups fighting against the military for decades—have also supported the broader anti-coup movement, including offering military training to civilians. Meanwhile, the NUG has assembled a more diverse leadership structure than Aung San Suu Kyi’s government, emphasized the rights of minority groups, and proposed a federalist constitution.

Fishbein and Kyaw Hsan Hlaing show how the anti-coup movement shaped a new vision of democracy for Myanmar. “If the people of Myanmar succeed in restoring democracy, it will be with a greater sense that everyone deserves a share in it,” they write.


4. ASEAN Won’t Save Myanmar

By Oren Samet, April 23

On the eve of an Association of Southeast Asian Nations (ASEAN) meeting in April, some observers hoped the group would take a more significant role in addressing the Myanmar crisis. Political science student Oren Samet argues such hope is misplaced: ASEAN countries may have a strong interest in averting total chaos, but that doesn’t mean they are well positioned to take decisive action.

“ASEAN isn’t designed to solve problems, particularly not one as thorny as the unrest in Myanmar,” he writes. “It’s not even clear that all ASEAN leaders recognize what a profound political rupture the coup has produced.”

Samet shows how ASEAN’s consensus-based decision-making structure presents a significant obstacle to affecting positive change. Moreover, the bloc appeared to recognize junta officials rather than NUG representatives early on—itself a form of intervention. ASEAN struggled to push Myanmar’s previous military regime toward reform, and it’s not likely to have any more success with the current one.

As Cambodian Prime Minister Hun Sen—Asia’s longest-serving dictator—prepares to take over as ASEAN chair in 2022, he is already planning a visit to Myanmar to meet with state leader Min Aung Hlaing to discuss the future of the junta’s relations with the bloc. Samet’s argument does not inspire confidence that the engagement will be “constructive.”


5. China Warms Up to Myanmar’s Generals

By John Liu and Thompson Chau, Nov. 17 

Meanwhile, China is making its own calculations toward Myanmar’s military regime. Beijing had a carefully won rapprochement with the NLD government, but it now operates under the assumption that the military will eventually establish full control. Journalists John Liu and Thompson Chau show how China’s position has shifted since Feb. 1, when it was reluctant to get behind Min Aung Hlaing. Now, it has effectively normalized relations with the junta—a development that could have significant consequences for Myanmar’s economy.

The shift ultimately reflects China’s desire for stability, particularly where its investments are involved. “While maintaining a line of communication with the NLD, Beijing now seeks to sit out the deepening crisis and push ahead with its own interests in Myanmar with the group that holds power,” Liu and Chau write.

Although China could easily turn its back on the military regime, its slow embrace of the junta is a testament to how swiftly the situation has changed in Myanmar this year as well as the remarkable challenge that lies ahead for the pro-democracy movement.

Audrey Wilson is a senior editor at Foreign Policy. Twitter: @audreybwilson

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