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Myanmar's Troubled History: Coups, Military Rule, and Ethnic Conflict – Council on Foreign Relations

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Throughout its decades of independence, Myanmar has struggled with military rule, civil war, isolation from global affairs, and widespread poverty. In 2011, the military junta dissolved, giving way to a military-installed transitional government and ushering in what many believed would be a new era for the Southeast Asian nation. The country’s longtime opposition party—the National League for Democracy (NLD), led by Aung San Suu Kyi—won majorities in both chambers of parliament in 2015, and some foreign governments and companies that had previously shunned Myanmar began developing ties with it.
But the military, known as the Tatmadaw, has continued to dominate many aspects of domestic affairs. Military and civilian leaders, including Suu Kyi, have also faced international condemnation for ongoing human rights abuses and brutal violence against Rohingya Muslims in the western state of Rakhine, which a UN report said were committed with “genocidal intent.” In February 2021, the military staged a coup and officially retook control, dashing hopes for democratic progress.
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Myanmar has been ruled by a military junta for many of the years since it gained independence from British colonial rule in 1948. The Union of Burma began as a parliamentary democracy, like most of its newly independent neighbors on the Indian subcontinent. But representative democracy only lasted until 1962, when General U Ne Win led a military coup and held power for the next twenty-six years.
Ne Win instituted a new constitution in 1974 based on an isolationist policy and a socialist economic program that nationalized Burma’s major enterprises. The economic situation deteriorated rapidly, and a black-market economy took hold. By 1988, widespread corruption, rapid shifts in economic policy related to Myanmar’s currency, and food shortages led to massive student-led protests. In August 1988, the army cracked down on protesters, killing at least three thousand and displacing thousands more.
In the aftermath of the 1988 crackdown, Ne Win resigned as chairman of his party, although he remained active behind the scenes as another military junta took power. In 1989, the new military regime changed the country’s name from the Union of Burma to the Union of Myanmar, and the capital, Rangoon, was renamed Yangon. In 2005, the military government moved the administrative capital to Nay Pyi Taw, a city it built in central Myanmar. The junta argued that the name “Burma” was a vestige of the colonial era that favored the Burman ethnic majority, and that “Myanmar” was more inclusive. Official U.S. policy still refers to the country as Burma, though most nations call it Myanmar.
In 2007, the so-called Saffron Revolution—widespread anti-government protests that were sparked by fuel price hikes and named after the saffron-colored robes worn by participating Buddhist monks—and international pressure prompted shifts in Myanmar. In addition, the military government wanted to attract investment, reduce its reliance on China, and build relations with more countries. The junta pushed forward a new constitution in 2008, which is still in place today, that gave the military widespread powers even under civilian rule. The military junta unexpectedly officially dissolved in 2011 and established a civilian parliament for a transitional period, during which former army bureaucrat and Prime Minister Thein Sein was appointed president.
Aung San Suu Kyi, the daughter of independence hero General Aung San, rose to prominence during the 1988 protests. After the crackdown, she and others formed the NLD opposition party. She was detained in 1989 and spent more than fifteen years in prison and under house arrest until her release in 2010. In 1991, Suu Kyi was awarded the Nobel Peace Prize while still under house arrest.
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Suu Kyi became Myanmar’s de facto leader in 2015. (The constitution prevents her from assuming the title of president.) She continues to enjoy widespread domestic support, but CFR’s Joshua Kurlantzick says she has little to show for her time in power, as she tried to pacify the military by defending its abuses against the Rohingya and by restricting press freedoms. “She failed to strengthen democracy in recent years and create democratic bulwarks,” Kurlantzick writes.
Starting in 2011, President Thein Sein spearheaded a series of reforms, including granting amnesty to political prisoners, relaxing media censorship, and implementing economic policies to encourage foreign investment. And in 2015, Myanmar held its first nationwide, multiparty elections—considered to be the freest and fairest elections in decades—since the country’s transition away from military rule. Suu Kyi’s opposition NLD party won a landslide victory, securing a majority in the upper and lower houses of parliament. New lawmakers elected Htin Kyaw, a longtime confidant of Suu Kyi, as Myanmar’s first civilian leader in decades. Suu Kyi was appointed to the newly created position of state counsellor, becoming the de facto head of the civilian government.
But experts say the Tatmadaw continued to wield much control. The 2008 constitution [PDF] includes several provisions to protect the military’s dominance. For example, 25 percent of parliament’s seats are reserved for the military, and any changes to the constitution need approval from more than 75 percent of parliament, effectively giving the military veto power over any amendment. In addition, the military’s proxy party, the Union Solidarity and Development Party (USDP), maintained seats in the powerful defense, home affairs, and border affairs ministries.
In 2020, Myanmar held its second national elections under civilian rule, which the NLD party overwhelmingly won. Though Human Rights Watch and other groups said the elections were flawed because of the disenfranchisement of Rohingya and other issues, there is little dispute that the NLD achieved a massive victory.
The military suffered a major blow in the elections: the USDP won just 33 of 476 available seats, while the NLD won 396. Military leaders alleged voter fraud, and after the country’s election commission rejected the military’s claims, it staged a coup in February 2021. The military detained and charged Suu Kyi, placed lawmakers from the NLD and other parties under house arrest, and announced that Senior General Min Aung Hlaing would take charge of Myanmar during a yearlong state of emergency. It said elections will be held once the state of emergency ends, but experts say the military could retain power indefinitely. In the aftermath of the coup, Myanmar saw its largest protests since the Saffron Revolution, with tens of thousands of people calling for democracy and the release of Suu Kyi and others.
The Tatmadaw used the constitution to justify its actions. The document allows the military to take control in any situations that could cause “disintegration of the Union, disintegration of national solidarity, and loss of sovereign power.” The military argued that the allegations of fraud in the elections fit this description.
Myanmar is a diverse country, with the state recognizing more than one hundred ethnic groups. Forming roughly two-thirds of the population, ethnic Burmans, known as the Bamar, have enjoyed a privileged position in society and hold a majority of government and military positions. Many ethnic minority groups, on the other hand, have faced systemic discrimination, a lack of economic opportunities and development in their regions, minimal representation in government, and abuses at the hands of the military.
Since independence, discrimination has been ingrained in Myanmar’s laws and political system. For example, citizenship is largely based on ethnicity. The 1982 Citizenship Law states that only members of ethnic groups that lived in Myanmar before 1823, when the British first occupied parts of the country, are full citizens. This has rendered hundreds of thousands of lifelong Myanmar residents and members of entire minority groups, particularly the Rohingya, effectively stateless [PDF]. Under the 2008 constitution, only full citizens are entitled to most rights, such as nondiscrimination, equal opportunity, and freedom of expression. The constitution also prevents those not considered to be full citizens from participating in political processes such as voting and running for office.
Anti-Muslim sentiment has also been on the rise in predominantly Buddhist Myanmar. Buddhist extremists, who promote the supremacy of Buddhism, have attacked Muslims and spread hate speech.
Divisions purposely created under British colonial rule and ongoing discrimination have fueled lengthy armed conflicts between the Tatmadaw and more than twenty ethnic armed organizations, as well as dozens of smaller militia groups, producing what some analysts have described as the world’s longest continuing civil war. Following the country’s independence, several ethnic armed organizations fought for greater autonomy. Tensions were exacerbated when the military junta took over in 1962 and curtailed ethnic minorities’ rights.
Fighting has primarily occurred in Myanmar’s border areas [PDF], with the Buddhist and pro-Rakhine (not Rohingya) Arakan Army in Rakhine State; the Karen National Liberation Army in Kayin State; the Kachin Independence Army in Kachin State; and the Shan State Army and the United Wa State Army in Shan State; among other groups. Tens of thousands of people have been killed in the conflicts. In recent years, human rights monitors have documented the Tatmadaw’s abuses against civilians, particularly in the states of Chin and Rakhine; these include extrajudicial killings, forced labor, rape, torture, and the use of child soldiers. The instability has also allowed Myanmar to become a global center for illicit drug production and transshipment, particularly in areas of Shan State.
Nearly one million people are believed to have fled abroad and hundreds of thousands are displaced internally. Most of these refugees in recent years have been Rohingya, an ethnic Muslim minority that has faced decades of repression. In 2016 and 2017, the Tatmadaw and local security forces mounted a brutal campaign against the Rohingya, killing thousands of people and razing hundreds of villages. Rights groups and UN officials suspect that the military committed genocide against the Rohingya. In 2019, Gambia filed the first international lawsuit against Myanmar at the International Court of Justice, accusing the country of violating the UN Genocide Convention. Suu Kyi has denied that ethnic cleansing is taking place, and a final ruling could take years. Most Rohingya have sought refuge in Bangladesh, where resources and land to protect refugees are limited. Bangladesh has been in discussions with Myanmar about repatriating Rohingya refugees.
The governments of Thein Sein and Suu Kyi attempted to negotiate a nationwide cease-fire with several ethnic armed organizations, but efforts largely failed. In 2015, only eight such groups signed a cease-fire agreement with the government and the Tatmadaw, and violence continues in many communities.
Myanmar has long been poorer than most of its neighbors due to isolationist policies once favored by the military junta, economic mismanagement, and ongoing conflict. But economic reforms, including opening up to trade and investment in 2011, led to some modest gains.
Myanmar’s gross domestic product (GDP) has grown more than 7 percent per year since 2011, according to the World Bank. By 2019, GDP per capita reached around $1,400, nearly double what it was in 2008. The country’s poverty rate has dramatically declined, falling from 48 percent in 2005 to 25 percent in 2017. However, poverty remains high in rural areas, where much of the population lives, and the COVID-19 crisis in 2020 has likely made poverty far worse.
Much of the population relies on agriculture and industrial work to make a living. The country’s significant mineral deposits, particularly of jade and rubies, and natural gas reserves have drawn international attention.
Following the 2011 reforms, foreign investment skyrocketed from $900 million in 2010 to $4 billion in 2017. Donors, such as the European Union, Japan, and the United States, dramatically increased their aid to Myanmar. Now it is one of the world’s largest recipients [PDF] of foreign aid. The World Bank also committed millions of dollars in credit and grant funding.
In recent years, foreign investment has fallen and economic growth has slowed, as Suu Kyi’s government struggled to implement further reforms and the military’s suspected genocide of Rohingya drew international backlash. The COVID-19 pandemic has also caused a sharp decline in exports, remittances, and tourist spending. Experts say that the 2021 coup will likely further damage the economy.
China, which borders Myanmar, has been the country’s largest trading partner and its closest diplomatic ally in recent years.
China has funded infrastructure and energy projects throughout Myanmar as part of its Belt and Road Initiative. Oil and natural gas flow through pipelines from Myanmar to China. Beijing is also working to create a China-Myanmar Economic Corridor in Rakhine State to connect China’s landlocked Yunnan Province to the Indian Ocean.
However, Myanmar officials have long been wary of China, fearing that Nay Pyi Taw could fall too deeply into Beijing’s sphere of influence, according to the International Crisis Group. Analysts believe that this fear in part drove military leaders to institute the 2011 reforms and begin developing ties with other countries. Some experts believe that the 2021 coup could lead Myanmar to move closer to China as other countries consider reimposing sanctions.
Beijing has used its role on the UN Security Council to shield Nay Pyi Taw from international criticism and prevent actions such as a comprehensive arms embargo. It has also provided military support, and continues to shield the Myanmar generals from repercussions of the coup.
In the 1990s, the United States established sanctions on Myanmar, including visa restrictions on individuals and bans on investments and imports. Myanmar’s return to civilian rule and economic reforms led the United States and many other countries to reestablish ties with it and drop some sanctions. But following the coup in 2021, some are considering reimposing targeted (not broad) economic sanctions.
President Barack Obama ushered in a new approach to U.S. relations with Myanmar. His administration boosted humanitarian aid, eased bans on new U.S. investments, and in 2012 named its first ambassador to the country in twenty-two years. Obama visited Myanmar twice, and President Thein Sein made a trip to Washington. Obama removed most U.S. sanctions a year after Myanmar’s 2015 elections, though a variety of noneconomic restrictions remained in place, including an embargo on arms sales and visa restrictions on some officials.
The Donald J. Trump administration continued on a similar path, welcoming increased ties with Myanmar but maintaining sanctions on some individuals and restrictions on certain practices. The administration imposed targeted sanctions on top military commanders, including Senior General Min Aung Hlaing, due to their role in the killings of Rohingya. Some members of Congress called for additional restrictions over the suspected genocide and other human rights abuses.
Following the 2021 coup, President Joe Biden said his administration will work with U.S. partners to “support democracy and rule of law” in Myanmar. Urging military leaders to relinquish power and release people they captured, Biden warned that the United States could impose consequences on those responsible for the coup, and his administration initiated a review of U.S. sanctions law.
CFR’s Joshua Kurlantzick explores potential policy responses to Myanmar’s 2021 coup.
The Congressional Research Service explains restrictions on U.S. relations with Myanmar [PDF].
The International Crisis Group unpacks ethnicity and conflict in Myanmar.
In this timeline, the Irrawaddy traces Myanmar’s ethnic armed resistance movements over seventy years.
In a 2017 interview with CFR, journalist Francis Wade discusses how Myanmar’s military wields power from the shadows.
This CFR Backgrounder explains the Rohingya crisis.
Eleanor Albert, Will Merrow, and Beina Xu contributed to this Backgrounder.
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