The stable sterility of 'ethnocratic' regimesEthnonationalism and democracy are incompatible principles, where equal protection of all citizens clashes with the privileges of the core ethnic group.
The inevitable has once again happened in Burma. In an unhurried coup on the morning of February 1, 2021, the Tatmadaw—the armed force of Myanmar that describes itself as the guardians of national interest—took direct control of the State. Even though officially described as a 'state of emergency for a year', the power grab looks like a coup, smells like a coup and feels like a coup. It would be puerile to give it any other name.
The unavoidable takeover of state power, however, was entirely predictable. The Tatmadaw posits itself neither above nor below but parallel to the State. It is sometimes said of Pakistan that the General Headquarters in Rawalpindi has a country rather than the country with its capital at Islamabad having an armed force. The aphorism perhaps holds true in all fragile democracies.
The 2008 Constitution of Burma authorises 'the commander-in-chief to appoint and control all cabinet members in charge of departments relating to the apparatus of state security, such as defence, home affairs and border affairs.' The security chief vets and approves all presidential and vice-presidential candidates.
The Burmese statute has correctly been depicted as 'of the military, by the military and for the military' since the commander-in-chief also reserves the right to veto any attempt to amend the charter.
It appears that the Tatmadaw didn't really need to assume direct control since the ruling National League for Democracy party, State Counsellor Aung San Suu Kyi and President Win Myint were under its beck and call anyway. Perhaps the fears and ambitions of Senior General Min Aung Hlaing prompted him to assume de jure authority from the de facto ruler and First Vice President General U Myint Swe.
Ever since Aung San was killed on July 19, 1947, in the wake of an election victory, Burmese politics has remained under the shadow of violence with democratic practices serving as a reminder of the dreams of its founding national hero. Though no paragon of political morality—he had collaborated with the Japanese imperialists to throw out the British and then aligned with the colonialists to fight the occupier—Aung San had been accommodative towards ethnic aspirations of minorities.
His opponents in the Anti-Fascist People's Freedom League (AFPFL) wanted a Bamar Republic where the dominant ethnicity with almost 90 percent majority would rule over the rest. They have had their way since Burmese independence from British rule in 1948.
The consolidation of the military-ruled state began with the rise of General Ne Win in 1962 who abolished the federal system and established the Socialist Programme Party as the only permissible political group of the country. It didn't take long for the abolition of federalism to turn into ethnonationalism of the Bamars.
Continuation of one-party dictatorship pauperised resource-rich Burma, as the military brasses siphoned off the loot to nearby Singapore and beyond. The populace took solace in Theravada Buddhism. Minorities had no such option, as the prosecution of Muslim Rohingyas and animistic tribal groups continued unabated. Nepal is notorious for having discriminatory citizenship laws; Burma is worse with its provision for 'associate citizenship' that denies several fundamental rights to people considered to be alien ethnicities.
The Burmese junta threw away its political shroud and began to rule directly when people took to the streets in the late-1980s. The State Law and Order Restoration Council (SLORC) ruled with an iron fist for nearly a decade and then it renamed itself State Peace and Development Council (SPDC) to acquire international legitimacy.
The claim of the Burmese military to rule is based on the principle of ethnonational purity and promotion of the ethnic privileges of Bamars in their ancestral homeland. Somewhat similar arguments of 'Fijikaran' have traditionally been made by monarchists, Marxists and Maoists of Khas-Arya stock in Nepal for decades.
In fact, when king Gyanendra had staged a similar coup in 2005, incidentally also on February 1, many ethnonationalists had hoped that their saviour will take the country on the Burma road. Mercifully, the civil and political society recognised the challenge in time and succeeded in ousting the Panchayat redux through the April Uprising.
The Burmese constitution of 2008, which gave sweeping and veto power to the Tatmadaw, was a result of exhaustion rather than a concession to the aspirants of democracy. It barred Suu Kyi from holding constitutional office. A quarter of the seats in the parliament were reserved for the nominees of the military.
It's difficult to believe that 92 percent of voters actually endorsed the discriminatory draft of the constitution. But the allure of ethnonationalism among the dominant community is so strong and the timidity of minorities often so pitiable that it's just likely that the junta was right in claiming popular legitimacy of the 2008 constitution through the referendum. After all, Madhesis and Janajatis of dominant parties had dutifully voted for the controversial constitution that had reduced their rights in the draft charter.
Perhaps the biggest mistake of Suu Kyi was falling into the trap of 'ethnocratic' illusions. Ethnocracy describes 'societies where democracy exists for the dominant ethnic groups, but is less available to cultural and religious minorities'.
Suu Kyi not only condoned but agreed to be the face of the ethnic cleansing of Rohingyas. What turns an everyday politician into a statesman aren't the compromises she makes but the position she takes. This is a lesson that Pushpa Kamal Dahal must have got after merging his political platform into KP Oli’s outfit in a tearing hurry.
When a UN report accused Burmese military leaders of carrying out genocide, war crimes, and crimes against humanity against Rohingya Muslims, Suu Kyi stood at the International Court of Justice to defend her armed forces. With a diminished international stature, her utility in the eyes of the Tatmadaw has shrunk considerably.
Positing Israel as an archetype of 'Ethnic Democracy', sociologist Sammy Smooha argues that such a system consists of two incompatible constitutional principles: liberal democracy, which mandates equal protection of all citizens, and ethnonationalism, which privileges the core ethnic group.
A strongman backed by the defence forces or the military itself then has a readymade excuse to intervene whenever necessary to protect the 'national interest'. A co-accused in crimes against humanity, the Commander-in-Chief HIan had every reason to assume the protection of office that being a head of government offers.
The power grab in the name of protecting the 'national interest' often happens at a leisurely pace. When February 1 in 2005 followed October 4, 2002, nobody other than Sher Bahadur Deuba was really surprised by Gyanendra’s recklessness. The chief of Tatmadaw had given enough hints and complained of alleged voter fraud to the Chinese Foreign Minister and State Councillor Wang Yi on January 12, 2021, during their meeting; he may have acquired the consent of the latter for his political adventures.
The White House was prompt in decrying the 'attempt to alter the outcome of recent elections or impede Myanmar’s democratic transition', but a done deed anywhere isn't easy to rescind. As long as the Tatmadaw continues to fear the ghost of Aung San, the fate of democracy in Burma will continue to hang in the balance.