Myanmar is in its third year of violent upheaval since the country’s armed forces ousted a democratically elected government and seized power in February 2021. Since the coup, the military junta has arrested more than 23,000 people and killed over 3,600 and possibly as many as 5,000 people. By retaking power and violently suppressing resistance, Myanmar’s armed forces wiped out modest political gains achieved under partially civilian democracy from 2016–2021. The country now seems doomed to repeat the mistakes of its past, with the military erasing the hopes of younger generations across the country for a brighter future than their parents enjoyed under decades of military rule from 1962–2010.
What accounts for this endless cycle of violence, political instability, and failure to achieve the growth that other developing economies have attained in the fastest growing region in the world? Why does the military refuse to let go of political power and allow a democratic government to guide the country’s path forward?
Amitav Acharya’s new book, Tragic Nation Burma: Why and How Democracy Failed, seeks to answer these questions. Acharya is a distinguished professor of international relations at American University and a veteran scholar of international relations and Southeast Asia. It is not a typical academic work, as Acharya is quick to point out. Rather, the book represents something of Acharya’s personal and moral response to the 2021 military coup and the devastation it has unleashed on Myanmar’s “thought warriors,” as he refers to those leading the Civil Disobedience Movement (CDM) and resistance against the junta. The book builds on years of fieldwork and experience teaching in the country and draws on interviews with activists as well as former political leaders.
The short book (less than 200 pages not counting the detailed appendices and works cited) is surprisingly robust from a political science perspective, given the wide audience it is meant for. Acharya also brings a remarkable wealth of historical sources to bear in his telling of the country’s history, laying out the various factors—geographical, institutional, and historical—that repeatedly led to democratic collapse.
In Acharya’s telling, war and foreign intervention exercised a powerful influence on the country’s path following independence in 1948. Frustrated by the inability of Prime Minister U Nu’s civilian government (1948–1962) to quell ethnic and ideological insurgencies from the Karen National Union and Communist Party of Burma, the armed forces opted to seize political power in 1962. However, contrary to scholarly arguments (including my own) that the country’s domestic politics have determined its foreign policy choices, Acharya contends that the reverse is true in Myanmar’s case. As he explains, the isolationism of General Ne Win’s military regime (1962–1988) that followed the 1962 coup rendered the country especially susceptible to internal divisions and stymied the adoption of democratic values and human rights which influenced other developing states at the time. As a result, he notes, throughout Myanmar’s post-war history, “regime security [has] trump[ed] national well-being.”
Acharya convincingly demonstrates that Myanmar’s traditional Buddhist faith and conservative social values do not ipso facto predispose the population to authoritarianism—an argument long proposed by some scholars. At the same time, he identifies the roots of the country’s longstanding authoritarianism in the founding principles of Myanmar’s armed forces and in the ideas of independence hero and national leader Aung San, founder of the army and father of opposition leader and National League for Democracy founder Aung San Suu Kyi. Like Myanmar’s military junta today, Aung San “put national unity above democracy” and envisioned a peaceful state with “no parliamentary opposition, no nonsense of individualism.”
Yet only some of the above explains why the military today, following Senior General Min Aung Hlaing’s orders, decided to wrest political power back from an elected, (mostly) civilian government on the morning of February 1, 2021, paving the way for years of bloodshed and what is now essentially a failed state. In explaining the reasons behind the coup, Acharya slightly overstates the threat which Suu Kyi’s National League for Democracy posed to the military’s political and economic interests. According to Acharya, the NLD’s “overwhelming victory” in the 2020 election gave it a “realistic chance” of passing constitutional reforms which threatened to weaken the military’s hold on power. However, Acharya largely ignores the reality that the NLD’s efforts to amend the military’s 2008 Constitution failed in 2019 due to the mandated quota of 25 percent of parliamentary seats reserved for active-duty military, which was difficult to overcome, at least in the near term.
At the same time, this account somewhat downplays the extent to which the military’s preferred party, the Union Solidarity and Development Party (USDP), believed its own rampant disinformation campaign based on claims of electoral fraud in the 2020 election (numerous impartial election observers deemed the election free and fair). The USDP’s months-long rhetorical assault on the NLD’s (mis)management of elections laid the groundwork for the military to intervene after months of spreading its claims of electoral fraud.
Despite this approach, Acharya offers a highly important contribution to the literature on Myanmar’s failed democratic transition and a valuable appeal to a wider audience to take note of what is now a failing state.
Hunter Marston is a PhD candidate at the Australian National University and an Adjunct Research Fellow at LaTrobe Asia (@hmarston4).