Since the Tatmadaw, Myanmar’s military junta, overthrew a democratically elected government on Feb. 1, it has brutally suppressed the nation’s citizens and democratic leaders. On Dec. 6, the regime sentenced elected leader Aung San Suu Kyi to prison, while continuing to kill and arrest peaceful protesters who want nothing more than democracy. How the international community responds could set the pattern for responding to the rising tide of autocracy worldwide.
Suu Kyi’s party, the National League for Democracy (NLD) has been a thorn in the side of the junta since its founding in 1988. When they swept parliamentary elections in 1990 by 80 percent of the Parliamentary seats, the Tatmadaw nullified the results and placed her under house arrest, where she spent 15 of the next 22 years. In 2015, the NLD again swept the elections, and installed her as leader of the government. In the 2020 election, the NLD widened its margin of victory to 83 percent, winning 397 of the 476 contested Parliamentary seats.
On Feb. 1 of this year, the day before Parliament was scheduled to swear in new members, the junta declared the previous election invalid, deposed the winners and imposed a state of emergency. Three months later, former President Donald Trump national security advisor Michael Flynn would state that such a military coup “should happen” in the U.S.
Aung San Suu Kyi was again arrested, this time for “illegally importing and using radio and communication devices,” including the walkie-talkies used by her security team. The charges she was just sentenced for include “incitement” and breaching coronavirus restrictions. Her four-year sentence was subsequently reduced to two years. But more phony charges are coming, enough to keep her in prison for the rest of her life.
Myanmar’s Tatmadaw charging anyone with incitement is bitter irony, given their role in engineering ethnic violence against the Rohingya, the Muslim minority living in Myanmar since the 15th century. The violence, which began with clashes in the streets between Buddhist monks and Muslims, culminated in a military crackdown against the Rohingya in 2017. Military troops backed by Buddhist mobs burned villages, killing some 7,000 Rohingya, and causing more than 600,000 to flee to neighboring Bangladesh.
This didn’t happen spontaneously. It was secretly fomented by the junta’s Department of Defense, using fake identities, posing as fans of celebrities and other means on Facebook, which has some 20 million users in Myanmar. With a staff of over 700 operating in shifts near the capital, they posted false and doctored stories and photos purporting to show atrocities and sexual abuse committed by the Rohingya. They harassed dissenters online, issued graphic calls to violence and spewed hatred, portraying Islam as a threat to Myanmar and Buddhism globally.
While Facebook claims to have removed dozens of accounts and pages engineered by the military, a Reuters review of thousands of social media posts in 2021 found that about 200 military personnel, using their personal accounts on platforms including Facebook, YouTube, TikTok, Twitter and Telegram regularly posted messages or videos alleging election fraud and denouncing anti-coup protesters as traitors, “enemies of the state,” and “terrorists,” and accusing them of being out to destroy the army, the country and/or the Buddhist religion. In more than half the cases, in a matter of a few minutes the posts were copied and rolled out across multiple accounts.
And why wouldn’t the Tatmadaw use Facebook and other social media platforms to attack and undermine democracy? The same tactics have been used widely and effectively by forces inside and outside the U.S. to influence the 2016 election, claim fraud in the 2020 election and incite civil conflict in the U.S., with little consequence and virtually no accountability.
Myanmar’s citizenry has had a taste of democracy and will not let it go easily. The peaceful protests in response to the military coup in February were met with the murder of more than 1,300 protesters and bystanders, and arrests of more than 10,000. In the last seven months since, more than 200,000 citizens have been driven from their homes. According to a new report by Human Rights Watch, the junta is blocking desperately needed medical aid to the displaced.
The struggle appears destined to lead to more civil conflict, with more deaths and arrests. With little to no support from the outside, Myanmar’s democracy activists have nowhere to go but the streets.
The international community has the means to stand up to Myanmar’s military junta. Governments and international bodies should refuse to recognize the Tatmadaw regime or their representatives. They should expel representatives sent by the illegitimate military junta. They should continue to recognize and support diplomats appointed by Myanmar’s democratically elected government, including at the United Nations, thereby ensuring that the legitimate voices of democracy continue to be heard. The U.N. Security Council should implement immediate restrictions on arms sales to Myanmar and sanctions against the country’s oil and gas industries, a key funder of the military. Human rights organizations and citizens of democratic governments should press their governments to support these actions.
History shows that the only way to stem the tide of autocracy is to stand up to bullies and thugs while still possible. If we don’t do it now, we’ll have to do it later, at the cost of many more lives and further destruction of democratic societies.