The Rise and Collapse of Democracy in Myanmar

By Fernando López

Myanmar, a country of over 50 million people, just suffered a coup d’état committed by the military against the country’s democratic institutions. The country had a democratically elected government since 2011, which had replaced the military government that had ruled Myanmar since 1962.

In 2010, the military leaders ran as a party and they won the elections through popular vote, yet these were deemed not fair. The result made Thein Sein the first elected president in almost 50 years, who took office in 2011. He began implementing the new constitution of Myanmar, set by the military in 2008 and looking forward to democratizing the country. He enlisted Nobel prize winner Aung San Suu Kyi with this transition. Almost 10 years later, Myanmar has slipped back into an authoritarian state and Aung San Suu Kyi is under arrest again. What has she been accused of by the new government? Illegally importing walkie talkies.

Aung San Suu Kyi is a Nobel Peace winner, which was granted due to her struggle of implementing democracy in Myanmar. She is the leader of the National League for Democracy (NLD), which had won the 1990 elections organized by the military rulers. These elections were deemed to be fair, but the military invalidated the result because they expected their party to win the popular vote. Suu Kyi was put under house arrest for 15 years until 2010, being freed 6 days after Thein Sein had won the elections.

Even though the country became more democratic in 2010, the military held some control over governance. Under the 2008 constitution, the military held 25% of all seats in Parliament, they had the power to veto all future constitutional changes, and some ministries had to be given to military leaders. Myanmar was governed by democratic institutions and the military under a system of hybrid governance. The de facto leader of the democratic institutions was Suu Kyi, who was barred from being the president under the 2008 constitution.

In 2012, free elections to the nation’s parliament were held. The NLD won 43 out of the 45 seats not occupied by military officers. Aung San Suu Kyi won a seat in parliament and kept working with Thein Sein to slowly democratize Myanmar. Until 2016, the country was still considered authoritarian yet its democracy scores were improving. The first civilian president was elected that year, the first time it happened in over 50 years. Aung San Suu Kyi had a governmental post created for her to help with running the country, called the State Counsellor

Suu Kyi fell out of grace due to the genocide happening while she was helping to rule the country. Since 2015, the Rohingya, one of the nation’s many ethnic nationalities, were targetted due to being Muslim in a majority Buddhist region of the country. Members of the army and Buddhists from the region began harassing them and looting the areas where the Rohingya lived. Before taking her role as State Counsellor, Suu Kyi declared that the nation’s leaders had to stop the violence that already existed in the region. 

By 2017, the Rohingya villages were being burned down. The corpses of the dead were thrown in mass graves. The leaders of the country’s army, known as the Tatmadaw, were investigated for instigating a genocide against this ethnicity. Members of the army were given orders to kill and destroy as many villages as possible, which caused the members of the community to flee to Bangladesh for protection. The Rohingya refugee crisis began, and it continues until this day.

Suu Kyi did not bring peace to the region, she also flew to The Hague to testify in front of the International Court of Justice in favour of the military that was committing genocide against the Rohingya. She claimed it was not a genocide, just reports of intercommunal violence and some disproportionate use of force by the Tatmadaw. Even before 2019, she had gone on televisions as State Counsellor claiming that only hostilities between religious groups were occurring, but there was no ethnic cleansing nor genocide taking place. Many world leaders began calling for Suu Kyi to take action, and she lost some of the prizes she had won in her struggle for democracy, but not the Nobel prize.

In 2020, the country’s second fair general election for the Parliament and Upper House occurred. The results increased the NLD’s majority in both houses of Parliament, which also reduced the number of seats of the party supported by military leaders. This party, called the USDP, was the military’s party for the 1990 elections which lost against Aung San Suu Kyi’s NLD. 

One day before the new Parliament took power, the military launched a coup d’état to prevent Suu Kyi’s party from governing Myanmar again. According to the military and the country’s new leader, General Min Aung Hlaing, the coup d’état happened because they believed the NLD had committed voter fraud and therefore the Tatmadaw could not accept a new government led by them. The military had asked the Supreme Court to invalidate the election results, but this was rejected.

The military placed Aung San Suu Kyi under arrest again, along most of her advisors, the democratically elected president, and journalists. The government will be controlled by the military, who have imposed a one-year state of emergency. After this year is over, the military has promised that free and fair elections will happen in Myanmar.  

General Min Aung Hlaing became the commander-in-chief of the Burmese Army in 2011 and then turned into a politician in 2016 after Suu Kyi became State Counsellor. Both of them regularly appeared together at events, showing the importance of the military in governing Myanmar. In 2017 Facebook banned his account for uploading content against the Rohingya’s and in favour of the genocide. Since he was still the commander-in-chief of the Army in 2017, all the responsibilities of genocide fell on him and Suu Kyi.

The EU and the US have already asked for the liberation of Aung San Suu Kyi and for the return of democracy to Myanmar, while China has asked for peace to come back soon. The Biden Administration has announced that sanctions will be implemented against the country. The EU has announced that sanctions will be implemented as well. China, the nation’s largest investor, has not announced any measures against the generals who supported the coup d’état.

Myanmar has been protesting for 3 days against the coup and in favour of the country’s democratic institutions. The government, attempting to prevent more protests from occurring, barred access to Facebook for its citizens and then prohibited all Internet access for two days. The protests have been peaceful and have occurred in all the cities around the country, but in the capital of Naypyidaw the police and military used water cannons and rubber bullets to disperse the crowds. 

Democratization is a very difficult process, and it is becoming less common with every passing year. This coup shows how difficult the transition towards a democratic government is, but the protests in the country show that people are ready to defend their individual freedoms and free government heads.

Edited by Zuzanna Mietlińska

Artwork by Chira Tudoran


Taking Stock of Myanmar’s Political Transformation since 2011 – Marco Bünte, Patrick Köllner, Richard Roewer, 2019 (

How Aung San Suu Kyi sees the Rohingya crisis – BBC News

Aung San Suu Kyi Defends Myanmar Against Rohingya Genocide Accusations – The New York Times (

Myanmar Coup: What We Know About the Detention of Aung San Suu Kyi – The New York Times (

Explainer: All eyes on Myanmar army chief Min Aung Hlaing as military seizes power | Reuters

‘Kill All You See’: In a First, Myanmar Soldiers Tell of Rohingya Slaughter – The New York Times (

Protests swell in Myanmar one week after military coup | Global development | The Guardian