Hopes Dashed for Democracy in Myanmar

The nation's brief respite from military rule came to an abrupt end on February 1.


On February 1, Myanmar's military arrested the country's democratically elected leader and announced a one-year state of emergency. The nation's brief respite from military rule—which had previously lasted from 1962 to 2011—had come to an abrupt end.

Military leaders claim the government of Aung San Suu Kyi, Myanmar's head of state and leader of the National League for Democracy (NLD) party, failed to properly investigate voting irregularities in the November parliamentary elections. The NLD says there is no evidence of widespread fraud.

Suu Kyi's elected government was not a beacon of liberal policy. Press freedom was constrained, and the government blocked access to certain news sites. Critics also say Suu Kyi created a cult of personality around herself and persecuted the Rohingya ethnic minority. The slow pace of liberalization can be partly attributed to the fact that the NLD has had to share power with the military the last five years.

That seemed about to change. In the most recent election, the NLD significantly outperformed the military's proxy party. But less than three months later, the military jailed Suu Kyi and other NLD leaders. Min Aung Hlaing, the army's commander in chief, then appointed himself ruler.

At least 42 government officials and 16 political activists were arrested. NetBlocks, a company that monitors access to the internet, said Myanmar's connectivity levels dropped below half of what they would normally be during the morning of February 1, and a number of people reported disruptions in cellphone service. Military vehicles patrolled major cities' streets, broadcasters went off the air, and banks suspended service, citing the lack of internet (although access was restored in many places as the day wore on). Many people took down flags declaring their support for the NLD.

While the coup is an unsettling turn for the worse in a country that had been settling into democracy, President Joe Biden and Congress should react carefully. "Washington will likely reimpose sanctions against the military junta," says Jessica Lee, a senior research fellow at the Quincy Institute. "But given that few military officials travel to or conduct business with the United States, they are unlikely to have immediate effect. We must make sure that any sanctions imposed do not end up hurting ordinary people or cause blowback against minorities."