MYANMAR has now suffered another democratic setback. On Monday, we heard that the former leader, Nobel Peace Prize winner and democratic activist Aung San Suu Kyi was imprisoned for four years, later cut to two. It follows a military coup in February earlier this year and provides a sad reminder that the price of liberal democracy is eternal vigilance.

There was a moment when it looked like Myanmar, a former British colony, was about to lose its authoritarian shackles. Back in 2015, the country held its first openly contested election since 1990 (the results of which the military government, the Tatmadaw, had annulled). Led by Aung San Suu Kyi, the National League for Democracy won overwhelmingly, winning 86% of the seats. She was barred from the presidency due to rules prohibiting those who had foreign spouses or children but was nonetheless the de facto leader when she was made state counsellor. Hopes were high that finally Myanmar was about to live up to its democratic potential.

Scratch below the surface though, and it became clear that the Tatmadaw were still a dominant force. They would share power reluctantly, but they would not give it up. In both the House of Representatives and House of Nationalities, 25% of seats were reserved for military appointees. The military continued to control key ministries such as defence, home affairs and border affairs.

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Despite the limits imposed by the military, the weak civilian government did not help itself. Media freedom remained restricted. Amnesty International criticised the failure of her administration to remove laws that targeted human rights defenders and activists, groups who continued to be harassed and targeted despite the democratic transition.

It was the Rohingya crisis though that defined how Aung San Suu Kyi was seen by the international community. The military launched a brutal campaign in August 2017 in response to militant attacks on police and army posts in Rakhine state. Having been historically discriminated against, deprived of citizenship and coming from a region which had a poverty rate of 78%, the Rohingya suffered further. Entire villages were burned down, women and girls raped and at least 6700 Rohingya were killed in the first month of attacks. Hundreds of thousands fled to neighbouring countries, with nearly 890,000 now living in refugee camps in Bangladesh alone.

The UN accused Myanmar of genocide against Rohingya Muslims in 2018 whilst the International Criminal Court is currently investigating for crimes against humanity. To her shame, Aung San Suu Kyi essentially denied these mass atrocities took place, saying to the International Court of Justice that allegations of genocide were “incomplete and misleading”.

Analysts had agreed that the democracy movement had stalled in Myanmar as a result of the above. Yet it stumbled through to elections held in November 2020. Again, Aung San Suu Kyi’s party won an overwhelming majority.

THIS would not do though for the military. They had been humiliated again and rejected by the people of Myanmar. In response, the Tatmadaw launched a military coup on February 1 this year alleging that there had been mass voter fraud and declared a one-year state of emergency. Independent observers rejected this allegation and the international community widely condemned the coup. Widespread protests broke out across Myanmar.

The military responded with what it knows best – cruel violence, pure and simple. Aung San Suu Kyi is one of more than 10,600 people arrested by the Tatmadaw since February, with at least 1303 killed in protests. Detainees who have been released report being tortured, with one telling the NGO Human Rights Watch: “My back felt broken … I was on my knees and they had kept kicking my head … There was so much blood. I really didn’t think I was going to come out alive.”

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Yet the Tatmadaw’s thirst for violence could not be sated by attacking and killing democracy protestors. Applying its lessons learned from the Rohingya, and more than 60 years of dictatorship, the military launched another brutal campaign against another ethno-religious minority, this time against the largely-Christian Chin. Ten thousand people had already left the town of Thantlang when the military began shelling it in October, leaving more than 100 homes and two churches torched according to local activist groups. As of November 26, more than 40,000 people have been reported to have been displaced in Chin State alone, with a further 11,000 in Magwe Region. The death toll remains unknown.

The tale of Myanmar is a sorrowful one. The UN has warned that the military coup combined with the impact of Coronavirus will push half of Myanmar – 25 million people – into poverty. Now Aung San Suu Kyi languishes in prison for at least two years in the first of a series of judgments which could see her effectively imprisoned for life. Myanmar was a fragile state at the start of the year; by the end of it, it is barely functioning.

Whilst the fire of democracy has been stamped on, it has not been extinguished. Despite its best efforts, the military has failed to crush the spirit of Myanmar’s democrats. A younger, progressive movement has emerged which is willing to continue challenging the military whilst supporting Myanmar’s long-suffering population. The group of leaders, known as the National Unity Government, runs underground schools, clinics and hospitals. It is aware that the civilian government run by Aung San Suu Kyi failed ethnic minorities and human rights activists; it has subsequently assembled a diverse leadership coming from across Myanmar’s various ethnic groups. It has also proposed federalism to reach out to these same groups, echoing the outcomes of the 1947 Panglong Conference which helped first bring about Myanmar’s independence from the British Empire.

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The price of democracy is eternal vigilance. There is no guarantee that the stand-off between Myanmar’s military junta and democracy movement will be resolved peacefully. The international community must continue working together to support Myanmar’s democrats. Some countries have imposed sanctions against the Tatmadaw whilst the UN’s call for a global arms embargo against Myanmar has received strong support from member states.

As a progressive movement which demonstrates international solidarity, the SNP will continue to support the democrats of Myanmar. We cannot, should not and will not be silent as human rights are violated and democracy attacked. When Scotland arrives on the international stage as the world’s newest country, we will lead by example and not shy away from our responsibility to be a good global citizen.