For Western liberals and all those who hoped that freedom and democracy would be realized in Myanmar, the Burmese coup d’état of 2021 slammed the door shut. This, along with the arrest of Aung San Suu Kyi, Myanmar’s elected leader, snuffed hopes that freedom and democracy would be realized in her country. For many Western critics, however, that hope had previously expired when Aung San Suu Kyi failed to condemn the Tatmadaw (Burmese military) for genocidal crimes against the Rohingya people of the Rakhine state in Myanmar. Perhaps they misunderstood that Suu Kyi had been permitted the title of “State Counsellor” on condition that she was not in control of the Tatmadaw who perpetrated the heinous crimes against the Rohingya. Aung San Suu Kyi understood her position all too well, having been intimidated by the military since her legitimate election to power on May 27, 1990, was overturned by the military. Western liberals roundly criticized the Nobel Laureate, and perhaps rightly, but they were not subject to the 33 years of imprisonment the dictators imposed upon her.
Suu Kyi was held in the highest regard by Western liberals even as her international fans completely misunderstood the dynamics of her country and her tenuous position therein. She is glamorized in the 2011 film, The Lady, played by Michelle Yeoh, who later won an Oscar for Everything Everywhere All At Once. The Lady is a moving film glamorizing hope over despair and in that sense betrays the full depth of the trenchant opposition that Suu Kyi has faced trying to realize a representative democracy in Burma. Sadly, this has been the case since the tragic assassination of her father, Bogyoke Aung San, when she was only two years old.
Bogyoke Aung San was a curious military leader who, during WWII, had once allied with the Japanese and then, having been repulsed by them, switched over and sided with the British. Bogyoke Aung San was genuinely revered by the Burmese people as a kind of George Washington figure. That is, a man who sparked a democratic hope and a new beginning. His political party, the AFPFL won a sweeping electoral victory in 1947, setting Burma on track for post-colonial democracy. Tragically, whatever hope Boyoke Aung San could have given the Burmese people was cut short by his bloody assassination on July 19, 1947, orchestrated by his military rival, U Saw. The film The Lady depicts that drama quite brutally.
Enduring nations are founded on stable beginnings and so it is worthwhile to contrast the beginnings of Burmese and American independence from colonialism. In America, George Washington was able to lead an underdog to prevail against the greater military power. By all accounts Washington’s service to this country was legendary, yet he declined all temptations to greater powers than the Presidency and retired after two terms. By doing so, he set an example and respectable milestone for service and patriotism, as well as an honorific respect for the Christian religion.
In Burma, Bogyoke Aung San changed sides from Japan to Great Britain, and yet somehow miraculously united Burma in a post-colonial hope for democracy. Had it not been for his murder by U Saw, the cornerstones of a Burmese democracy may have been set. Aung San Suu Kyi, his daughter, was only two years old when U Saw effectively severed the democratic jugular, and was haunted by this for the rest of her life. U Saw did not come to power, but instead U Nu would rule Burma as Prime Minister until the military judged his rule to be untenable. Much later, the Tatmadaw clandestinely killed Burmese monks who opposed them.
General Ne Win, the real “godfather” to the current Tatmadaw dictatorship, soon took power in a coup in 1962. The democratic lights for Burma have nearly been snuffed out ever since. Aung San Suu Kyi returned to her home country from England in 1988, when a cruel political crackdown once more thwarted Burmese democracy. Suu Kyi could have been a happy British housewife but decided instead to enter politics. When General Ne Win stood down from power after over two decades of military rule, Suu Kyi’s National League for Democracy swept him from power, winning 392 of 447 seats in the 1990 election. Deciding that it did not like the results of a truly democratic election, the military ignored the results and placed Suu Kyi under house arrest. Thank God, after Trump’s disavowal of our last election, our military did not seize voting machines, an executive order that was being considered.
The story that has haunted Suu Kyi’s life is the same story that has haunted many countries globally: the story of the military’s refusal to accept democracy. The story of a refusal to respect the idea of a separation of military from the state. Western liberals can blithely criticize Suu Kyi, or what remains of her party, having completely failed to appreciate this American tranquility: the separation of military and state. We in America have prospered due to a military that honorably has refused to overstep its bounds.
Much is made of the separation of church and state, but not enough of the separation of military and state, in democratic stability. In the United States, the inspiration of George Washington, and the loyalty of our military to democratic principles ever since has created a stable electoral democracy for two centuries. It was even a former Five Star General and President, Dwight Eisenhower, who warned us about the perils of the military-industrial complex. For two centuries, there has been in effect a military honor for democracy which we have simply taken for granted. The Constitution offers no absolute safeguards for it. The President is to be “Commander-in-Chief” of the military, but that presupposes the actual fealty of the military. What is it, then, that has kept our military in honest respect of democracy? Probably something like a true love of God and country, in other words, patriotism and religion. But that religion was guaranteed under free auspices, not forced.
Students of history painfully recognize how militaries around the world have failed to respect democracy. The Burmese military is just one long-standing, common, and egregious example. This lack of respect for a military vs. state separation has resulted in dictatorships in Pakistan, Turkey, Russia, Chile, China, and many others. Burma is just another sad reminder of what the “children of light” (as Reinhold Niebuhr would say) have taken for granted: a military that respects and honors constitutional practices. The thin paper of a constitution is easily overwhelmed by the thick muscles of military force, but it can only be checked, perhaps, by the true commitments of faithful belief and patriotism. So, before we criticize Suu Kyi or Burma for her shortcomings, we might reexamine what heartfelt beliefs have kept our military honest, and respectful of American democracy. Sadly, Suu Kyi never had the command of the military which once her father had, and which we take for granted.