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  • Writer's pictureDurham Pro Bono Blog

The Myanmar Protests: Is Democracy Dead?

Disclaimer: The views expressed are that of the individual author. All rights are reserved to the original authors of the materials consulted, which are identified in the footnotes below.

By Abigail Ling

Currently embroiled in conflict and civil unrest, the people of Myanmar are fighting hard against the military’s coup d’état which has seen the deposition of many members of the democratically elected National League for Democracy (NLD), helmed by prominent and decorated political activist Aung San Suu Kyi on the unfounded base of election fraud in the recent elections, for which the NLD attained a landslide victory. They have gone as far as to hold various party leaders, including Ms. Suu Kyi herself, under house arrest.

The Burmese people have, unsurprisingly, retaliated – both domestically and abroad.

Internationally, there have been various calls for the military to stand down. Major economic powers like the USA and Britain have taken action in the form of limited sanctions and are “deeply concerned”[1] about the recent escalations in tension and violence caused by the harm inflicted by riot police in what can be deemed peaceful protesters. As of this writing (21st February 2021), two more people have been killed in Mandalay City by the Myanmar military forces who fired at the anti-coup protesters in an attempt to disperse the crowds. It has been dubbed by international media as the “bloodiest day”[2] since the coup began.

Meanwhile, in Myanmar itself, with the military insisting on asserting their dominance, going as far as to issue media and internet blackouts and warrants to arrest fellow protesters as countermeasures, the movement only seems to have gained greater momentum, especially in light of the unjustified deaths suffered by the abovementioned protesters.

However, despite the demonstrations being just like any other that the country has experienced before, some argue that fundamentally, many things have changed since the last mass demonstration, the Saffron Revolution, back in 2007 – which was a series of political and economic civil demonstrations staged by students, activists and monks in response to the national military government decision to remove fuel subsidies which eventually resulted an almost 2 to 5-fold spike in prices for the various forms of fuel.[3]

Gregory Poling, a Senior Fellow for Southeast Asia at the Centre for Strategic and International Studies (CSIS) points out that the Burmese people had spent the past 14 years opening and warming to the idea of democracy, with an increasing proportion of the populace gaining access to the internet – something that was but a fever dream back then.[4]

This is critical. Greater access to the internet means the greater infiltration of democracy and freedom ideologies into Myanmar. Sped up further by the win of Ms. Suu Kyi’s NLD back in 2015 during the country’s first openly contested election in 26 years, which served the people its first taste of democracy after years of oppression at the hands of the military’s dictatorial leadership, it would seem very likely that the attitudes and mindsets of the people would have evolved accordingly as well – taking a much harsher and firmer stance against the military’s actions, reassured that the world beyond their borders knows of and understands their suffering and is even willing to intervene and support their cause.

Moreover, especially in the past year alone, many Asians nations have had their own pro-democracy mass demonstrations, such as the protests against the invasive National Security Law in Hong Kong,[5] India’s Farmer’s Protests[6] and the anti-Monarchy protests in Thailand.[7] These are events that could serve as sources of inspiration, motivation and support for the Burmese people facing the coup to hold out and fight against this injustice.

All of these, while seemingly benign, may actually play a significant role in determining the way the events will continue to unfold in the days to come but, as always, only time will tell.

Nevertheless, the one very significant thing that this protest has underscored is that democracy is powerful, but not invincible. If anything, it is weak, frail, and requires constant protection. As in Myanmar’s case, one day they were having an election and (quite literally) the very next day the winning party was usurped. That, in and of itself, is extremely frightening. The very fact that something we take for granted on a daily basis, the very same thing that confers us our rights as people, can be so easily taken away, is indeed a difficult pill to swallow. Although I am personally of the belief that democracy, theoretically, is flawed and unrealistic, it is surely always better to have some of it than none at all. It goes to show that democracy cannot die because it foremostly was never ‘alive’ to begin with. Freedom and liberty are only as powerful as the weight it is given. Hence, before it gets too out of hand, the junta must be stopped; and it needs to be stopped today – we must all weigh in on it so as to allow democracy the chance to continue to sustain us.


Image: Anon, ‘Myanmar Protestors Plan Even Bigger Rallies After Deadly Clashes’ The Straits Times (Yangon, 21 February 2021) <> Accessed 22 February 2021.

[1] Anon, ‘US ‘Deeply Concerned’ By Reports Myanmar Security Forces Fired on Protestors’ Channel News Asia (Washington, 21 February 2021) <> Accessed 22 February 2021. [2] Jason Slotkin, ‘2 Killed in Myanmar in Worst Day of Violence since Feb.1 Coup’ NPR (Asia, 20 February 2021) <,weeks%20of%20nearly%20nonstop%20demonstrations> Accessed 22 February 2021. [3] Anon, ‘Burma Leaders Double Fuel Prices’ BBC News (Asia Pacific, 15 August 2007) <> Accessed 22 February 2021. [4] Saheli Roy Choudhury ‘Myanmar’s Coup Protests Are Different From Past Demonstrations, Researcher Says’ CNBC (Asia, 9 February 2021) <> Accessed 22 February 2021. [5]Grace Tsoi and Lam Cho Wai, ‘Hong Kong Security Law: What Is It and Is It Worrying?’ BBC News (China, 30 June 2020) <> Accessed 22 February 2021. [6] Simran Jeet Singh, ‘The Farmers Protest Are a Turning Point in India’s Democracy – and the World Can No Longer Ignore That’ TIME (Asia, 11 February 2021) <> Accessed 22 February 2021. [7] Panu Wongcha-Um and Kay Johnson ‘The Last Taboo: A New Generation of Thais Defying the Monarchy’ REUTERS (Thailand, 18 December 2020) <> Accessed 22 February 2021.

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