Resistance and Democratic Resilience in Myanmar and Ukraine

March 21, 2022

Marcus Brand, International IDEA, discusses the parallels between the military coup in Myanmar and Russia’s invasion of Ukraine, on International Horizons.

Marcus Brand appears on the left in front of protestors and Aung San Suu Kyi faded in the background

A military coup in Myanmar in February 2021 and a subsequent humanitarian crisis have largely fallen off the Western media’s news headlines, especially as the Russian invasion of Ukraine has captured attention in recent weeks. What is the current situation of the democratically elected government of Myanmar and the oppression of the Rohingya minority? What are the similarities between the military coup in Myanmar and the Russian invasion of Ukraine in February 2022?  How can the world address the crises of these two would-be democracies? 

Marcus Brand, International IDEA’s head of programme for Myanmar and former U.N. Development Programme Ukraine director, speaks with Ralph Bunche Institute Director and Graduate Center Presidential Professor John Torpey about the parallels between the military coup in Myanmar and Russia’s invasion of Ukraine — unexpected resistance, humanitarian crises, and massive refugee flows — and possible optimism about what it means for the future of democracy.

International Horizons is part of the New Books Network of academic podcasts. Subscribe to the RSS feed or find it on Spotify and Apple Podcasts.  A lightly edited transcript follows below.


John Torpey  00:15

Myanmar has suffered from a lot of political instability for a long time now, and, while the country was democratizing only a few years ago, its progress was soon halted by a military coup in February 2021. The situation has also been marked by massive human rights violations against a Muslim group, the Rohingya, adding another layer of complexity and difficulty. Myanmar came to be largely forgotten by the rest of the world after the coup with the exception of the oppression of the Rohingya.  And of course, meanwhile, the world has turned its eyes to the Russian invasion of Ukraine, which threatens a wider war and a possible nuclear escalation. While the brutal Russian attacks on the people of Ukraine are taking place, we're facing a massive military, humanitarian, and refugee crisis with upwards of 2 million internally displaced persons and an even larger number of refugees. How can the world address the crises of these two would-be democracies?  

Welcome to International Horizons, a podcast of the Ralph Bunche Institute for International Studies that brings scholarly and diplomatic expertise to bear on our understanding of a wide range of international issues. My name is John Torpey, and I'm the director of the Ralph Bunche Institute at the Graduate Center of The City University of New York.  We're fortunate to have with us today Marcus Brand, who has been country director for Myanmar for the International Institute for Democracy and Electoral Assistance (abbreviated as IDEA) since September 2020 and throughout the November 2020 elections and the February 2021 coup. He has extensive background working on democratic governance, constitutional and rule of law reform in Myanmar and other countries in democratic transition, including more than 20 years of experience working with the United Nations, the Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe, and the European Union and has lived and worked in Thailand, Nepal, Poland, Sweden, Kosovo, and Ukraine, where he led the U.N. Development Programme's work on democratic reform for five years prior to his assignment with IDEA. So he's got unusual experience for these two particular crisis spots. So thanks so much for joining us today, Marcus Brand.

Marcus Brand  02:45

Thanks for having me.

John Torpey  02:46

Great to have you. So perhaps you could just start by explaining a bit about the work of International IDEA and what it does in general around the world and what you've been doing in Myanmar for the last couple of years.

Marcus Brand  03:00

Thank you. So International IDEA is an intergovernmental organization set up in 1995 that has meanwhile grown to 34 member states, and has its headquarters in Stockholm, Sweden, where the Institute itself leads the organization's work on democracy analysis and knowledge sharing, in order to analyze the state of democracy in the world and assist countries around the world in their effort to build stronger democratic processes and institutions. For the past decade or so, International IDEA has maintained the country office in Myanmar, which I have been leading for the last one and a half years, and it has become one of the biggest country operations of International IDEA, which, on the invitation of the government of Myanmar, has been providing assistance to to a democratization with a focus on electoral reform, constitutional reform, parliamentary assistance and civil society development. We have stopped our cooperation with the military authorities after they unconstitutionally took over control of the central government institutions in February 2021. And in the meantime, we have shifted our program entirely to working from outside of the country, working with the democratically legitimate interim institutions and the democracy movement in their effort to restore democracy in the future.

John Torpey  04:54

So perhaps you could tell us about the elections of November 2020, which were obviously a major turning point. This popular leader who was detained for a long time in sort of house arrest, Aung San Suu Kyi, emerges, comes to the front, but then perhaps turns out not to be, as great a defender of human rights as many people thought she would be and there are a lot of issues about her credibility. And then, of course, not too long thereafter, there's this military coup, So, and, you know, all the while there's this oppression of the Rohingya population, so maybe you could describe how that situation developed and where we stand today.

Marcus Brand  05:43

So the 2020 elections took place under the 2008 constitution, which was imposed by the military at the end of essentially a 50 years' period of dictatorship without any constitutional framework whatsoever. And the 2008 constitution allowed a certain degree of opening for a democratic space, and allowed the election of a Parliament at the Union level and also sub national level, but not in the regular sense of full democratic reforms, sort to say. What I mean is that the elections of 2020, of November 2020, were only for three quarters of the seats in the parliament. And it was those available seats that were won in a landslide victory for the second time in a row since 2015 by the National League for Democracy led by Aung San Suu Kyi.  

This on one hand signaled a very strong will by the people of Myanmar across ethnic communities to complete the process of democratic transition. But at the same time also represented a warning to the military, that its claim to power that it has reserved for itself in the 2008 constitution was not found to be legitimate by the population and was going to be threatened over time. And that is why the military implausibly alleged that there was massive fraud during the November 2020 elections without providing any credible evidence or proof for these allegations, and organized an artificial crisis that eventually provided the pretext for the military to take over power by arresting the president, plus Aung San Suu Kyi, plus the senior political leadership and taking over power, essentially staging a coup in on the first of February 2021.  

And when we now look back at this past decade of opening of democratization, we see that on the one hand, society was transforming and opening quite significantly, especially with the younger generation getting used to living in freedom and without censorship and without very strict government impositions and controls, and, at the same time, the military never really fully coming to terms with a complete transformation and democratization because it wanted to maintain its privileged position and power that it had reserved for itself under the 2008 constitution.

John Torpey  09:05

I see. So maybe you could tell us also a bit more about the Rohingya situation and what it tells us about (I think I have to say) Burmese society more generally. I mean, this is a Muslim minority that's, I guess, on the border with Bangladesh. Maybe there are territorial issues, I'm not really sure what the story is, but what is the basis of their persecution and is that improving since we last heard about it?

Marcus Brand  09:40

Well, it's probably interesting to start with saying that Burma, when it became independent, or Myanmar as it is nowadays known, is a very diverse and multi-ethnic society, that in this particular shape and form does not really have very much historical continuity as a single state, as a single society. So, there is huge diversity that was even more exacerbated during the British colonial rule, during which large numbers of people from other parts of Asia also came to what was then British Burma to work in various sectors of the British colonial administration. 

So, it is not only the Rohingya, basically, that have found difficulties to be accepted as full-fledged equal citizens over time, but also, for instance, Indian origin or Chinese origin residents of Myanmar, many of whom left in the thousands in the 1950s and 1960s. So, the question of Burmese or Bamar nationalism is one that has been following the history of independent Burma for the last 70-80 years. And it's also the reason why many of the smaller ethnic groups, the ethnic minorities, have been essentially in armed opposition to the state of Myanmar for decades, for generations.  

Now with the Rohingya, it should also be said that for decades they have been considered full citizens, but this citizenship has been gradually undermined and eventually taken away, starting in the 1980s but more and more in the recent decade. So for instance, in the first elections held under the 2008 constitution, in 2010, which was one I should say, quite significantly rigged by the by military authorities. But during those elections most Rohingya still had voting rights for the parliamentary elections. These were then taken away for the 2015 elections, and ultimately removed altogether for the 2020 elections.  So the the marginalization and discrimination against the Rohingya community has been has goes back for decades, but has become gradually worse, and has especially been instrumentalized by the military in its effort to whip up nationalist sentiment and anti-Muslim mood among the population in order to also undermine the electoral appeal by the democratic parties.  So, there is of course a degree of racism and discrimination, as in every society. But one should also add that the military has understood to instrumentalize these underlying sentiments, and to therefore politicize this particular prejudice and discrimination for its own purposes.  

And, when in 2016 and 17 the crisis in Rakhine State erupted, the military came down with a very drastic and brutal campaign of ethnic cleansing that has had a genocidal character and has also led to the well known cases at the level of international criminal law. And that put Aung San Suu Kyi and the NLD led government into a very difficult position of having to take a strong stand on human rights and minority protection, and at the same time maintain this very uneasy power sharing deal with the military during those years under the 2008 constitution.  Because it should be on the line that even during the past five years when the NLD held an outright majority in the parliament in Myanmar, it was not able to govern by itself, because the Constitution reserved the certain power positions to the military, and also guaranteed a quarter of the seats in the parliament to the military itself. 

So the Constitution itself enshrined a very difficult power-sharing deal with the military that in a way limited the range of action that Aung San Suu Kyi and the Democratic movement was able to take. And that is the reason why now the entire Democratic coalition, which includes the NLD, but also ethnic communities, civil society groups, and strike committees are united in their demand to once and for all get rid of this military special status in the new constitution that is being worked on, and to subordinate the military under civilian rule, as it should be in any normal democratic society.

John Torpey  15:35

I mean, in some ways, it's obviously a kind of sad tale, but you had also said, when we were talking earlier, that there's been a major sort of a movement of resistance by the Burmese or Myanmar population. Maybe you could tell us a little bit about you know, how that works and what successes it may be having.

Marcus Brand  15:56

Yes, so that is really one of the most interesting developments in Myanmar recently that has taken many people by surprise, including, of course, also the military itself. The military probably assumed that by taking power and by detaining Aung San Suu Kyi and the leadership of the NLD, they would be able to get away with this coup, that they even implausibly tried to portray as being constitutional. This has, of course, been refuted by constitutional legal analysis. But what's more important is that the people simply did not want to accept it.  And very quickly mounted what then became known as the Spring Revolution, which started very much as a bottom up, grassroots level initiative in many of the cities around the country. It was also led by civil servants who simply refused to take orders from the military. So more than 400,000 civil servants have resigned from their positions and have joined the legitimate interim institutions that were formed after the elected MPs got together and constituted themselves as an underground parliament, that then built a national unity government together with the ethnic minority organizations, civil society groups, and various actors from the democracy movement.  

And this has taken many people by surprise, also because it is led not by one single icon figure like Aung San Suu Kyi, but is a form of collective leadership that allowed also many women and younger people to take leadership roles, and that have been mounting not only this creation of the these interim institutions, but have also been able to take control over significant part of the rural areas where the military administration has already lost control. So this interim government, which is, by the way, represented at the level of the United Nations by a permanent representative, who remains in place, representing the democratic, legitimate Myanmar, has been able to function using digital means, essentially, as an online government with some ministers and government staff inside the country, some spread around the world. And they have been able to collect taxes and revenues, build a budget, support a health system, support and education system, so functioning like a sort of virtual government in exile, so to say, that still enjoys the legitimacy and majority support of the population. And it is these interim institutions that are currently setting policy.  

And since you mentioned the Rohingya, it is very important to emphasize that this national unity government has turned around completely with regard to the Rohingya issue, even compared to the previous NLD position, in the sense that it first of all, formally recognized the Rohingya as an ethnic group of Myanmar. It has issued an apology for the atrocities committed in recent years, and it has fully submitted under the jurisdiction of the International Criminal Court for criminal responsibility for anybody responsible for the atrocities. And it has also invited Rohingya to join these interim institutions and has reassured the Rohingya community that in the future, under the new constitutional framework, Rohingya would gain full citizenship and would be able to return to Rakhine State, to their home regions, and enjoy full and equal citizenship without discrimination. And so in that sense, there has also been quite positive developments on the political level among the democratic forces in the recent year, that in a way bode well for a post military future of Myanmar and I think our evidence that democracy is firmly rooted in popular demand in the country and has a chance to survive if it gets appropriate international assistance.

John Torpey  20:51

Well, this all sounds very promising. So that's good news. And a little strange that one doesn't hear about this kind of good news often, it seems in the media, I mean, I haven't seen much about Myanmar, in the papers and the news very much in the recent past. So I'm glad to hear about this. I mean, there's also an interesting kind of parallel, it seems to me, around the theme of resistance.  In the case of the other country that we wanted to talk to you about, namely, Ukraine. I mean, obviously, there are major differences. But resistance in both cases seems to be a pretty significant, you know, factor in developments. And so maybe you could start just by talking a little bit about your own experience of Ukraine, and how long you were there, what you were doing, and whether you're surprised, as I think Vladimir Putin has been, by the resistance of the Ukrainian population to this invasion.

Marcus Brand  21:51

Yes. So, I spent five years in Ukraine living in Kyiv, working for the United Nations Development Programme between 2015 and 2020. And during those years, I was able to observe and also support the quite significant process of democratization and transformation of civil society across the country. So I am not surprised by the fierce resistance mounted by Ukraine against Russian aggression, and against the challenge to its own identity. And I think that is really the the interesting parallel here between Myanmar and Ukraine, in the sense that the attacker in the case of Myanmar, the military leadership, in the case of Ukraine, the leadership in Moscow, had completely miscalculated, and underestimated the resistance that they would encounter for and overestimated their own ability to simply assert themselves by projecting brutal force and taking power directly.  

In Ukraine, it is also interesting that the claims that those using Russian as a first language somehow have an allegiance to Russia, and would somehow be willing to be integrated into some kind of greater Russia simply for the fact of speaking Russian. And this has turned out to be a huge miscalculation, because it is precisely in those predominantly Russian-speaking cities of Kharkiv or Kherson or others, Mariupol, for that the resistance has actually been greatest. So this narrative spawned by the Kremlin that this is about liberating fellow Russians from a dictatorship in Kyiv is completely groundless, and in the same way as the claims by the Myanmar military, that there had been massive electoral fraud in the 2020 elections has found to be completely baseless. So what we see really is a thinly veiled attempt to impose control by sheer military brutality and force. And in both cases, people are bravely resisting against this and clearly have all arguments of legitimacy on their side.

John Torpey  24:55

Understood, but maybe you could talk about the situation sort of on the ground. I mean, I mentioned in our in the introduction that I gave to this discussion, that there are already something like 2 million IDPs (internally displaced persons) and more than 3 million (it seems) Ukrainians outside of Ukraine, by and large, in the immediate neighboring states that, you know, were easier to get to, and that many people had relatives and friends, perhaps, that they could connect with. I mean, how do you see this humanitarian and refugee situation playing out? I mean, there's right now, there's a lot of openness to taking people in. Some people would say it's because they're culturally more similar to the people in the neighboring states, which kind of makes sense, so they're more open to maybe to these people. But how do you see this playing out in the coming years?

Marcus Brand  25:59

Well, as a European, I can, of course, say that this is clearly one of the biggest crises we've all experienced in our lifetimes. This is already likely to be the biggest refugee movement in generations. And it poses huge challenges to many of the receiving countries. I know that many efforts are on the way. There is a huge wave of generous hospitality in many European countries, including poor ones like Moldova or Romania, but also in Poland and Slovakia where the host population has mobilized quite significantly, to host refugees from Ukraine. 

I should also maybe add on the aspect of democratic resilience, since this is more my field and my expertise. It is interesting that not only has the President and the Presidential Administration and the Government of Ukraine held out and continues to function. Also, the parliament, for instance, has continued to be in session, has continued to adopt legislation, and also the local governments across the country that has just recently come out of a major reform on decentralization, has shown an enormous level of resilience. And that in a way shows also that the changes over the past years in terms of democratic consolidation have firmly taken root, that the population stands behind its democratic legitimate leaders.  

Before the aggression, one should add that the government led by President Zelenskyy was not necessarily at its most popular. But he did win a presidential election three years ago, with more than 70% of the vote, and has, in the meantime, the highest approval ratings of any leader in Ukraine, ever. And so I think there is something very interesting has also happened in the society of Ukraine as a result of this aggression. First of all, that it it has reaffirmed Ukrainian identity across linguistic barriers. It has certainly brought to an end the myth that Russia is genuinely interested in the wellbeing of Russian speakers in Ukraine. But it simply aims to destroy the very idea of an independent Ukraine and of a distinct Ukrainian national identity. Now, the paradox is that this aggression has had exactly the opposite result. 

And this is here, also, again a very interesting parallel with Myanmar, where the military's attempt to take over power has actually consolidated the commitment across society to a democracy, and to democratic reforms, and to an end of military rule. So there are certainly a lot of very interesting questions that are coming up.  But in the meantime, we have to deal with a very significant humanitarian crisis in both cases. In the case of Myanmar, we have more than half a million internally displaced in very dire circumstances, plus hundreds of thousands who are still languishing in refugee camps in Bangladesh. At the same time, we have now at the other end, in Eastern Europe, this wave of Ukrainian refugees, and we have to find very creative solutions very fast to meet these humanitarian needs. At the same time, we should not lose sight of the longer term strategic objective, which is to restore peace and democratic governance in both countries on the basis of the will of the people, and to end these assaults on legitimacy and on legitimate government in both situations.

John Torpey  30:39

Interesting. So maybe one final question about the broad field of democracy, democracy development, and decline. It occurs to me that Francis Fukuyama, as you may know has said that Putin is basically facing a big defeat in Ukraine, and the whole episode is actually going to have the effect - many people have pointed to the way the West has responded in this kind of relatively unified way -Fukuyama is suggesting that this is going to bring us out of the funk that we've had about democratic decline over the last couple of decades, at least. And of course, he was sort of the sage of the collapse of Soviet communism and the Iron Curtain and all this and seen as somebody who had seen the future and was this great visionary. 

And I guess I wonder what you make of a comment like that. Is that really going to be the case? I mean, of course, it presupposes in a certain sense that Putin is, in fact, facing defeat in Ukraine about which, you know, opinions could differ. But it certainly has been a kind of striking response on the part of the NATO countries, at the same time there obviously serious kind of hesitancy about the kinds of military action in the West that NATO can undertake without risking major escalation. So just curious what you would say about Fukuyama's comment and democratic decline in these cases.

Marcus Brand  32:22

Yeah, thank you for this question. Our institute, IDEA, publishes "the Global State of Democracy" report. And in the most recent one last year, International IDEA very much pointed to the threats to democracy and to the gradual erosion and demolition, on purpose, by the enemies of democracy that we have observed in countries around the world, both at the center of the democratic world and at the periphery. I don't want to talk so much about the US and and the European Union, but the countries that I know well, Myanmar and Ukraine, are probably good examples for the periphery of the democratic world where we see a very significant popular mobilization for democracy and demand a strong awareness of the importance of fighting for democracy, at the same time as that is being challenged by a very different paradigm of autocracy of state control that is very often just a cover for kleptocratic autocracy, as we see it in some of the countries in the in the Asian continent.  

What I would consider a paradox is that just as in Ukraine and in Myanmar,  where democratic, legitimate leaderships have been challenged and have been attacked, the effect has actually been the opposite, which is that the people have mobilized very actively in order to defend these democratic freedoms and these democratic institutions. And that, to me, is also a sign of hope that we may not actually live in an era of democratic decline but where the achievements that we have made in terms of democratic governance are challenged by certain powerful groups that don't have anything to gain from such a democratic development, but that the resistance and resilience of societies are stronger than we might have expected.

John Torpey  34:53

Well, let's end on that promising note. Let's hope things head in that direction. That's it for today's episode. I want to thank Marcus Brandt of International IDEA for sharing his insights about recent developments in Myanmar and Ukraine and about the future of democracy more generally.  Remember to subscribe and rate International Horizons on SoundCloud, Spotify, and Apple podcasts. I want to thank Oswaldo Mena Aguilar for his technical assistance as well as to acknowledge Duncan Mackay for sharing his song "International Horizons" as the theme music for the show. This is John Torpey saying thanks for joining us and we look forward to having you with us for the next episode of International Horizons.