Where is Post-Coup Myanmar Headed?
The country's uncertain outlook has broader implications for Southeast Asia and the wider world.
A new book by academic Amitav Acharya argues that Myanmar’s February 2021 coup and the country’s uncertain post-coup future should be understood as the latest tragic chapter in its historic inability to realize its promise due to self-inflicted setbacks amid wider regional and international challenges.
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Where is Post-Coup Myanmar Headed?
Word Count: 1,558 words (~8 minutes)
While the 2021 Myanmar coup which shut the door on the country’s partial opening in the early 2010s is among the most dramatic contemporary political turnarounds in Southeast Asia, more broadly, it is also yet another chapter in the country’s tragic history. Nation-building in Myanmar, the second-largest country by size in Southeast Asia, has proven to be a vexing challenge since independence despite the initial hopes for the country, which sits at the crossroads of Asia’s two giants India and China, was once a top world rice exporter and had no shortage of talent including in the form of founding father Aung San — father of democracy icon Aung San Suu Kyi — who was tragically assassinated in 1947. A number of book-length studies have begun to focus on this latest chapter in Myanmar’s history, including Oliver Slow’s Return of the Junta and Erin Murphy’s Burmese Haze (it is also covered in some wider works about the region, such as Scot Marciel’s Imperfect Partners previously reviewed here)1.
A new book by academic Amitav Acharya, Tragic Nation Burma, frames the coup as the latest tragic chapter in Myanmar’s historic inability to realize its promise due to largely domestic-driven, self-inflicted setbacks, with the February 2021 coup representing “the most striking example of the tragedy of modern Myanmar.”2 The book, which is ten chapters and 188 pages long (see a snapshot of its structure in the table below), does acknowledge the role of background factors, be it its British colonial legacy that reinforced a divided political culture or its geographical position amid major powers that has acted as a double-edged sword – providing relevance for the country but also posing a threat to its sovereignty and a challenge for the military to rule. But Acharya also makes clear that the “self-fulfilling logic and dynamic of regime survival” has been a principal factor in entrenching military rule, which was evident early on when a coup in 1962 brought an end to the initial phase of civilian government since independence in 19483. He also grounds Myanmar’s story in wider regional and international perspective, noting how the country has evolved alongside wider themes such as the Asian values debate of the 1990s and exposed divisions following the coup among major powers like Australia, China, India, Japan and the United States over sanctions and rights (“when it comes to Burma,” Acharya strikingly writes, “there is no ‘international community.’”4)
Chapters and Focus Areas in “Tragic Nation Burma”
The book succeeds in its task of serving as an exploration for a more general international audience looking to understand the coup from a broader perspective. It effectively blends Acharya’s own experience with insights of Myanmar experts across areas – be it Mary Callahan’s contention about the primacy of unity to Aung San’s initial vision for Myanmar, or Thant Myint-U’s argument that the formation of an inclusive national identity beyond ethnicity or race is central to Myanmar’s future. The book also deserves credit for explicitly including the voices of some of the young people from Myanmar, who Acharya labels “thought warriors” and a key source of hope for the country. Diversity, inclusively understood, ought not to be limited to race or gender — it should also extend to other factors including age and background. Beyond Myanmar, Southeast Asia’s rising international significance underlines the need to hear more about Southeast Asia from Southeast Asians themselves directly. Reading these voices in their own words provides a specificity that cannot be accomplished either by generic qualitative statements about “the energy of the youth in the country” or large quantitative samplings.
With respect to the 2021 coup itself, the book also largely avoids the rather tired extremes or false choice of the development being seen as either an entirely unexpected development or just an inevitable part of Myanmar’s tragic history. Acharya contends that while background factors no doubt played a role, it is “difficult for one to escape” the conclusion that the coup was partly due to the military regime’s fear of its loss of privilege after a dismal election performance, even if other issues were also at play like disagreements with Suu Kyi. Some may well disagree with the weighting of factors in Acharya’s take. But it allows for more complexity than accounts that seek to blame the coup principally on Suu Kyi’s performance while in power — which downplay structural realities such as the military’s hold on power even during periods of civilian governance — or those that argue that this was proof that reform was never ever really possible, which can understate the role of agency and circumstance in transitions of this sort. That complexity is also present in the final chapter on Myanmar’s post-coup prospects. Rather than avoid the risk of wading into uncertainty altogether, Acharya assesses both aggregate scenarios as well as granular dimensions of the country’s political, military, economic and humanitarian dynamics (see a select summary of those in the table below).