Remembering Myanmar’s Miserable May

This May marked the 15th anniversary of two tragic events in Myanmar. The first tragedy was the devastation caused by Cyclone Nargis, a Category 4 storm that swept through central Myanmar on May 2, 2008. The second tragedy was the decision by the State Peace and Development Council (SPDC), the ruling military junta at the time, to hold a referendum in May 2008 on a new constitution for the nation. While the tragic consequences of Cyclone Nargis were immediately apparent, the damage done by the SPDC’s new constitution took more time to be revealed.

Cyclone Nargis

On May 2, 2008, Cyclone Nargis struck the coast of Myanmar near the city of Yangon and swept across the Irrawaddy River valley, leaving a path of devastation and destruction. The SPDC never released an official final death toll; it has been estimated that more than 130,000 people died.

That figure was probably increased when the SPDC initially blocked the provision of humanitarian assistance by both domestic and international relief efforts. Trucks of supplies sent by local humanitarian organizations were stopped and seized by SPDC soldiers; some of the organizers of the relief effort were arrested. Aid and relief workers sent by international organizations were barred from entering the country. Access was eventually obtained after then UN secretary-general Ban Ki-moon and the Association of Southeast Asian Nations (ASEAN) negotiated an agreement with the SPDC to allow the provision of humanitarian assistance. It took more than two years for the areas struck by Cyclone Nargis to recover.

The SPDC’s Constitution

The arrival of Cyclone Nargis coincided with a national referendum on a proposed new constitution that was drafted by the military and its supporters. The constitution, if approved, would create a hybrid civilian/military government in which the military would remain the dominant power, but transfer some authority to the civilian component.

The text of the constitution was released to the public on April 4, 2008, and the referendum was originally scheduled for May 10, 2008. After Cyclone Nargis, the SPDC announced the referendum would be held as planned in most of the country, but voting would be delayed until May 24 in the areas most severely affected by the storm.

According to the SPDC, more than 98 percent of eligible voters turned out for the constitutional referendum, of which nearly 93 percent voted in favor of adopting the constitution. These results were widely condemned as fraudulent by the international community, including then president Bush. Domestic and international observers of the polling stations reported a relatively light turnout and many procedural irregularities.

Despite the international condemnation, the SPDC moved forward with its plans to establish a new government under the provisions of the 2008 constitution. Parliamentary elections were held in November 2010, but were boycotted by Aung San Suu Kyi’s National League for Democracy (NLD) and many of the country’s pro-democracy, ethnically-based political parties. Nearly all of Myanmar’s ethnic armed organizations (EAOs) refused to recognize the legitimacy of the 2008 constitution and the resulting Union Government.

Little changed in Myanmar after the Union Parliament took office in 2011 and selected SPDC prime minister General Thein Sein as president. The military controlled both the civilian and military components of the new government. The opposition to the military continued their campaign for the establishment of an authentic democratic civilian government. The EAOs remained committed to their struggle for greater autonomy for the seven ethnic states—Chin, Kachin, Karen, Kayin, Mon, Rakhine, and Shan—as promised in the 1947 Panglong Agreement.

The tragic consequences of the May 2008 constitutional referendum were slowly exposed after the formation of the Union Government in 2011. Then-president Thein Sein released some—but not all—of the prisoners of conscience imprisoned by the SPDC and implemented several modest political reforms, raising false hopes for further progress toward democracy and respect for human rights. He also appointed a ceasefire negotiating team ostensibly to discuss terms with the EAOs to end Myanmar’s decades-old civil war.

In retrospect, while Thein Sein may have been sincere in his efforts to promote political reform and negotiate ceasefire agreements with the EAOs, the Myanmar military and its newly appointed commander-in-chief, Senior General Min Aung Hlaing, made it clear that they were opposed to any substantive changes to the 2008 constitution and the Union Government. Even while ceasefire negotiations were underway, the Myanmar military escalated and intensified its attacks on some of the EAOs. During the ceasefire negotiations, the Myanmar military insisted that the EAOs recognize the legitimacy of the 2008 constitution, and undertake a process of “disarmament, demobilization, and reintegration,” or DDR—conditions unacceptable to most of the EAOs.

Subsequent events in Myanmar also gradually revealed the tragic nature of the May 2008 constitutional referendum. In 2012, the NLD and many other pro-democracy political parties agreed to participate in a by-election to fill 45 vacant seats in the Union Parliament. NLD candidates won all but two of the seats. Some observers interpreted the results as a sign of possible progress, ignoring the fact that the military remained firmly in control of the Union Government.

In 2015, the NLD won a majority of the seats in both chambers of the Union Parliament, and Aung San Suu Kyi was appointed to the newly created position of state counselor, with power similar to those of a prime minister. Once again, some observers incorrectly portrayed the NLD’s victory as a sign of progress, overlooking the provisions in the 2008 constitution that gave the military greater control over the government.

Min Aung Hlaing and the military used those powers to block the NLD’s efforts to amend the 2008 constitution and undermine Aung San Suu Kyi’s efforts to end Myanmar’s civil war. In addition, the military expanded its military campaign against the EAOs, and in 2017, undertook a genocidal attack in Rakhine State on the Rohingya, killing thousands of unarmed civilians and driving more than 750,000 people into neighboring Bangladesh. Similar genocidal attacks were conducted between 2011 and 2020 in other ethnic states, but on a much smaller scale.

Aung San Suu Kyi’s apparent defense of the Myanmar military’s assault on the Rohingya ruined her international reputation and destroyed her image with Myanmar’s non-Bamar ethnic communities. Although the NLD won a majority in the Union Parliament in the 2020 parliamentary election, the non-Bamar population no longer saw her and the NLD as offering hope for their democratic dreams.

The February 2021 coup was almost inevitable, given the turn of events since the May 2008 constitution. Virtually none of the major domestic political forces had acquiesced to the military’s insistence on the legitimacy of the Union Government as established by the 2008 constitution. The NLD and the ethnic-based political parties remained committed to amending or altering the constitution to create a government more in accordance with their vision of democracy in Myanmar but were repeatedly stymied by the military. The major EAOs refused to accept the 2008 constitution and demanded that a general agreement of political reforms precede a nationwide ceasefire agreement. The fundamental balance of power in Myanmar remained unaltered, with the military holding the upper hand.

The Misery of May 2023

May 2023 was not much better for Myanmar than May 2008. Cyclone Mocha swept through the Rohingya refugee camps in Bangladesh and across northern Rakhine State and Chin State. Fortunately, the initial death toll was much lower than Cyclone Nargis, but the response of the current military junta, the State Administrative Council (SAC), has been similar to that of the SPDC. The SAC is reportedly blocking the provision of international humanitarian assistance in Chin and Rakhine States, possibly as part of its campaign to weaken the Arakan Army, the Chin National Front, and the Chinland Defense Forces that have taken control of portions of the two states.

Across much of the country, a multifront civil war is underway. The stated objective of the EAOs and newly created People’s Defense Forces (PDFs) is to defeat and dismantle the Myanmar military and the SAC. Fighting has erupted in most of the country, including in the seven regions of Ayeyarwady, Bago, Magway, Mandalay, Sagaing, Tanintharyi, and Yangon—places that had been generally spared from the direct effects of the civil war in the past.

The outcome of the current conflict is far from certain. The SAC and its forces have the advantage of better weaponry, which continue to be provided by China, India, Russia, and other nations. However, the SAC is reportedly suffering heavy casualties and having trouble recruiting new soldiers. The EAOs and PDFs have the advantage of better knowledge of the local terrain and an influx of volunteers but struggle to provide the new troops with weapons to continue the fight.

The sad consequence of the coup and the civil war is the continued suffering of the people of Myanmar. The SAC forces have seemingly adopted a strategy known as the “four cuts,” designed to deprive the EAOs and PDFs of the food, finances, intelligence, and recruits to continue the war. To carry out the “four cuts” strategy, SAC forces attack unarmed villages and towns with planes, helicopters, and artillery, and then send in troops to burn all the buildings.

As a result, there are now more than 1.6 million internally displaced persons (IDPs) in Myanmar in desperate need of humanitarian assistance. In 2022, the UNHCR was able to reach about 500,000 of the IDPs. Consistent with its past practices, the Myanmar military is blocking aid from reaching IDPs in EAO/PDF-controlled areas of the country.

If the U.S. government and the international community wish to provide relief to the people of Myanmar, more needs to be done to bring down the SAC and deliver desperately needed humanitarian assistance. For now, aid should be delivered across the border from neighboring India and Thailand, both of which have been reluctant to allow international organizations to operate along their borders with Myanmar. In addition, it is time to examine the possibility of providing greater support to the EAOs and PDFs in their campaign to defeat the SAC and possibly bring peace to Myanmar.

Michael F. Martin is an adjunct fellow (non-resident) with the Southeast Asia Program at the Center for Strategic and International Studies in Washington, D.C.

Michael Martin
Adjunct Fellow (Non-resident), Southeast Asia Program