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The Right to Revolution: A Closer Look at the Myanmar Military Coup

Throughout its decades of independence, Myanmar, also known as Burma, has battled against repressive military rule, civil war, isolation from global affairs, and widespread poverty. In 2011, the transfer to civilian leadership incited hope for democratic reform. Moreover, the dissolved military junta gave way to a military-installed transitional government and signaled a new era for the Southeast Asian nation. However, the military retained control over most of the government and continues to dominate domestic affairs. In 2015, the opposition party, the National League for Democracy (NLD), won majorities in both chambers of parliament. Aung San Suu Kyi led the party to further success in the second national election in 2020. Suu Kyi, who has ruled as Myanmar’s de facto leader since 2015, won an overwhelming majority of the 2020 election votes. The armed forces demanded a rerun of the vote, claiming there was widespread fraud. Human Rights Watch and other groups said the elections were flawed because of the disenfranchisement of Rohingya Muslims, but no one disputed the NLD’s massive victory. The election commission also concluded no evidence supported the military’s claims of voter fraud. After the commission rejected the military’s claims, a coup was staged in February 2021.

The military detained Suu Kyi, placed lawmakers from the NLD and other opposition parties under house arrest, and declared Senior Gen. Min Aung Hlaing leader of the yearlong state of emergency. While the military stated it would hold a new election after the state of emergency ends, experts believe the military could retain power indefinitely. After news of the coup spread, civilians took to the streets in Myanmar’s largest protest since the Saffron Revolution.

The military takeover leaves little room for citizen autonomy. The military has initiated strict measures of control. Such measures include blocking roads in the capital, Nay Pyi Taw, and the main city, Yangon; shutting off international and domestic TV, disrupting internet and phone services; closing banks, and implementing a curfew. These restrictions are all results of the widespread protests since the coup started. Is the next step a revolution?

This coup raises several questions concerning democracy and potential revolution. Some of the questions include who has the right to revolution, what are the conditions for revolt, and is a revolution necessary to maintain the democratic structure in the country. These questions strike at the heart of John Locke’s theory of resistance.

Whosoever uses force without right—as every one does in society who does it without law—puts himself into a state of war with those against whom he so uses it, and in that state all former ties are cancelled, all other rights cease, and every one has a right to defend himself, and to resist the aggressor.

As Peter Reinisch writes, one of Locke’s main goals in his “Two Treatises of Government” was to “prove that under certain conditions, people can resist their government.” Reinisch explains that Locke’s foundations rest on theology, human nature, and reason. His Christian assumptions help derive many rights and duties, which we can implement in our understanding of legitimate government and revolution. Government, for Locke, is necessary in that it provides the best means available for human beings to bring about and obey God’s law of nature. Locke views political power as not just the authority to administer resources of policies of the state and society, but that its very essence contains a moral component. Political power of the government must rely on the consent of those it wishes to govern. However, if a government denies the consent of its people, it is no longer legitimate.

There is clear distinction between legitimate and illegitimate government that guides Locke’s reasoning for resisting government. The difference also helps us distinguish between resistance and rebellion. Resistance recognizes an illegitimate government and derives from our natural right to self-defense. Conversely, rebellion, in Locke’s eyes, is an opposition to legitimate authority. He states, “For rebellion being an opposition, not to persons, but authority, which is founded only in the constitutions and laws of the government.”

In Myanmar’s case, the military has unjustly seized control of the government and country. The conquest fashion of the military takeover qualifies as an illegitimate form of government as it was not set up by the consent of the people. Reinisch synthesizes Locke’s view, writing that “when a government is established by conquest an aggressor unjustly invaded another person’s rights by force and put themselves into a state of war with that person.” Therefore, the conquered is not obligated to obey the conqueror and “may morally resist them with force.”

The Tatmadaw military coup and declared one-year state of emergency meet the criteria of illegitimate government. The question now remains: Will the people justifiably resist, or will democracy be put on hold?