Following independence, Myanmar’s history remained turbulent. Conservatives, communists, and ethnic minorities all had reasons to be displeased with the agreement, and each developed insurgencies against the national government, leading to a ten-year civil war.
Just before a peace settlement was found in 1958, Ne Win, the army chief of staff, took autocratic control in what has been known as a ‘constitutional coup’. He established internal security, stabilised the military situation, and paved the way for democratic elections, which returned him with an absolute minority.
Democracy would not last. In March 1962, Ne Win led a military coup and the previous prime minister, the chief justice and several cabinet ministers. A military controlled one-party system was established, with the stated purpose of making Burma a socialist state. Ne Win furthered land nationalisation that had occurred after independence, and nationalised the nation’s commerce and industry.
Following violent protests in 1988, he resigned as president and chairman. However, the armed forces, led by General Saw Maung seized control of the government, killing thousands of unarmed protesters and imposing martial law.
In May 1990, Myanmar held its first multiparty elections in 30 years, with a landslide victory for the opposition coalition known as the National League for Democracy (NLD). However, the military did not allow the legislature to reconvene and the NLD’s leader, Aung San Suu Kyi, was forced to remain under house arrest resulting from the earlier uprising.
International condemnation of the military regime was strong, and Aung San Suu Kyi received the Nobel Peace Prize in 1991. She remained under house arrest until 1995 and was thereafter detained periodically, totalling 15 years under house arrest.
While the military dictatorship would solidify power throughout the 1990s, Burma was hard hit by economic sanctions placed on the country by the United States and European Union. In 2008, the military government agreed to implement a new constitution, which was put to a public referendum. Provisions held that the military would have a leading role in future governments, but gave some scope for parliamentary elections.
In the lead up to the 2010 election, however, laws were put into place annulling the results of the 1990 election and prohibiting persons married to foreign nationals or convicted of crimes from participating – a provision explicitly targeted at Aung San Suu Kyi, who was married to a British citizen and had been convicted in 2009 of violating the terms of her house arrest. The NLD decided not to compete in the election. While other opposition parties ran, widespread fraud meant that the parties of the government won.
However, after the election the government relaxed press restrictions, released thousands of political prisoners in a general amnesty and allowed for peaceful demonstrations and the formation of unions. In elections in 2012, the NLD competed as an official party, winning 43 of the 45 seats that were up for election.
Parliamentary elections were held in early November 2015, the first to be freely contested, leading to a decisive NLD victory that was widely heralded as a victory for democracy.
Since the election, however, Aung San Suu Kyi has been the subject of international condemnation, in what observers have described as a ‘fall from grace’. In particular, she and the NLD government have faced criticism for prosecuting journalists and activists using colonial-era laws.x`