Daily protests against the military coup in Myanmar are the latest sign that people around the world are unwilling to acquiesce when their desire for freedom is thwarted by undemocratic forces. The country emerged as a beacon of progress just five years ago, when the military began sharing power with elected civilian leaders who had long been persecuted. Although a genocidal campaign against the Rohingya minority and crackdowns on dissent later stained Myanmar’s experiment with democracy, the public is clearly determined to prevent a full reversal of its gains over the past decade. Millions of people have participated in mass civil-disobedience campaigns since February 1, and demonstrators have bravely risked their lives in face of escalating violence by security forces.
This is a story that has played out in numerous other countries in recent years. But if those cases are any guide, the protesters in Myanmar face long odds in their effort to recover some semblance of democracy.
Dictators have become increasingly resourceful in holding the line against popular pro-democracy movements. In fact, Freedom House’s latest Freedom in the World report found that 2020 was the fifteenth consecutive year of declining political rights and civil liberties around the world. Time and again, authoritarian forces like Myanmar’s military have gained the upper hand, and protesters have gradually succumbed to unrelenting repression.
From Algeria and Guinea to India and Iran, abusive authorities successfully staved off public demands last year by arresting and prosecuting demonstrators, passing restrictive new laws, and in some cases resorting to lethal crackdowns, for which they faced few international repercussions. Of 39 countries that Freedom House identified as having had at least one significant protest in 2019, 23 suffered a net decline in political rights and civil liberties in 2020—a much higher proportion than in the world at large.
Protests have failed to bring change in part because dictators are willing to inflict tremendous damage on their own countries in their quest to retain power. Venezuela is a tragic example. After years of frustration, hopes rose in early 2019 when opposition leader Juan Guaidó appeared to present a serious challenge to the oppressive rule of Nicolás Maduro. The National Assembly named Guaidó as interim president under the constitution, citing the illegitimacy of the presidential election that kept Maduro in office, and many democratic governments recognized Guaidó’s status. But Maduro dug in as Venezuela’s economy and society continued to collapse, dispatching police and paramilitary forces to hunt down opposition demonstrators and seeking ways to undermine his rival’s legitimacy. By the end of 2020, Guaidó’s prospects had dimmed, and the regime had engineered elections for a new National Assembly that were boycotted and rejected by the democratic opposition.
Hong Kong’s democracy movement seems headed for a similar fate. In 2019, the population mounted enormous protests in opposition to an extradition bill that threatened the territory’s autonomy and civil liberties—part of a pattern of growing authoritarian encroachment from Beijing. In another show of strength, democratic forces won a sweeping victory in district council elections that year. But the Chinese Communist Party struck back hard, imposing a draconian National Security Law in mid-2020 that immediately chilled free expression and undercut due process guarantees. Authorities arbitrarily postponed legislative elections, and went on to arrest more than 50 pro-democracy activists and politicians early this year.
It took even less time for Belarusian dictator Aleksandr Lukashenko to regain his footing after citizens unexpectedly poured into the streets last August to challenge the fraudulent results of the presidential election. For a few weeks, Lukashenko was on the defensive, but he sought aid from neighboring Russia’s authoritarian regime and began systematically jailing and torturing protesters and activists. While the opposition has not given up, many of its leaders are now in exile, and its momentum has flagged as Lukashenko clings to power and doubles down on repression.
This disappointing pattern can be reversed. People around the world continue to desire and demand the benefits of democracy, but they need international solidarity to overcome ruthless resistance by incumbent leaders, who often enjoy foreign support of their own from likeminded regimes. When protests break out against dictatorial systems, the U.S., European, and other democratic governments should publicly express support for the participants’ fundamental rights. Pro-democracy activists also need training, emergency resources, and asylum if they are forced to leave their home country. When violent crackdowns take place, democracies should impose targeted sanctions, suspend or set conditions on foreign assistance, and openly condemn the repressive action. All of this should be done in a unified, coordinated fashion to enhance its impact.
Democracy today is under siege, but it is not defeated. If its supporters work together, they can turn back the authoritarian onslaught and build a freer and more peaceful world.