Just as in Pakistan, the military has become extremely wealthy, controlling a vast web of companies with links to industries such as jade and ruby mining, tobacco, beer, manufacturing, tourism, banking, transport and much more. A true civilian government would threaten all this and so must be prevented, so the military’s argument goes, by the reassertion of its power and dominance of the political system.
“We took power in order to ensure a genuine and disciplined democratic system” claimed Myanmar dictator, General Min Aung Hlaing when trying to justify his decision to toss out the results of last year’s democratic elections, a resounding loss for the military. Dictators are allergic to reform. They are cunning survivors and will do whatever it takes to preserve their power and wealth, even insulting people’s intelligence. Despite their allegation of electoral fraud, the generals have produced no substantive evidence supporting such claims.
Min Aung Hlaing is said by his critics to be a controlling, egotistical and ambitious individual who distrusted and intensely disliked Suu Kyi, the state councillor whom he locked up last month in a power grab after a 10-year quasi-democratic experiment. He was due to go into retirement in July this year, but Suu Kyi’s repeat landslide victory in the November elections angered him so much that many believe his personal grievances and fear of losing control are responsible for the political crisis unfolding in Myanmar. Min Aung Hlaing is someone who was never reconciled to civilian rule from the very beginning. His massive election defeat was also a rude wake-up call for him and his cohort, fearful that their power and wealth would only reduce over a period of time. Now was the time to move, or risk being permanently marginalised.
The 54 million population on Myanmar are no strangers to military rule. From 1962 until 2011, successive military regimes ruled Myanmar with an iron fist, asserting their absolute power over the people through fear and brutality. There was hope of change six years ago when Suu Kyi, a Nobel Peace Prize winner and former political prisoner, formed the first civilian government with her National League for Democracy Party (NLD) after winning landslide elections. When the NLD did it again last November, Gen Min Aung Hlaing’s patience gave up. The 75-year-old Suu Kyi was arrested, internet services were cut and news channels were taken off the air. It was deja-vu all over again, with the front page of Myanmar’s state-owned newspaper The Global New Light of Myanmar, displaying a strangely familiar photo: men in green uniforms sitting in seats of power.
In reality, however, throughout this whole period the military never really gave up political power. Just as in Pakistan, the military is the most powerful institution in the country, controlling the government, economy and every facet of life. Its sustained conflict with ethnic minorities has displaced hundreds of thousands of people and rights groups have long linked soldiers to atrocities and human rights abuses, such as rape, torture and other war crimes. A string of ruthless military dictators turned Myanmar into a pariah state, plunging the country into poverty with their disastrous economic and socialist policies.
Also, just as in Pakistan, the military has become extremely wealthy, controlling a vast web of companies with links to industries such as jade and ruby mining, tobacco, beer, manufacturing, tourism, banking, transport and much more. A true civilian government would threaten all this and so must be prevented, so the military’s argument goes, by the reassertion of its power and dominance of the political system. In the hope of quelling dissent, Hlaing initially promised new elections in a year, after the “widespread voter fraud”, which he alleged had required their takeover, had been resolved. But dictators have a nasty habit of promising one thing and doing another. The people know this and are not fooled.
But Myanmar has changed markedly in the years since the military last ruled, with more social freedoms, foreign investment and a growing middle class. With cheap and ubiquitous SIM cards (they cost $1,000 a decade ago), the population has quickly moved online with social media sites easily available. So will the military be able to maintain control as they did before? Is the coup the death knell of Myanmar’s democracy?
Thousands of people from all sections of Myanmar society have joined the protests and ongoing civil disobedience movements aiming to destabilize the new military regime. This time, however, the largely leaderless movement is spearheaded by young people who have come of age in the years since 2011. They intensely feel that their future is being taken away. Donning masks and flimsy plastic helmets, young people are overwhelmingly in the front lines of protest, building barricades and staring down security forces. They have suffered heavy casualties. Half of the reported 60 people who have died because of the violent crackdown by the army were under 25, with 17 of them under 20 years of age. The UN Children’s Fund said that at least five children, all boys between 14 and 17, had been killed as well as many children severely wounded. This is cold-blooded murder by a nervous military, despite the risible claims by the junta that it is “acting with the utmost restraint”.
So has Min Aung Hlaing overplayed the army’s tried and tested strategy of deploying brutal firepower against unarmed civilians? In the past, the general’s architecture of terror was built on the brazen belief that they could carry on their repression because the streets could easily be silenced and the impact of the international community’s outrage and sanctions was largely borne by ordinary people. Min Aung Hlaing’ calculus may have been something similar back in February, but this time he and his fellow generals may have made a major miscalculation.
External pressures on the junta might also have some effect on their thinking and resolve. On 27 February, the UN special envoy to Myanmar warned the 193-member UN General Assembly that “no country should recognise or legitimise the Myanmar junta”. This followed the major setback to the junta when the UN’s Myanmar ambassador, Kyaw Moe, appealed to the Assembly to “use any means necessary to take action against the Myanmar military to restore democracy”. Hundreds of diplomats from Myanmar have said on social media that they are either resigning or joining the civil disobedience movement against the military government. In a further setback, when the junta attempted to move about $1 billion held at the Federal Reserve Bank of New York days after seizing power, the funds were frozen indefinitely by US officials. In applying additional pressure, the US, UK, EU and others have begun rolling out sanctions against the military leaders.
The coup threatens to destabilise the region by re-igniting armed conflict and long-standing popular grievances. So how are Myanmar’s principal neighbours reacting to the turbulence and chaos?
China, the largest neighbour, maintained cosy relations with the previous junta for years, even as Western countries cut off contact and imposed withering economic sanctions, isolating the country and throwing support behind Aung San Suu Kyi. But when the generals began cautiously to open up the country a decade ago, the move brought a rush of new foreign businesses, eager to move into a long-closed and underdeveloped market. China’s near-monopoly on Myanmar appeared all but finished.
Logic suggests that a more isolated, pariah Myanmar today would be good for China; but this enticing narrative is flawed. The current coup has had a destabilising effect on many major Chinese-backed projects which had been promoted by a surprisingly friendly relationship between the NLD, Suu Kyi’s party, and Beijing. China is Myanmar’s largest trading partner with considerable interests not only in gas and oil, but in developing further its BRI infrastructure across the region. Also, the more Suu Kyi received flak from the West for her authoritarian ways and crackdown on Rohingya minorities in 2017, the more she cultivated closer ties with Beijing. Contrasting that with the coup’s destabilising effect and the military’s long-held wariness of China, even accusing Beijing of arming Myanmar’s “terrorist groups” bordering China, one can only conclude that Beijing not only had nothing to do with the coup but would prefer Suu Kyi to be in power. This view is underpinned by a statement last week by the Chinese ambassador to Myanmar: “the current development in Myanmar is absolutely not what China wants to see”. A China expert recently confirmed that his country is “the biggest loser from the coup” and that “all the public relations effort put in by China over the past five years has gone to waste”.
But what about India’s position? In many ways, the February coup returns India to the geopolitics of the past decades. Unlike China, India’s relationship with the Tatmadaw, Myanmar’s armed forces, is not marked by distrust and suspicion. On the contrary, Delhi’s relationship gradually became of critical importance as India invested heavily in building trust with the generals, driven by the urgent need to secure its 912-mile northeastern border and blunt the extremist threats from Mizo insurgency and Naga separatist groups. Already, India has provided development assistance of more than $1.75 billion to Myanmar and is currently involved in developing the $400 million Kaladan port and highway project in the west of the country. However, lessons were learned in the 1990s when, after honouring Suu Kyi with the prestigious Jawaharlal Nehru Award, Myanmar’s junta government withdrew cooperation on the partnership aimed at catching Indian insurgents who were taking refuge in Myanmar. Delhi will not wish to repeat this miscalculation.
Following the Quad’s foreign ministers’ meeting in February, New Delhi was guarded in its response to the coup by issuing a statement simply noting “the importance of Myanmar upholding the rule of law and continuing its transition to democracy”. It stopped well short of toughening its stance against the junta by condemning the military coup and therefore compromising India’s interests. In this fiendishly complex diplomatic game, any hardening of Delhi’s position vis-a-vis the military regime could be an “own goal”, resulting in the junta looking to China to strengthen its legitimacy. On the other hand, as the largest democracy in the world, India will wish to stand clearly with the Myanmar people, savagely under threat from the military. The unusual joint visit by India’s foreign secretary and army chief last October may have been crafted with its long term interests in nurturing ties with the people and economy of Myanmar.
The army’s repression of activists continues, with savage beatings on the streets and thousands taken into custody. But this time the protestors are not backing down and demonstrations continue, bolstered by civil disobedience from people from all walks of life, even police officers. Young people have enjoyed almost ten years of relative freedom and they are not about to give up without a fight. Unlike during earlier protests, shops, factories and banks have remained closed. Steeling themselves for a long battle, opponents of the coup are hoping that by convincing enough workers to go on strike, they can throw a spanner in the machinery of the state. Already many foreign businesses are packing their bags, in a move that could hurt the generals’ bank balances.
Those with long memories will recall that many previous agitations for democracy in Myanmar ended in massacres. By backing the pro-democracy protestors in 1988, India’s ties with a key neighbour were left in tatters and lessons will have been learned. But India has always been steadfast in its support to the process of democratic transition in Myanmar, a matter of zero importance to autocratic China. So, the question is: will Delhi wait and see if the military crushes the protest movement again; will it actively support the protest towards democracy; or will it join the search for a negotiated way out? Challenging times indeed.
John Dobson is a former British diplomat, who also worked in UK Prime Minister John Major’s office between 1995 and 1998.