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Coup in Myanmar: growing protest movement defies the military

At a press conference last week, the first by Myanmar’s junta since General Min Aung Hlaing grabbed power on February 1 and declared a year-long “emergency” after alleging electoral fraud, a spokesman claimed that 40m of the country’s 54m people supported the coup.

“Our objective is to hold an election and hand power to the winning party,” Brigadier General Zaw Min Tun said at the event, which was sparsely attended as many reporters chose to boycott the new regime.

In the days since then, people across Myanmar furious at the generals’ nullification of recent election results and arrest of Aung San Suu Kyi, their popular leader, have taken to the streets in huge numbers to prove him wrong.

On Monday, crowds of government employees, workers, tradespeople and others that local media said exceeded 1m nationwide joined a self-described “five twos revolution”, meant to mark the date 22/2/2021 and to echo the 8888 uprising against the former military regime of Ne Win that ruled what was then Burma. Crowds carrying placards saying “Free our leader” or “We don’t accept military coup” gathered across Myanmar, from Myitkyina in the northern Kachin state to the military-built capital Naypyidaw in the centre and Dawei in the south.

The display of people’s power was the biggest yet by a civil disobedience movement that has proved tenacious in the face of everything from internet blackouts to night-time arrests and security forces’ firing of live rounds, which killed a woman in Naypyidaw last week and a man and a teenage boy in Mandalay on Saturday.

A pro-democracy slogan is written on a street in Yangon. Local media said more than 1m people nationwide joined the recent ‘five twos revolution’ against Myanmar’s military junta © Reuters

The protesters are now confronting a widely loathed and familiar, yet implacable old foe: the Burmese military, or Tatmadaw, one of south-east Asia’s biggest standing armies and a state within a state, which ruled the country for nearly five decades and is now back.

With Aung San Suu Kyi in detention and facing what many analysts consider to be trumped-up criminal charges, the world is coming to grips with Myanmar’s new de facto leader: Min Aung Hlaing, whom the UN and human rights groups want prosecuted for war crimes for the Tatmadaw’s atrocities against Rohingya Muslims and other minorities.

Given the limited access to the country at the moment and scarce reliable information, analysts are wary of making predictions about the military’s ability to hang on to power. But the outcome will depend on both the intensity of domestic opposition that the new regime confronts and the extent to which it comes under concerted international pressure.

The new stand-off between the pro-democracy movement and the military is taking place under the shadow of a great power rivalry as the US and China jostle for influence in the region.

Demonstrators hold a portrait of Myanmar's civilian leader Aung San Suu Kyi, who was arrested by the military and faces what many analysts consider to be trumped-up criminal charges
Demonstrators hold a portrait of Myanmar’s civilian leader Aung San Suu Kyi, who was arrested by the military and faces what many analysts consider to be trumped-up criminal charges © Lynn Bo Bo/EPA-EFE/Shutterstock

In the US, the main foreign sponsor of Myanmar’s shortlived democratic experiment, the coup has brought a firm response from Joe Biden’s administration, which announced sanctions against 12 junta leaders and military-owned companies involved in ruby and jade mining and gemstones — part of a military business network atop which Min Aung Hlaing sits. Canada and the UK have imposed sanctions targeting the military too.

But western countries’ leverage is smaller than that of Asian countries, who are Myanmar’s biggest trading partners and investors. While calling for Aung San Suu Kyi’s release, they may be more willing to deal with the new regime. China’s stance in particular is now in focus and the subject of intense speculation among anti-coup protesters.

For those who wish to see a swift return to democracy, the immediate days ahead look bleak. Min Aung Hlaing, 64, who was due to retire this year and who many believe aspires to the presidency, has little to lose personally from holding on to power. He has moved quickly to appoint a new government and other institutions, including an electoral commission. The Tatmadaw has weapons, discipline and decades of experience on its side.

“The commander-in-chief has shown us that this is not an emergency where at some point power transitions back to the elected government,” says Melissa Crouch, professor of law specialising in south-east Asia at the University of New South Wales. “This is a coup where pre-existing institutions are remade, new people are brought in and the state is shaped to conform to the desires of the military.”

Anti-coup demonstrators step on anti-army posters in Yangon. Myanmar's army is thought to have 406,000 active duty troops — making it the second biggest army in south-east Asia behind Vietnam
Anti-coup demonstrators step on anti-army posters in Yangon. Myanmar’s army is thought to have 406,000 active duty troops — making it the second biggest army in south-east Asia behind Vietnam © AP

A familiar foe

Myanmar’s military is a battle-hardened force, having spent most of the 80 years since its founding in battle with ethnic armed organisations. It has dominated politics throughout the country’s modern history, ruling directly or through governments it controlled from 1962 to 2011. It has no civilian oversight, as the defence ministry is staffed by military appointees.

The International Institute for Strategic Studies (IISS) recently put the number of its active duty troops at 406,000 — making it the second biggest army in south-east Asia behind Vietnam. The number does not include an estimated 107,000 paramilitary forces, including police, who are also under military command and have also been blamed for killing civilians both in past and current conflicts. In Myanmar’s 2020-21 budget, defence claimed 3.4tn kyat ($2.6bn), or about 10 per cent, of total government spending.

Anti-coup protesters march in Yangon. Crowds carrying placards saying 'We don’t accept military coup' gathered across Myanmar, from Myitkyina in the northern Kachin state to Naypyidaw in the centre and Dawei in the south
Anti-coup protesters march in Yangon. Crowds carrying placards saying ‘We don’t accept military coup’ gathered across Myanmar, from Myitkyina in the northern Kachin state to Naypyidaw in the centre and Dawei in the south © Aung Kyaw Htet/SOPA/Zuma/dpa

Both soldiers and paramilitaries took part in the 2017 “clearance operations” targeting Rohingya in Rakhine state, where eyewitnesses and human rights investigators say troops carried out killings, rapes, arson and forced about 750,000 people into exile. These set the wheels of international justice in motion, including an International Court of Justice genocide case against Myanmar that opened in 2019, and US and EU targeted sanctions against Min Aung Hlaing and others blamed for the bloodletting.

The military has since Burma’s independence from Britain in 1948 styled itself as a champion of “non-disintegration of the union”, and Buddhist, Bamar (ethnic Burmese) religious nationalism permeates its ranks. Experts say that some senior Tatmadaw figures, including members of the new junta, espouse the “race and religion” chauvinism of Buddhist extremist clerics who have in recent years inflamed anti-Muslim hatred in Rakhine and the Burmese-speaking heartland.

“The Tatmadaw is an overwhelmingly Bamar institution both in terms of rank and file and the officer corps,” says Anthony Davis, a Bangkok-based security analyst with IHS-Janes. “To that extent, it sees itself as a vehicle which is defending the nation in terms of extending central rule over a fragmented nation and Burmanising it.”

Since 2017, as international outrage grew over the Tatmadaw’s atrocities against the Rohingya, pressure built on its arms suppliers and business partners. This is now intensifying after the coup.

Russia and China are the military’s two largest arms suppliers, according to the Stockholm International Peace Research Institute. A UN report in 2019 found at least 14 companies had been supplying the Tatmadaw with fighter jets, armoured vehicles, warships, missiles and missile launchers since 2016, including from Ukraine, North Korea, the Philippines, Singapore and Israel.

In 2015-17, during Myanmar’s shortlived democratic interlude and before the Rohingya crackdown, Min Aung Hlaing visited Belgium, Germany, Austria and Israel, where he met with President Reuven Rivlin.

Protesters hold an image with an X drawn on the face of General Min Aung Hlaing, who grabbed power on February 1 and declared a year-long 'emergency' after alleging electoral fraud
Protesters hold an image with an X drawn on the face of General Min Aung Hlaing, who grabbed power on February 1 and declared a year-long ’emergency’ after alleging electoral fraud © AP

UN researchers and human rights groups have since the Rohingya crisis been pressuring governments and companies to stop supplying the Tatmadaw and sever ties with its companies. Min Aung Hlaing and other military officers control two conglomerates: Myanmar Economic Holdings and Myanmar Economic Corporation, and work with what campaigners call “crony conglomerates” that help generals win further business.

“By staging the coup, Min Aung Hlaing has extended and expanded his rule,” says Yadanar Maung, spokeswoman for Justice for Myanmar, a campaign group. “He is enabled by senior generals he is in business with who are using their positions for personal profit.”

Takeover speculation

Until recently, many analysts, including in Myanmar, assumed the military were happy making money and letting Aung San Suu Kyi’s civilian government take international flak for their human rights abuses. Under the 2008 constitution negotiated during Myanmar’s democratic transition, the Tatmadaw was guaranteed three government ministries, including defence, and 25 per cent of seats in parliament — enough to block lawmakers from Aung San Suu Kyi’s National League for Democracy from amending the constitution and containing its powers.

Aung San Suu Kyi travelled in 2019 to The Hague to defend Myanmar against the ICJ case alleging genocide under Min Aung Hlaing’s command, reinforcing the growing international perception that political expedience had led her to become a defender of the military.

But behind the scenes, relations between the commander-in-chief and the state counsellor were curdling amid growing distrust over what the military saw as NLD high-handedness and its own inability to win elections. “There was less dialogue between the two leaders in 2016-2020 than there was in 2011-2016”, during Myanmar’s last government before the NLD took office, says Moe Thuzar of ISEAS-Yusof Ishak Institute in Singapore.

Even with its lock on key ministries and constitutional reform, the military’s Union Solidarity and Development party was soundly defeated by the NLD in 2015 and again last November, killing its hopes of winning the presidency or further government ministries into which it might rotate retiring officers.

“The military genuinely believed they did a good job, and they were shocked when they couldn’t win 50 per cent of seats,” says Gerard McCarthy, a postdoctoral fellow at the Asia Research Institute, National University of Singapore. “After being wiped out a second time in November, they realised they were irrelevant in the electoral system they had developed.”

Myanmar police advance on protesters in Mandalay. A man and a teenage boy were killed by security forces during a demonstration on Saturday
Myanmar police advance on protesters in Mandalay. A man and a teenage boy were killed by security forces during a demonstration on Saturday © Reuters

The USDP began making accusations of electoral fraud even before the vote. These grew more bellicose after the scale of the NLD’s landslide became clear. A ceasefire in November with the rebel Arakan Army group in Rakhine and the movement of troops back towards main cities, including Naypyidaw and Yangon, starting in January, were hints that a coup to topple the NLD government was under way, analysts say.

“The rollout of plans for the junta, including preparations for an internet shutdown, appears to have been thought out,” says Gwen Robinson, senior fellow with the Institute of Security and International Studies in Thailand.

As speculation about a military takeover grew in January, an assurance from Min Aung Hlaing two days before the coup that he intended to obey the constitution appears to have fooled NLD lawmakers. They were all in Naypyidaw in the early hours of February 1 for the opening of parliament, and thus easy for the military to find and arrest.

Soldiers barged into telecoms companies’ data centres and ordered them to cut service. Within hours, the acting president — a military appointee — had handed the general power under an “emergency powers” constitutional clause.

Coherent response

The coup has revived old diplomatic dynamics last seen in the final years of Myanmar’s previous military regime, when the US led western countries in trying to isolate the Tatmadaw financially. The sanctions in fact hurt Myanmar’s broader population, while alienating Myanmar’s Asian neighbours, which mostly did not follow suit.

Compared with Myanmar’s past cycles of military repression, the response from the outside world has been more coherent so far and, say analysts, could lead to different outcomes. The week the Tatmadaw seized power, China and Russia took the unusual step of endorsing a UN Security Council statement calling for Aung San Suu Kyi’s release, though they vetoed an earlier draft that would have condemned the coup.

“There is a level of unity on Myanmar in the international community that we haven’t seen before,” says Aaron Connelly, head of a programme on south-east Asian politics and foreign policy at IISS. “If an envoy can go to Min Aung Hlaing with the broad backing of the international community, he might be forced to compromise in a way that his army predecessors did not.”

Protesters depict the plight of civil servants being forced to work at gunpoint by the military junta during a rally in Mandalay
Protesters depict the plight of civil servants being forced to work at gunpoint by the military junta during a rally in Mandalay © AP

However, Myanmar’s Asian neighbours will soon face tough choices on whether and how to engage with the new junta and its representatives, during a year in which it is promising to rerun an election it clearly lost. Some ousted NLD MPs held an online virtual “parliament” session a few days after the coup, and have appointed their own envoys to the UN and for international relations, raising the prospect that the world will be dealing with parallel emissaries and representative bodies.

Tellingly, one of Min Aung Hlaing’s first communications with a foreign leader after seizing power was an overture to neighbouring Thailand’s Prayuth Chan-ocha asking for advice. Prayuth led his own coup in 2014, overturning a democratic election then transitioning to prime minister under a new constitution that gave the military pre-rigged advantages at the polls.

But with hundreds of thousands still taking part in civil disobedience protests, Myanmar people’s voices will arguably matter most for what comes next for the country’s economy, governability and the response from the outside world.

Protesters on the streets have in recent days picketed China’s embassy in Yangon, claiming, so far without evidence, that Beijing was secretly helping the coup set up a “great firewall” to block the internet, or was tipped off about the coup.

China’s ambassador to Myanmar rejected this, saying Beijing had no foreknowledge of the coup and dismissing speculation about secret Chinese flights or assistance to the Tatmadaw on a firewall as “ridiculous accusations”. Analysts point out that China had solid relations with Aung San Suu Kyi’s ousted government, and would be unlikely to welcome the social and economic turmoil the coup has caused in a growing regional market for its goods.

“The track record of the Myanmar military at managing the economy was not good,” says Enze Han, an associate professor of politics at Hong Kong university. “The Tatmadaw was not predictable, and I don’t think it’s in China’s interest to have a volatile government in place.”

On Tuesday, Indonesia’s foreign minister Retno Marsudi said that whatever happened next must be “according to the wishes of the Myanmar people”, after angry protesters gathered outside Indonesia’s embassy in Yangon in response to a report the Indonesian government would recognise a new junta-organised election.

However, it is also possible that the protests could wane under economic pressure, a new wave of coronavirus infections or a sheer loss of momentum, as appears to have happened with the democracy protests that shook Thailand last year.

Many in Myanmar are worried the military could crush them violently as the Tatmadaw did in 1988, at the cost of thousands of lives. But even if the military wins the latest battle against its own people, it may find them harder to control than before.

“They will, I believe, secure victory,” Davis says. “The question is to what extent it will be Pyrrhic.”


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