The military junta that overthrew Aung San Suu Kyi’s democratically elected National League for Democracy (NLD) by a coup on February 1, 2021 on the eve of the NLD’s return to power for a second consecutive term after a landslide victory in the November 2020 general elections continues its extreme repression against all opposition. In the latest development, hundreds of Buddhist monks have fled two major towns in the east of the country, Loikaw in Kayah state (province) and Demoso, amongst thousands of people displaced by fighting between the military and anti-coup rebel groups. Around 30 monasteries lie abandoned, in a reversal of traditional respect for holy men and temples being considered sanctuaries. Fighting has intensified in the eastern region since December 2021. Over Christmas, 35 bodies, including two Save the Children workers, were found burnt in Kayah state, an atrocity blamed on the junta’s troops. The junta is pressing ahead with brutal, indiscriminate air and ground attacks against rebel fighters and the population in this and other sectors.
Since the military coup on February 1, 2021, the junta has killed 1,469 peaceful protestors and arrested 11,000 (200 of the latter died under torture). The junta feels no compunction for its brutal crackdown because it fears no repercussions from the US-led west (despite mealy-mouthed statements of ‘principle’ regarding human and democratic rights) and has so far been able to rely on inaction internationally with the help of Russia, China and other countries (e.g. the UN General Assembly has condemned the coup, but the Security Council is hamstrung by Russian and Chinese obstruction, partly a reaction to Russia being taken for a ride by the west on Libya in the name of ‘humanitarian intervention’, partly China’s support to Myanmar on the by now ‘leaky’ plea of no interference in the internal affairs of sovereign states).
Not only does the junta not suffer from sleepless nights on account of no repercussions, it can rely on some governments arming, legitimising and financing it. The latter is critical, given that the junta’s handling of the economy since the coup has been described as in ‘zombie mode’. Part of this zombie behaviour is the military being used to extract electricity bills on pain of death from people subscribing to withholding payment as part of a civil disobedience movement. This has deprived the junta of a crucial source of revenue. In the immediate aftermath of the coup, millions walked off their jobs in protest and millions more refused to pay their electricity bills on the grounds that these revenues translate into bullets to kill people. Many have compensated for being forced to pay at gunpoint by making donations to the People’s Defence Force (PDF), an anti-regime militia formed since the coup and the brutal crackdown on peaceful protestors.
The armed resistance to the junta includes all the ethnic insurgencies of long standing, most of whom emerged after the military’s first takeover in 1962. Fighting has been most intense in Chin, Kachin, Karen, Karenni, Shan states and the Sagiang Region. Myanmar has a central area inhabited by the Bamar majority ethnic group, surrounded by minority ethnic groups on its periphery and borders, almost all of whom have been waging armed resistance against military dictatorship for decades. Aung San Suu Kyi’s five-year stint in power was expected to yield a resolution of these ethnic conflicts. Its failure may have persuaded the military that the NLD would decline at the polls in November 2020. But the result was the opposite. The NLD swept 80 percent of the civilian seats (25 percent are reserved for the military), had an overwhelming majority, and was poised to come back triumphantly into power. This electoral sweep panicked the military since it perceived it as an indicator that its monopoly over power was being eroded and slipping away in the face of the democratic forces led by the NLD’s triumphant march forward. Army chief General Min Aung Hlaing demanded a power-sharing arrangement on the eve of the coup, which the NLD declined. The General also had a personal agenda. He was due to retire in July 2021 and saw the NLD’s electoral victory as foreclosing his chance to become president. Hence the February 1, 2021 overthrow. It has also been alleged that General Hlaing moved to capture power fearing his reported invested wealth may be exposed. The military dominates Myanmar’s important economic sectors. Aung San Suu Kyi’s 2015-20 government opened up the economy to diversification and competition, which threatened the military-owned monopolies in the largest economic sectors.
Arguably therefore, the Myanmar coup may be summed up as (1) a continuation after a brief semi-democratic five year interregnum of the military’s hold on power since 1962; (2) a testament to the vulnerability of even the most popular (and strengthening) democracy when a military expects no serious repercussions from the so-called ‘international community’ (read the US-led west) and support at some level or the other from the ‘other side’ (read the international ‘competitors’ of the US-led west). The favourite ploy of the former against regimes considered unacceptable, i.e. sanctions, are nowhere in sight. The new global ‘Cold War’ has persuaded the latter to weigh its possibilities and advantages in any situation in that light. In this ‘happily’ divided world, the Myanmar military junta has little to fear except the consequences and fallout of its own actions. If its intent to charge Aung San Suu Kyi with one absurd charge after another in order to sentence her to a possible 100 years imprisonment (which, for the 76-year old leader, amounts to a death sentence) is carried out, Myanmar’s brave resistance brothers and sisters will not rest till justice, peace and democracy is restored to a country unremittingly in the grip of a brutal military dictatorship. The arrogance of possessing arms will not stand forever in the face of the winds of change history promises.
Copyright Business Recorder, 2022