Not this time
Tatmadaw faces strong resistance amidst international sanctions and protestors’ unwillingness to knuckle down under its repressive measures
Today (March 1) marks the completion of a month of the turn of events when Myanmar's military (Tatmadaw), under powerful General Min Aung Hlaing, usurped the power through a military coup and put the popular pro-democracy leader Aung San Suu Kyi behind the bars. Myanmar has never been new to military takeovers or coups. Since its independence in 1948, Myanmar has seen five coups and democracy has never been allowed to flourish. It was once a land of plenty, rich with minerals, teak and emeralds but people now see only repression and bloody violence. Aung San Suu Kyi's father, Gen Aung San was assassinated. He was the one who engaged with the then British Prime Minister Clement Attlee for Burmese independence. He was also the founder of the Anti-Fascist People's Freedom League (AFPFL).
All-powerful military General, Ne Win ruled with an iron hand from 1962 till he was ousted in 1988. The ouster gave a chance for democracy to breathe, albeit only for some time. But that was short-lived and many pro-democracy activists fled the country and temporarily rehabilitated themselves in neighbouring Thailand, India and other parts of the world. Subsequently, Suu Kyi emerged as a vibrant leader for the restoration of democracy but her voice was stifled with brute repression. The National League for Democracy (NLD) emerged as a popular pro-democracy party with a mass appeal, threatening to challenge military rule. Despite landslide victory in the 1990 elections, the NLD was not entrusted with the power to serve the people. Being under incarceration for years without any form of freedom of expression didn't break the spirit of Aung San Suu Kyi. Her hard work was paid off when she came to the helm of affairs at the end of 2011. In the meantime, she bagged numerous international awards including the Nobel Peace Prize in recognition of her courage to usher in democracy and defy the military regime.
However, sadly for Suu Kyi, her fierce defence of Buddhists in a major killing episode in 2012 allegedly targeting the Muslims, exposed her in a bad light. Internationally, her popularity took a hit. Then in 2017, when the Rohingyas were violently pushed inside Bangladesh by the Myanmarese military, Suu Kyi didn't condemn the act of the military onslaught. This muted profile further damaged her reputation, and anger outpoured against her from the international community. Dissent was vocal to the extent that there were demands to strip her of the Nobel Prize and other honours bestowed to her by many countries and organizations. People questioned her silence, especially on the plight of the Rohingyas. Her supporters came out in her defence saying that she was quiet on excesses against the Rohingyas because of the pressure from the military. But, this argument was feeble and far from convincing. Still, she remained popular among the masses in her country as some saw a new kind of Buddhist nationalism surfacing in Myanmar, which was perceived to be unsympathetic towards the Muslims. It resulted in more than a million Rohingyas fleeing to Bangladesh.
Riding over this huge popularity wave, NLD won the 2020 elections with an overwhelming majority. Earlier, it had boycotted the 2010 polls but participated and won the 2015 elections very handsomely. Significantly, the military-backed Union Solidarity and Development Party (USDP) was defeated. It alleged irregularities including the rigging of votes. In 2008, the military had amended the constitution to increase its share of power in governance.
The preceding paragraphs were perhaps pertinent to give a holistic picture of the circumstances that led to the February 1 forced-takeover by the military, incarceration of Aung San Suu Kyi and promulgation one-year emergency in the country.
It is worth noting that unlike on the previous four occasions of the military takeover, possibly for the first time, so much ire is visible against the Army. There are protests all over Yangon and other major cities where the military is confronted by agitators belonging to almost all segments of society. Their body language is that of defiance and a 'do or die' attitude. They have shed their fears and inhibitions to take on the military head-on. This trend can't be ignored. Tatmadaw is perhaps underestimating the people's grit this time who are demanding the release of Aung San Suu Kyi and restoration of civilian rule.
Provoked by such determined public mood, the Army on February 24, unleashed its own men in civilian clothes, armed with knives and other sharp-edged weapons to hit protestors. Early this week, two protestors died from firing. Yet, that doesn't seem to have deterred the agitators. Their number continues to swell. By now, nearly 1,000 people have been rounded up.
Meanwhile, the UK in its recent move has imposed fresh sanctions against Senior General Min Aung Hlaing and five other members of the State Administration Council. The UK has also decided to suspend all types of trade with Myanmar and has directed British companies against any commercial transactions with Myanmar. Britain is also compiling a list of human rights violators in Myanmar to take action against them in near future. Sanctions by the US are already in force. There have been protest demonstrations in front of Myanmar embassies in Bangkok, Jakarta and other places.
Public opinion is against the military regime. Army-backed Myanmar Economic Holdings Limited (MEHL) and Myanmar Economic Corporation (MEC) are under the radar of western countries as the Army is using these outfits for huge commercial gains. It is suspected to be steeped into corruption. The Army is thought to be enjoying viable business clout. And that keeps it going. Other than these restrictions, Facebook has also banned its operations including a block of advertisements showing angst against the military rule. This has further infuriated the Generals.
China being a totalitarian regime, is lending its support to military rule as it has always done in the past. So is next door Thailand which is led by a military dictator. Gems like Ruby and Jade have incessant supplies from Myanmar to Thailand so there is some kind of commercial syndicate at work.
Senior General Min Aung Hlaing and his coterie have probably not factored the hitherto invisible mindset of the young groups within the Army as to how they are disposed towards Suu Kyi and the ongoing movement? Are they happy or the Army is being heavily politicized, are they contemplating to rise at an opportune moment to challenge the military leadership? This may appear far-fetched speculation but still merits attention. Their move, if any, could be a gamechanger.
During the past military regimes in Myanmar, India has always dealt with its immediate neighbour with abundant caution, safeguarding its own economic and geopolitical interests. Myanmar remained a safe haven for several North-East insurgent groups and their leaders. These groups include ULFA, PLA and the Nagas of the Khaplang faction. This also calls for consideration to prevent their possible resurrection. Also, an organization in Mizoram that adjoins Myanmar has very recently appealed to rehabilitate ethnic minorities, the Chins, as they are thought to be displaced by the ongoing military action. If they are allowed to come in, other ethnic groups might follow the suit. This move might be irksome for those presently at the helm in Myanmar. India needs to protect its long-term interests, so whichever government is in power needs to be kept in good humour, lest China usurps that place. India's official reaction to the unfolding of events has been measured and practical. Other than securing our security interests, we should also remember that there are at least two million Myanmarese of Indian origin, and their safety seems to be of vital importance.
The writer is a retired IPS officer, a security analyst and a former National Security Advisor to the Prime Minister of Mauritius. Views expressed are personal