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The world may grumble, but soldiers hold sway in Myanma...


People vs the Generals

The world may grumble, but soldiers hold sway in Myanmar

Myanmar nationals in Japan hold up portraits of Aung San Suu Kyi and shout slogans during a protest held in front of Japan's foreign ministry in Tokyo, on 3 February 2021. (Photo: EPA-EFE / FRANCK ROBICHON)

Myanmar and its struggles with the military rule are back in the news. It is unclear what will happen next, but it is unlikely to be very good for that country’s people.

Nearly half a century ago, well before the name Aung San Suu Kyi became globally famous, I had had my first professional interaction with Burma. To clarify, that country is usually called Myanmar now, as it was renamed by the ruling military junta, eager to reposition its national brand in the eyes of the world, away from the taint of its oppressive military rule. But officially, the US government largely continues to use Burma for most documents, unless it is quoting that nation’s government. Myanmar is actually a formal variant of its former common use name of Burma in the country’s largest language. 

Burma/Myanmar gained its independence from Britain three years after World War 2 and began life as a rather wobbly democratic state, grafted on to some much older political and social traditions. Myanmar has a long history as a polity and has in its Buddhist religious tradition an extraordinary repository of magnificent religious monuments from its past. 

Back in 1977, I was working in the State Department’s Bureau of Educational and Cultural Affairs’ Office of East Asia and the Pacific Programmes. Like so many others interested in Southeast Asia, I had first encountered a vision of Burma by way of George Orwell’s classic essays — “A Hanging” and “Shooting an Elephant” — and his first novel, Burmese Days. These drew from his experiences as a British imperial policeman in Burma in the 1920s. But there was also the Japanese author, Michio Takeyama’s book, The Burmese Harp, a famous anti-war novel of the desperate final days for the starving Japanese army being driven from its conquest of Burma during World War 2. 

One key responsibility of our work was to help arrange the short-term visits to the US of individuals invited by the respective American embassies, visits designed to give visitors chances to examine aspects of American life, society, culture, government and economics, especially connected with their own professional activities. I usually dealt with visits by Indonesians, Malaysians, Singaporeans and Papua New Guineans, but sometimes I covered for a colleague whose area was Burma, Thailand, Vietnam and Cambodia, whenever she was busy elsewhere. (After the American fighting in Vietnam finally ceased and the war came to a conclusion, there were many refugee students stranded in America with very uncertain financial prospects and futures).

One time, filling in for my colleague, I met two Burmese visitors — the top and deputy senior engineer for Burmese State Radio — for their initial orientation meeting in Washington. At that appointment, guided by the interests of the visitors, together with ideas sent by the US embassy, and in conjunction with the private contractor who arranged the trip, we would hammer out how to pace a month’s worth of travel across the country into a coherent trip that could meet many of the travellers’ own hopes and goals.

In that initial meeting, the two visitors brought with them a large overnight bag, and, as our consultations proceeded during the morning, they carefully extracted some carefully wrapped glass objects about the size of large mangoes from the bag and placed them on the conference table. Reverently. What were they, the travel planner and I wondered. Mr X and Mr Y explained their highest priority was to find a supply of replacement parts for these precious items, along with others. These were old, really old, vacuum tubes crucial to the continued functioning of the Burmese national radio transmitters. They had been manufactured in America and so here they were in America, ready to do the necessary shopping.

Ousted Myanmar leader Aung San Suu Kyi. (Photo: Wikimedia)

Mr X and Mr Y actually had a long list of parts for purchase, and so their foreign currency allowance from their own government and, most likely, a big chunk of the per diem allowance from the US would be dedicated to this. The trip quickly was turning into a treasure hunt/procurement run and so all of their stopovers depended on where heirloom vacuum tube resellers might be located. Naturally, nobody made these things any more. 

Since this happened decades before the internet or Google, our incredulous trip planner spent hours on the phone, speaking with people who might know someone who knew someone else who could say where the Burmese visitors might obtain working radio transmitter parts, items likely last manufactured at around the time of the Korean War. (“Pawn Stars” wasn’t on television yet. In fact, there wasn’t even any cable television yet.)

As a result, the trip had little time for explorations of radio station management, wrestling with questions of free speech issues in the media, the ways reporters and broadcast networks covered international news, the life of Asians in America, or almost anything else. Presumably, the embassy had nominated these two men because of hopes they might find some enlightenment on media freedom issues from this trip. Inevitably then, the visit was a compromise as these visitors would have been vetted by the Burmese government before their passports were issued.) Radio vacuum tubes became the alpha and omega of this journey. Ultimately, the intrepid explorers actually found their vacuum tubes — or most of them, in case you wondered — antique radio hobbyists and collectors helped out.

The larger point, of course, was that almost everything technological in Burma was old, sometimes ingeniously repurposed, fixed with something like the equivalent of coat hanger wire, or somehow procured from international grey market sources — or via growing trade links with a China that wasn’t particularly interested in Burma’s political circumstances. 

In those days, Burma was not just an oppressive, military-dominated state, it was also an increasingly poor one; and one where there was little hope the country’s economic status would change much, or that the lives of citizens would noticeably improve. These circumstances stood in increasingly sharp contrast to developments across many of its neighbours in Southeast Asia, or with the “Four Little Tigers of Asia.”

In the second decade of the 21st century, things began to improve economically, but only once a semblance of democratic practice was allowed to take hold, and as western sanctions against its economic and political leadership began to be rolled back. American President Barack Obama’s visit in 2012 was symbolic of hoped-for further change.

In fact, right from its inception as an independent nation after World War 2, Burma/Myanmar has had a difficult history. During the war, while still officially part of British India, following its conquest piecemeal by the British in the late 19th century, it was occupied by the Imperial Japanese Army throughout World War 2, and only released from that occupation at the end of the war. For years prior to that war, there had been an independence movement for Burma led by Aung San, the father of the symbol of Burma’s longtime struggle for democratic transition, Aung San Suu Kyi. (Aung San had also served in the Japanese occupation government.) He was killed in 1947, just prior to the country’s independence from Britain.

Military vehicles and soldiers patrol a road in Naypyitaw, Myanmar, on 3 February 2021. (Photo: EPA-EFE / MAUNG LONLAN)

By 1962, Burma’s unstable parliamentary order was decisively overturned by the military. They then proceeded to rule for decades, restricting external connections, circumstances that helped the country to slide further and further into a semi-permanent economic slump, despite an abundance of natural resources that includes oil, timber, precious stones and agricultural products, among other things. 

Within its political borders, besides the national majority of the ethnically Burmese people, there are many so-called minority “hill tribes” who have often engaged in insurrections against the national government, largely located along the northern and eastern borders. There is also the Rohingya Muslim minority in the southwest. And in the far north, there was for many years a remnant of the Kuomintang Chinese army that had fled into that mountainous terrain, following the victory of the People’s Liberation Army in the Chinese civil war. Subsequently, that remnant army took up black market operations to keep themselves in bullets and buffets.

For the next several decades, despite some serious pro-democracy demonstrations in 1989, the military held political and economic control firmly until it finally allowed for a new constitution and elections after yet more civil unrest in 2012. One election returned a significant majority for the National League for Democracy (NLD) in mid-decade, and then again in elections in 2020 on 8 November. In this most recent election, the NLD had made further gains electorally, a result that appears to have deeply embarrassed the military leader, General Min Aung Hlaing, and may even have been what pushed the military into this newest coup.

As The Economist described events, “Early on the morning of February 1st the army toppled Myanmar’s elected government, arresting its de facto leader, Aung San Suu Kyi. Next, the army declared a year-long state of emergency and handed power to the commander-in-chief, Min Aung Hlaing. Soldiers have been deployed to the streets of the capital, Naypyidaw, and the largest city, Yangon [or as it was previously named, Rangoon], where they have erected blockades on major roads. A decade after the generals voluntarily relinquished control of the country, they have clawed it back. The world has to decide how to react to this latest setback for democracy in Southeast Asia and the wider world.

“When the army ended nearly 50 years of military rule in Myanmar in 2011, making way for a civilian government, many were suspicious about its willingness to relinquish power. It initially tried to exclude Ms Suu Kyi, much the country’s most prominent democracy activist, from government; it handed authority instead to a party of military stooges. When it did at last allow Ms Suu Kyi’s National League for Democracy to take power, in 2016, it still retained great authority—but not, apparently, as much as it would have liked.”

These political arrangements had a decidedly idiosyncratic quality. In order to maintain a hand in every political and economic decision, the military had reserved a quarter of the seats in the national parliament for themselves and inserted into the constitution the requirement that any political changes needed at least a three-quarter majority. Clever. Looking forward to any future changes, the military may have been considering having some of its members convert to civilian status and get elected to parliament as civilian politicians, but still with their former employer’s interests at heart.

As The Economist went on to say, “The army, or Tatmadaw as it is known, twice seized power from democratically elected governments in the 20th century and ruthlessly quashed pro-democracy movements. It is used to being in charge. When it gave up absolute power in 2011, the army had envisaged a peculiar, hybrid ‘discipline-flourishing democracy’. The constitution that it drew up protected many of its powers. The Tatmadaw remained a law unto itself, and its relationship with Ms Suu Kyi’s administration has been fraught — no matter that she rushed to the generals’ defence at the International Court of Justice in The Hague in 2019, where the army stood accused of committing genocide against the Rohingya, a persecuted Muslim minority.”

Amid all this, there has been the figure of Aung San Suu Kyi. The daughter of Aung San, she had been educated abroad and had married British academic Michael Aris. Eventually, as she returned home and pursued a sustained pro-democracy campaign, she was placed under years of strict house arrest in response, thereby becoming a global symbol of the struggle for democracy among the oppressed, gaining the Nobel Peace Prize in 1991. For many, her travails were a kind of Asian equivalent to the treatment meted out to Nelson Mandela and so many other prisoners of conscience in South Africa and elsewhere.

By the time she gained secular power in that co-sharing relationship with the military, however, her star began to dim somewhat. As the NLD leader and the country’s top civilian figure, she declined to speak up on behalf of the Rohingya population being driven from their homes into squalid refugee camps inside Myanmar or in neighbouring Bangladesh. Moreover, Aung San Suu Kyi had gone to The Hague to defend her country’s military at an international court concerning the thousands of Rohingyas who had been killed and the more than 700,000 who had fled to Bangladesh as a result of the army’s actions in 2017, further denting her reputation among the human rights community. One speculation is that she chose this path as part of an effort to gain leverage over the military, but instead it seems to have demonstrated she was more an ethnic Burmese nationalist than the once-revered human rights symbol.

An Myanmar demonstrator holds a photo of democracy icon Aung San Suu Kyi. (Photo: EPA-EFE / NARONG SANGNAK)

The Economist added, “The catalyst for the [most recent] coup was an election held in November. The vote was widely seen as a referendum on Ms Suu Kyi’s government. Her National League for Democracy (NLD) won a staggering 83% of the seats, trouncing the main army-backed opposition party. The generals alleged that the poll was conducted unfairly. Though independent election observers said that voters were ‘able to freely express their will at the polls and choose their elected representatives’, the army claimed that there had been widespread fraud. On January 26th, a military spokesman refused to rule out the possibility of a coup. The following day General Min Aung Hlaing told senior military personnel that if the constitution is not adhered to, it must be revoked.

“Talks between the government and army on January 28th failed to defuse tensions. The Tatmadaw is reported to have requested a recount of the vote and a postponement to the new session of parliament, which was scheduled to start on February 1st. The government declined. The following day tanks and armoured vehicles appeared on the streets of major cities.”

The military has now rounded up dozens of civilian figures (although many may be in the process of being released — or detained elsewhere), closed off international internet traffic (Facebook is a favoured channel for many in Myanmar), and placed Aung San Suu Kyi under detention or house arrest (her exact status remains unclear). Most recently, it has charged her with the deeply revolutionary act of importing eight walkie-talkies without having the necessary import licences and permits. Really. A guilty sentence in a court proceeding would render her ineligible to hold public office.

The New York Times noted, “…if such crimes seem absurd, they carry real consequences. Along with Ms Aung San Suu Kyi, President U Win Myint, one of her political acolytes who was also detained on Monday, was issued a detention order for violating emergency coronavirus regulations. He was accused of greeting a car full of supporters during the electoral campaign season last year, the information officer for the National League for Democracy said.”

Describing ongoing developments, the Associated Press reported, “Myanmar’s authorities charged the country’s deposed leader, Aung San Suu Kyi, with possessing illegally imported walkie-talkies, a move that gives the generals, who staged the coup this week and overthrew her, legal grounds to detain her for two weeks. At a government compound where other lawmakers had been confined since Monday, lines of cars were seen leaving with the parliamentarians inside.

“Amid calls for nonviolent resistance to the coup, residents in Yangon honked horns and made loud noises after nightfall.

 “The new military government has blocked access to Facebook amid surging civil disobedience. Facebook is especially popular in Myanmar and the ousted government had commonly made public announcements on the social media site. The social network urged that access be restored so users could contact their families.”

Meanwhile, while open resistance to the military is not yet taking place, the AP went on to note that medical workers across the country “…have begun a civil disobedience protest against the coup, wearing red ribbons and declaring they won’t work for the military government. The army takeover could not have come at a worse time for a country battling a rise in Covid-19 cases with an inadequate and poorly funded health system. One doctor in Yangon said, ‘We want to show the world we are totally against military dictatorship and we want our elected government and leader back.’ ”

The Economist added, “Even after the army’s warning last week, few outside observers predicted a coup. A pandemic, after all, hardly seems an auspicious moment to seize power. But General Min Aung Hlaing may be concerned about his own future in a country where the army is reviled and the civilian government has been trying (fruitlessly) to bring it under civilian control. He was due to retire from the forces this year, and may have harboured political ambitions of his own, hopes that were snuffed out in the November election. ‘He didn’t have a plan B,’ says a Western diplomat based in Yangon, yet ‘he needed something to guarantee his legacy, his liberty and his family wealth.’ David Mathieson, an analyst, suspects that the commander ‘didn’t like the fact that [the army’s] standing has been diminished’ and wants to restore the army’s authority.”

In other words, it is not entirely clear what the military has in mind for act two.

These events are putting Western democratic nations in a potential bind. Continuing to maintain economic connections would put them in the position of condoning the overthrow of a civilian government, no matter how flawed it is, in pursuit of encouraging economic growth in that nation — and, crucially, blocking further growth in China-Myanmar economic and political ties. The alternative, re-imposing sanctions, or tightening any remaining ones, could easily push the military into deeper ties with China. 

This question has already become US President Joe Biden’s first immediate foreign policy challenge, just two weeks into his presidency. The AP commented, “Washington’s response to the coup seemed designed to highlight old criticisms, with both Secretary of State Antony Blinken and President Joe Biden pointedly avoiding the country’s legal name [Myanmar]. ‘The United States removed sanctions on Burma over the past decade based on progress toward democracy,’ Biden said in a statement. ‘The reversal of that progress will necessitate an immediate review of our sanction laws.’ ”

The modest US foreign aid budget for Myanmar, around $200-million, is also being called into question, even though it is devoted to humanitarian relief and medical support at a time when the Myanmar government is facing a growing Covid presence with a very limited public health budget. And, of course, what to do about the Rohingya issue will become entangled in any response towards this coup.

For the US, there is also the question of how much pressure it might exert on Myanmar’s military before the Chinese begin to scowl about that, linked, perhaps, to their near-obsessive, perennial concerns about any hints of foreign interference regarding Xinjiang, Hong Kong, religious freedom inside China — or further support for Taiwan. 

No one should expect the UN will exercise a major role in dealing with this assault on democracy either, given those close Myanmar-China ties and China’s presence on the Security Council. Similarly, one should not expect the 10-member regional body, the Association of Southeast Asian Nations, to do much more than express the need for calm, given Myanmar’s membership in that body and the fact that several of Asean’s other members are hardly paragons of democratic practice either.

The most likely scenario, at least at this point, then, is for international consternation by human rights and pro-democracy groups, but less action. As a result, the people of Myanmar may have to sort this one out for themselves. DM


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