This article gives a very personal impression of the author’s observations of events following the military coup in Myanmar on 1 February 2021. The author went underground, and now provides updates and analysis on different channels.
As this article is being written, on Sunday 14 March at Hlaing Thayar across the river west of Yangon city, bloodshed reached a new peak, with over 70 protesters killed by security troops. Besides the severe loss of life, this marks a dividing line between peaceful, non-violent protests and outright war, and between political compromise and revolution.
Khin Zaw Win is the director of the Tampadipa Institute and a well-known analyst of political trends in Myanmar. He was a political prisoner between 1994–2005, charged with criticizing the former military regime.
Myanmar, formerly known as Burma, is the largest country in mainland Southeast Asia and has a diverse population of 53 million. It is the only country in the region to share long borders with both China and India. It applied for least-developed country status in 1987 and has remained so ever since.
Gaining independence in 1948, Myanmar embarked on a path of parliamentary democracy. The constitution adopted in 1947 contained articles denoting federalism, something which the ethnic nationalities demanded. However, a federal system has not really come into being until now. Barely three months after independence, the Communist Party of Burma went into armed rebellion—a conflict that lasted until 1989. In 1949 the Karen National Defence Organization representing the Kayin (Karen) ethnicity followed suit. Varying in intensity and frequency, civil war is almost a way of life in Myanmar.
There were brief periods of multi-party democracy in politics and government, interspersed with decades-long military and military-backed regimes. But unlike neighbouring Thailand with its proliferation of military coups, Myanmar has had only four—in 1958, 1962, 1988, and the present one. Discounting the people who benefited from collaboration, the people of Myanmar have not taken kindly to dictatorships.
The nationwide uprising of 1988 had been the bloodiest prior to the present one and was followed by the imposition of direct military rule for 22 years (until 2010). A new and unpopular constitution was drafted over a period of 13 years and adopted by a dubious referendum in 2008. A multi-party system was revived and elections held in 2010. A military-backed party—the USDP—won largely by the use of “advance voting” and a semi-democracy ensued. In by-elections in 2012, and in the next general elections in 2015, the National League for Democracy (NLD) led by Nobel Peace Prize winner Aung San Su Kyi won handsomely and came to power.
The Coming of the Coup
The coup of 1 February 2021 is the fourth military coup in Myanmar’s 73 years of independence. Their negative impacts have been felt widely and deeply, and this present one promises more of the same. Whether the military junta manages to hang on or democracy is restored, aspects of Myanmar have suffered irreparable damage. The country was not doing too badly last year, despite the pandemic. But now it faces a very uncertain future, while the prospect of decline is unmistakable.
There has been a string of wars that were deemed preventable. The same is true for certain coups, before which some kind of bargain or deal could have been struck to avert them. The one in Myanmar in the dawn hours of 1 February is certainly such a coup. The signs had been there since October 2020, before the elections of 8 November that led to the military’s dissatisfaction. Sensing the imminence of the coup, experts had been posting about it regularly, including this author. But the NLD government under the leadership of Aung San Suu Kyi did nothing. Only at the last minute, in the last week of January, did talks between the NLD and the military take place.
The Myanmar military has continuously stuck meticulously to the constitution, which it drafted. It made repeated complaints to the elections commission, parliament, and the president—all of which are dominated by the NLD. These were dismissed and rebuffed as contrary to the law. According to the constitution, the results announced by the elections commission are considered final. However, both elections commission and government have been less than transparent about many proceedings and issues.
Last-minute talks were held late into the night on the days preceding the coup. We only know that the NLD rejected the military’s demands. Just hours after this final collapse of talks, power was taken over—before dawn on 1 February. Government figures and a host of other “notables” were detained, but some were released the following day. More ominously, charges were lodged with the police against Aung San Suu Kyi and president Win Myint, which are widely seen as trumped up. The actual transfer of power took place from former vice-president Myint Swe, acting as interim president. A new cabinet and governing council have been formed, both headed by Senior General Min Aung Hlaing.
Out in the Arena
It did not take long before people took on the streets, first in the major cities, then in smaller towns. A return to junta rule is what the people find most obnoxious. Parliament has been suspended. The central administrative body or State Administrative Council is hierarchical and stretches down to the township level, with military officers represented in them. But more importantly, the spirit of democratization continues to burn bright and will not be extinguished despite the junta’s efforts. In the long run, this is the real gain. Political and social upheavals and the rural countryside in Myanmar merit an account on its own. Thanks to the digital age and social media, we now see the movement stretching out to small towns and villages.
In Yangon there appears to be a steady limitation of physical protest space. The protest epicentre moves from intersection to intersection, and the next morning police place barricades and cordon off the area. Yangon may be approaching the end of one stage, but not the whole movement. The spirit of resistance to the coup that has been ignited remains intact. The movement shifts to a new mode and locale, although short rallies continue across the city. Protesters have maintained a continuous presence in front of embassies and UN offices, and these may be affected too.
Government personnel who answered the protest call and are staying away from work may face a dilemma. Staying with the Civil Disobedience Movement (CDM) for two more months may be possible, but they could be dismissed from their jobs. Health staff have joined the CDM, and in many places hospitals are empty. Various arrangements have been put in place to look after sick people, like private hospitals and clinics. The Myanmar Medical Association has issued a good statement saying that doctors are totally free to pursue their political inclinations, but at the same time consideration should be given to people seeking medical attention. The junta chief has threatened action against government health staff who stay away from their posts. But right now, Central Bank employees are in the CDM and nothing can be done to bring them back.
Besides small businesses, vendors, and the huge agrarian sector, the economy is at a standstill. The opposition to the coup is betting that if the country and economy are paralyzed, the junta will be forced to negotiate. There is also the possibility of an internal split in the military. It is imperative for the protesters and the general public not to be disillusioned, while moral support from abroad becomes crucial at this point. Even if rapid results are not forthcoming, pressure must be maintained on the junta.
The Players in the Game
For the Myanmar military it has been a public relations disaster of colossal proportions, and its press conferences only add to it. The military as an institution (and not just the junta) has suffered irreparable damage. The fact that they do not seem to realize it yet says a lot about the military’s embedded thinking. The movement must augment it and make it irreversible—like what happened to the Japanese military at the end of World War II. The military has been employing excessive force, which they demonstrated during the shootings in Mandalay and Yangon. As mentioned above, a return to dictatorship is out of the question, but the junta will try to hang on for as long as possible.
This revolution is to be applied primarily to the Myanmar military. Its stranglehold on the country must be broken, and the best time is now. The people know this instinctively and collectively. Junta chief Min Aung Hlaing has harboured presidential ambitions for some time, but now that he has seized the top job, his future prospects are shakier than that of previous coup leaders.
National League for Democracy
This coup did not happen unannounced, but the NLD did not do enough to avert it. Now the country is back to being stuck between the twin adversaries of yesteryear. Overall, the NLD’s performance during its term in office fell short in a number of ways. Aung San Suu Kyi has failed on the all-important peace process, on ethnic relations, and on economic development as a whole. Land issues have been an abysmal failure. She was betting on a neoliberal solution, which did not work either. Nor did her denial and dismissal of the Rohingya issue endear her to the international community. The defence of the military was calculated to win broader support for her.
There is also a wide divergence on how people regard Aung San Suu Kyi’s attitude towards democracy and democratization. For her, it is about elections and very little else. In academic terms it is called “electoral democracy”, in everyday terms it is the system that regards the people as vote-deliverers every five years and nothing more. That said, in Myanmar millions are currently deprived of this right—due to reasons of religion, sheer bureaucratic negligence, and through arbitrary cancellation of elections. Another feature of democracy is consultation in decision-making that affects people’s lives, but this hardly happens in Myanmar. Moreover, a lot of people want a new constitution, but the NLD blew hot and cold on even amending it. Ironically, it’s the military that is now saying a new charter will be drafted.
Now the lines have shifted. Aung San Suu Kyi and the NLD won a handsome popular victory in the elections, but the military saw her game and acted. The prospects for the NLD in this process are not good. Its legitimacy is the main strength going for it and driving the present protests. But if a new constitution comes in, followed by fresh elections, that will change. Between the two of them, Aung San Suu Kyi and General Min Aung Hlaing have left the country not only in a mess, but in a very dangerous situation. To extricate ourselves, we have to look much beyond the old formulae. A sizeable number of Myanmar citizens (myself included) do not want to go back to the former situation under the NLD, but we think a military coup is not the answer. I would say nearly all want a new constitution.
Committee Representing the Pyidaungsu Hluttaw (Assembly of the Union)
The Committee Representing the Pyidaungsu Hluttaw (CRPH), Myanmar’s bicameral national legislature, was formed by elected members of parliament following the military takeover in order to represent parliament’s interests. Its members took an oath of office in Naypyidaw on 4 February 2021, pledging to abide by the people’s mandate. The CRPH can be regarded as a form of shadow parliament which is also trying to reach out to international partners and the UN.
Its legitimacy is sound, albeit contested by the military. Ethnic nationalities (taing-yin-tha) declaring their acceptance and support for the CRPH have improved its prospects. It is in the process of setting up the legitimate government of Myanmar. A cabinet has been appointed, but does not yet include defence or home affairs. One of the most important acts is in declaring the military a terrorist organization.
Needless to say, it has a very important role to play as legitimate body and needs support. The real divergence on public opinion is in whether to keep the 2008 constitution or draft a new one.
The Ethnic Nationalities
The ethnic nationalities’ sentiments are understandable, although in the long run there must be a convergence. This is what the decades of civil war and dictatorship have done to ethnic groups—the retreat into tribal attitudes. As a liberal Bamar opposing the dictatorship, I can empathize with all minorities including the Rohingya. Myanmar has to embark on a broad process of healing as well, and this will not come from the state at present.
Aung San Suu Kyi’s biggest failure has been in alienating political allies. An open letter to the parliament from students’ unions at two universities in Taungoo dated 5 March lays a finger on the core of the NLD’s blunder. While the unions support the political objectives of the CRPH, they are found to be not explicit enough. The letter states at the end: “Turning its back on political allies including pro-democracy parties opposing military dictatorship, ethnic parties, ethnic armed organizations, and the people’s dream of federal democracy, and embarking on national reconciliation with the military bloc has led to nothing. It is advisable not to repeat this.”
27 March is Armed Forces Day in Myanmar, and the orders from the top military leadership are for the present movement to be quelled completely before then. What had started out as a dispute over alleged electoral fraud has morphed into daily urban bloodletting. Time and again the Myanmar military has been widely accused of waging war against its own people, and what is going on now is the current manifestation. But at some point a dictatorship based on armed might has to fail. Weaponry set against the human spirit may prevail for a time, but what kind of regime and rationale can keep it in place permanently? That is what the Myanmar military junta thinks it can accomplish.
The “informed” or “motivated” public is the main force and strength of the upheaval against the military coup, not the so-called “elites”. This public sentiment had been growing over the past 30 years, although the political luminaries made every effort to downplay and side-line it. What we are seeing now in the Spring Revolution are the results of this. The people of Myanmar built themselves up despite the neglect and obstructions from the major political parties. Those people are caught by surprise now.
The protests are marked by their size as well as diversity. It is truly amazing to witness people from different ethnicities, faiths, and occupations from everywhere in Myanmar coming together in a single purpose—to bring down the dictatorship. It would be marvellous to see this translated into long-term political life. You can call it the genie out of the bottle, the cauldron bubbling, or riding on the wings of a typhoon. But what is certain is that Myanmar is embarking on change of the most radical kind.
Carried further, it goes beyond opposing and toppling a hated military-fascist institution. One sees expressions against ethnic and religious dominance and discrimination that have plagued the country for so long. One sees opposition to patriarchy, majoritarianism, the leadership cult, and finally the military caste system. Genuine revolutions (some have called them “organic”) are unpredictable events. The present one in Myanmar is without a leadership, doctrine, or set plan. The military has declared the population to be the enemy and deploys an “us vs. them” concept. For them, it represents the continuation and refinement of half-a-century of domination by the military class. It is not difficult to see how it could end.