Myanmar’s coup-makers play a dangerous game

In August 2013, I organised a seminar at the Australian National University titled, ‘What is the chance of a coup for Myanmar?’ At the time, some judged the discussion premature. Aung San Suu Kyi had been released from house arrest and elected to the national legislature, and the country was rapidly opening to foreign investment. Myanmar was enjoying a rare burst of good news.

At the seminar, we brought together leading analysts of Myanmar politics and other scholars with in-depth knowledge of military interventions across Asia. There was a lively debate about the structural, cultural, spatial and economic dimensions of coup-making. There was also broad agreement among the experts that the Myanmar military maintained the capabilities and mentalities required for direct intervention. But the top generals would always need to justify, to themselves, the risks of another coup, and be prepared to accept the consequences.

Back then, the overriding hope was that Myanmar’s untested constitutional framework could find the right set of compromises to end generations of interethnic warfare. Many also hoped the government would find more space for its many cultural and religious minorities, bring about the fairer distribution of wealth and, perhaps most radically, build political institutions to share power on a consistently democratic basis.

When Suu Kyi’s National League for Democracy won the 2015 general election, it was easy to get swept up in the new wave of exuberance among a long-oppressed people. By then, the momentum for change was undeniable. As the internet became ubiquitous, and as people learned to live without such fear of army retribution, they enjoyed the many benefits of greater freedom of movement, sustained economic growth and international connection.

Yet, it was also apparent soon after the 2015 election that the NLD’s gerontocratic team was ill-equipped to manage Myanmar’s long list of persistent challenges. One key issue is that the old systems—heavy on restrictions, surveillance and violence—never wholly disappeared. The appalling treatment of the Rohingya is the grimmest example. But plenty of journalists and activists also found themselves singled out for harsh treatment under the elected government. The shadow of military dictatorship lingered.

With these fraught conditions, it’s no surprise that the NLD struggled to handle its delicate relationship with the armed forces. Indeed, the military leadership under Senior General Min Aung Hlaing often made it impossible for the NLD team to succeed. Military legislators continually presented obstacles to more dramatic political reform and used their constitutionally defined handbrakes to frustrate the elected government’s mandate.

One consequence of the military’s meddling since the 2015 election is clear: the immediate street-level resistance to last week’s coup. Nationwide protests are now multiplying in scale and sophistication. From across the country’s political divides, protesters are understandably furious that the military sees fit to so casually discard their votes, their leaders and their electoral system. Nobody believes the military’s claims of widespread voting fraud at the November 2020 poll—it is a hollow Trumpian justification, devoid of evidence, logic or common sense.

A digitally savvy 21st-century society also offers daunting challenges to an analogue generation of military dictators. Min Aung Hlaing will now seek to imitate his counterparts in Thailand who, with their 2014 coup, managed to bring in a new, military-friendly constitution. Even after the 2019 election, General Prayuth Chan-ocha is still in charge. That must give Myanmar’s commander-in-chief some comfort in the possible path ahead.

Yet the Thai situation is illustrative for another reason. Prayuth and King Vajiralongkorn, among Thailand’s other paramount figures, are now subjected to relentless ridicule and calls for wide-ranging political reform. Street protests in Thailand have not held back in their criticism and peaceful demands for change. A new generation of Thai activists—not beholden to the norms of conservative democratisation that prevailed under King Bhumibol—are bravely confronting the established order.

And after last week’s coup, there’s talk of Myanmar’s newly emboldened anti-military campaigners benefiting from the tactics of the ‘milk tea alliance’, stretching from Hong Kong and Taiwan, across Thailand, and now to Myanmar. Whatever the tactics, taking on Myanmar’s military is never for the faint of heart. In recent days, the detention of an unknown number of politicians, activists and advisers is a very worrying start. Those who have been locked up and who have managed to send messages to the wider world are defiant, confident, unflinching.

Among the long lists of Myanmar names, there is now also one Australian, Sean Turnell. A highly regarded professor from Macquarie University, Turnell has devoted the past decade to supporting Myanmar’s democrats in their hard-won efforts to reform the economy. His detention is a damning indictment of the military’s baffling and short-sighted self-sabotage.

Yet this early round of arrests has clearly not deterred the protests. People are anxious, naturally, of the military’s capacity for crackdowns and violence. But they still flock to the streets with the three-fingered Hunger Games salute and bang kitchen pots to drive away evil spirits.

Dwelling for a moment on evil: we cannot forget that Myanmar’s flirtation with democracy also exacerbated the dire conditions facing the Rohingya. Myanmar’s democrats were mostly silent when defenceless civilians in the northern Rakhine State were treated horrendously in 2016 and 2017.

Some of these Rohingya refugees are now publicly declaring solidarity with Myanmar’s street protests. I am sure they have not forgotten Suu Kyi’s role in their expulsion from Myanmar.

Tragically for her, Suu Kyi’s glowing reputation no longer defines the country’s democratic struggle, and her failures, especially when it comes to the Rohingya, now weigh heavily on the international response to the coup. Nonetheless, there are principles at stake about how we value election results that, while recently tested even in the United States, make it impossible to ignore the destructive work of the coup-makers.

With those principles in mind, our questions now need to shift quickly. It made sense in 2013 to ask about the chance of a Myanmar coup. In the current political crisis, with Covid-19 still causing so much misery, and with the numbers of protestors growing so rapidly, what is the chance of a revolution? National disintegration? Further communal breakdown? A newly flourishing democracy? If Myanmar’s generals bunkered down in Naypyitaw don’t hear the anger, and adjust their path, the consequences are stark and unpredictable.