The peaceful protests against Myanmar’s Feb 1 military takeover are seemingly ebbing. The number of demonstrators hitting the streets in the major townships like Yangon and Mandalay are coming down . One would expect that to happen because the military junta has been ruthless in response with nearly 600 deaths reported in indiscriminate firings so far. That may not be anywhere near the kind of casualty witnessed in 1988 when thousands were mowed down by gunfire in Yangon and Mandalay in a few hours but good enough to scare people off the streets.
But the drop in the intensity of public agitation does not mean the movement has frittered out. Far from it, the agitation against the military junta has spread. State railway workers have continued their strike despite police crackdown .Three-quarters of the country’s civil servants have been on strike, all private banks are closed and the protests have weakened the economy significantly. The Buddhist clergy is divided, unlike during the 2007 Saffron Revolution, but the younger elements in it have joined the protests. Those leading the agitation are looking up to the international community to act.
However, an increasingly powerful section within the pro-democracy movement is moving towards armed action. The formation of the ‘Federal Army’ somewhere in Yangon by drawing on the younger hardliners points to efforts by some in the movement to raise the cost of military intervention. The leaders of the ‘Federal Army’ is primarily drawn from the younger elements – college and university students , workers and white-collar professionals—who are angered by the harsh military response and feel they need to hit back. Most are from the neigborhood resistance committees , some from college and university and workers unions.
This writer is privy to the first meeting at a north Yangon township where the Federal Army was born on March 11 . The leaders plan targeted killings – military informers responsible for guiding night raids in the neighborhoods to cripple the movement, military commanders and members of their families and political associates of the junta leaders. At the moment , nearly 200 activists of this new outfit are undergoing training in bases of some ethnic rebel armies, who welcome this as an opportunity .
This is not a new trend . In 1998, ethnic Bamar students-youths fled to Karen rebel camps on Thai-Myanmar border in large numbers , received combat training and inducted weapons when the announcement of elections by the SLORC military junta led to a rethink among the hardliners who decided to give the elections a try. Aung Saan Suu Kyi’s party swept the 1990 polls but the army refused to honor the verdict. But the Burmese military Tatmadaw’s ceasefire with a number of ethnic rebel armies like Kachin Independence Army soon after put paid to efforts to develop an armed urban insurgency in Burmese cities.
The military has announced it will hold elections within a year but its decision not to honour the Nov’2020 election verdict is keeping the embers of protest burning. The protestors have a new target this time – China. Convinced that the Tatmadaw received full backing from China to go ahead with the Feb 1 military takeover, protestors in Yangon and elsewhere have targeted factories and business establishments financed by Chinese companies. This may be a reflection of public anger over a growing narrative that China is a new neo-colonialist in Myanmar ( and elsewhere in Asia and Africa), conspiring to take away its huge mineral resources, precious stones , hydrocarbons and much else—and for which they need a military totally dependent on them and isolated from the rest of world . But some among the pro-democracy leadership, both NLD and in the likes of ‘Federal Army’ , feel targeting Chinese interests may force Beijing to put pressure on the Tatmadaw to step down and return the country to parliamentary democracy.
There is a precedent that such a course of action may work. In 2008-10, fierce and coordinated resistance in the Kachin state and elsewhere in Myanmar forced the quasi-military government of President (former general) Thein Sein to cancel the $6 billion Myitsone dam project (6000 MW) . The Kachin insurgents, church, tribal elders and civil society raised the pitch of their resistance to the project . Mainstream Burmese civil society joined the movement because the Irrawaddy formed by the two rivers , at whose confluence the Myitsone Dam was planned, is the backbone of the country’s agrarian economy and a sharp drop in hydrological flow in it may adversely impact on the country’s agriculture. Western anti-dam and human rights groups joined the pitch against Myitsone (having failed to stop China’s Three Gorges Dam earlier in the decade) .
A determined push for resuming the Myitsone project by Beijing has not worked . Suu Kyi’s government also scaled down the investment size in the China-financed Kyaukphyu deep sea port and SEZ project, raising alarms in Beijing over the China-Myanmar Economic Corridor project. After the Sri Lankan government long-leased away the Hambantota port and some other China-financed projects because of unsustainable debt burden, opposition parties in Malaysia and even China’s surrogate Cambodia have railed against Chinese projects because they fear a Chinese takeover of the economy if local government are compelled to pawn away crucial infrastructure projects. Many in Myanmar’s democracy movement realise the Chinese vulnerabilities and are determined to pressurize Beijing by ‘political acupunture’ – press where it hurts. With India now increasingly giving up its inhibitions in criticizing the military takeover , the anti-China pitch after the military takeover may open new opportunities for Indian business . But to gain from China’s discomfiture, India will have to shed its ambivalence advocated by sections of our military and diplomatic higher echelons and behave like a decisive regional power that PM Modi wants it to become. A country becomes a power if it behaves and thinks like one.
(Subir Bhaumik , a former BBC correspondent , worked as senior editor in Yangon’s Mizzima Media in 2016-17)