Myanmar’s military coup on Feb 1 and the popular anger and ongoing local protests in reaction to it inside the country pose multiple and multi-layered dilemmas for all parties involved. The Tatmadaw, as Myanmar’s armed forces are known, led by junta leader Senior General Min Aung Hlaing, is now mired in repercussions and consequences well beyond its original intent. Whether the Tatmadaw prevails or not, Myanmar is unlikely to regain the traction of reform and progress that has been on track in the past decade.
Since the coup, the Tatmadaw has hunkered down for the long haul, intent on riding out the storm at all costs. Its tried and tested playbook from decades of dictatorship, marked by unlawful detentions, arbitrary arrests, intimidation and outright suppression, is back in full motion. At the opposite end, civil disobedience and defiant street demonstrations have mushroomed all over the country, particularly in the capital of Nay Pyi Taw, Yangon, and Mandalay.
The sense of deja vu from past army shootings and attacks against unarmed civilian protesters in 1988 and 2007 is unmistakable. But this time, the Tatmadaw may need to use unprecedented and even deadlier force against its own people to get away with seizing power. After tasting a decade of new possibilities following five decades of dictatorship and isolation, Myanmar people are unlikely to budge and submit even at the sight of bloodshed, as their popular will was essentially robbed in broad daylight when Snr Gen Min Aung Hlaing decided to pull the plug on a fragile but workable democracy after a landslide election victory for incumbent leader Aung San Suu Kyi and her National League for Democracy party. As more post-coup stories come out of Myanmar, it is clear that the ambitious coup leader was pursuing his and the Tatmadaw’s narrow vested interests.
If the Tatmadaw succeed in quelling protests and keeping power, it will likely involve atrocious crimes with grave humanitarian implications as many anti-coup opponents and dissidents will be eliminated, locked up, or forced to flee. In this scenario, Myanmar’s clock would turn back dramatically to the 1980s and 90s, returning to a pariah status facing international sanctions and representing an albatross for Asean all over again.
But if the coup fails somehow and Myanmar’s “people’s power” triumphs against the odds, central authority could collapse while the periphery runs amok, as ethnic minorities comprise over a third of the 55-million population. This spectre of Myanmar’s “Balkanisation” could lead to secession and territorial claims among the main ethnic minorities, including areas in Shan, Karen, Kachin, Mon, and Rakhine states. Keeping the motley ethnic organisations within the Myanmar union has been the Tatmadaw’s claim to legitimacy as “guardian of the state”.
So if the coup is to be reversed and democratisation regained, the Tatmadaw somehow must be part of the equation to pre-empt a break-up of the country. In any case, any Tatmadaw weakness or setback will likely be exploited by the ethnic armies that have been engaged in long-running insurgency conflicts against the Myanmar state.
Undoing the coup first requires a breakdown in Snr Gen Min Aung Hlaing’s authority and the ascendancy of a rival faction within the Tatmadaw. As long as the Myanmar military remains united and resolute under the coup leader and strongman, pro-democracy street demonstrations are unlikely to achieve their political goals.
In addition to potential disunity and factionalism within the armed forces, reversing the coup and maintaining the union of constituent minorities requires a compromise between the civilian and more moderate and reform-minded military leaders. This scenario seems distant but the alternative is dire, as Myanmar teeters on the edge of the abyss into a dark and violent military dictatorship.
For its neighbourhood, Myanmar’s coup has tarnished Asean’s already sagging reputation overnight. Two decades ago, this region was democratically up and coming, highlighted by democratic transitions in Thailand and Indonesia. While Thailand has slid back towards military-authoritarianism with an electoral facade, Indonesia’s democratic rules and norms also have been challenged by religious conservatism and the erosion of political openness.
Asean’s response to the Tatmadaw’s takeover so far has been tentative, resting on the Asean Charter and the contradictory principles of “non-interference” and democratic governance at the same time. As the Tatmadaw steps up its violent methods and tactics, Asean is likely to avoid the international “sanctions” movement in favour of “constructive engagement” yet again. When constructive engagement leads to more of the same as decades go by, it amounts to a cop-out.
For Western and Asian democracies, such as Japan and India, pushing back hard with punitive measures against the Tatmadaw regime risks nudging Myanmar further into China’s arms. But doing nothing while Myanmar’s rightfully elected civilian leaders are detained and slapped with bogus charges is also not an option. As internal pressure from Myanmar protesters mounts, the outside world has a moral responsibility to squeeze the Tatmadaw as directly and firmly as possible to force a crack within the armed forces.
Even for China, Myanmar’s coup is a dilemma. Coddling dictators comes at a price for Beijing’s ambitious global leadership. Snr Gen Min Aung Hlaing’s putsch was so raw and blatant that it is embarrassing to embrace, even for China. Moreover, the Suu Kyi-led government enjoyed strong ties with China, as Beijing already had Myanmar figured out and slotted in place in its broader geostrategic jigsaw in view of the Belt and Road Initiative. The coup requires China to figure out Myanmar all over again.
Thailand may be the worst affected by Myanmar’s coup. Upwards of four million Myanmar migrant workers, mostly from Karen and Shan states, have become the backbone of the Thai economy. If there is a humanitarian crisis, Thailand traditionally has been on the receiving end. Chiang Mai, for example, was once a Myanmar dissident haven prior to the country’s reopening in 2011. Yet the Thai authorities are running for cover in hope that this coup and crisis will just sort itself out, as Thailand is internally stuck with its own latent post-coup misrule.
When more is said and done in the weeks ahead, let’s remember that these dilemmas and the throwback to the past are unnecessary and transpired only because Myanmar’s junta leader and armed forces were looking out for their own interests at all costs.
Courtesy – Bangkok Post