What is unfolding in Myanmar after the atrocious military coup on February 1 may well turn out to be a do or die moment for the beleaguered country. In all likelihood, even the Myanmar Army (Tatmadaw) commander-in-chief Min Aung Hlaing, did not anticipate that public protest would be so widespread, cutting across age and community barriers. Whether the momentum of the protest or its appeal across Myanmar people’s multiple and complex fractures along ethnic, religious and class lines will sustain is difficult to say, but at least the coup leaders will be hoping it will not. For the moment, they are unlikely to be having peaceful sleep, especially because this movement is driven by the energy of the younger generation, urged on by the older. If the coup does not hold, and if a government by the democratically elected National League for Democracy, NLD, led by the iconic Aung San Suu Kyi returns, it is predicted to be a pivotal chapter in Myanmar, triggering the process of successfully harnessing of the military to be brought under decisive civil control, as in any mature democracy. If the coup holds, the death knell could be for democracy in Myanmar, for although the military has promised this was an emergency to last one year, it is unlikely they would be able to keep the promise, for it does seem the minute they let go, it would be back to democracy in a way bigger than ever, and therefore again spelling the marginalisation of the military in politics – obviously a good outcome but one which the Tatmadaw would dread.
Although the last has still not been said on this sorry chapter of Myanmar’s history, perhaps the coup itself was led by the military’s anxiety that they were slowly but surely squeezed towards this fate of political marginalisation and the coup itself was meant to reverse the deepening of democracy and its values amongst the people of Myanmar. The 2008 constitution framed by the military, Myanmar’s political system was designed to ensure a majority share of power for the military in the experimental partnership with civil leadership. Hence 25 percent of seats in both the bicameral Union Assembly (Pidaungsu Hlutaw) at the national level, consisting of the 440-seat Lower House Pyithu Hluttaw and the 224-seat Upper House Amyotha Hluttaw, and in the 14 subnational state and regional legislatures (State Hluttaw) are reserved for the military. Over and above this, key portfolios of Home, Border Affairs and Defence were also reserved for serving military officers. With this formidable advantage of a 25 percent seats headstart in the contest to control the Hluttaws, the military brass probably presumed that together with its proxy parties in the civil space, the military would continue to hold majority support and therefore be always at helm of all future governments. The 2015 election proved how illusory this anticipation was, for NLD came out on top with a landslide victory in the seats open for competition. The military sponsored Union Solidarity and Development Party, USDP, and their other civil allies were left to be content with only 12 percent of the seats, therefore relegated to the opposition benches. Quite obviously, the election result then demonstrated the Myanmar people had no doubt about their preference in matters of choosing between democracy and military rule.
The military leaders would have been understandably disappointed by the election outcome, but also probably continued to pin their hopes that the euphoria over the sudden democratisation of the polity after five decades of military rule, as well the sheen provided by iconic leader Aung San Suu Kyi to the winning party she belonged, would wane in time and the next election would reflect the true mood of the nation. Indeed, in the run up to the November 2020 elections, most of the predictions by the media somewhat agreed with this assessment, not always for the same reasons, but anticipating the same outcome. The belief then was, there was a degree with disenchantment with the performance of the NLD government everywhere, but particularly so in the ethnic states where much of the local grievances remained largely unaddressed. In the case of the Rakhine and Shan states this disillusionment was even greater for the NLD bulldozed their way in to use a provision in the 2008 constitution that empowers the party in power at the Union to form governments in the states regardless of whether the party won majority in these local arenas. This, the forecasts said would have dented the NLD bases in the states, and hence although the party was still tipped to emerge as the single largest in the 2020 election, they would have to enlist the support of the ethnic parties to be able to form the next government. Belying all these predictions, the NLD swept the polls yet again with a margin even bigger than in 2015. In the Rakhine state, election was deferred because of the violent civil unrest marked by the Arakan Army’s new offensive against the Myanmar state, otherwise, even in the ethnic states, rather than ethic parties winning themselves a position to be king makers, the NLD made inroads into their bases as well. Whether this is a result of a change of heart amongst the ethnic populations, or it is an outcome of changing demography on account of immigration is still not clear, but the fact is the NLD domineered everywhere. This scenario was one of the worst fears of the Tatmadaw leadership. For now, with the assurance of such a huge mandate of the Myanmar people, Aung San Suu Kyi, might be emboldened to move for amendment of the constitution to relegate the military away from the civil power structure to make Myanmar a true democracy. One of the chief motivations of the Tatmadaw in staging the February coup is believed to be to avoid any such possibility. The other reason often cited is of course the presidential ambition of the military chief Min Aung Hlaing, due to retire shortly.
Now the hope of the Tatmadaw would be that slowly but surely people will gravitate towards whoever hold the reins of state power, regardless of how this power was attained in the first place. This is a phenomenon those of us in Manipur are extremely familiar with, including with regards to the current regime, after all, in terms of impoverishment, unemployment, poor education as well as a rare and sometimes misplaced sense of pride in their past and peoplehood, Myanmar and Manipur share plenty. However, given the nature of the widespread street protests all over Myanmar currently, the Tatmadaw’s calculations may yet again be proven false. If the people of Myanmar do manage to break free of this distressing trend of mediocrity mindset that makes people always end up tailing power, a situation so well summed up in the Meitei saying lairen matung ngainba (fish shoal crowding around the trail of a python), and continue to put the pressure on the military to give way to democracy, the days of the military as rulers may be numbered. On another note, we do also hope Manipur will also be able to shake itself free of the lure of lairen matung ngainba and become capable of punishing or rewarding politicians with their votes, and not sell them to the highest bidders.
The other interesting thing to watch in the wake of the Myanmar coup is international reaction. Outside of Myanmar, Aung San Suu Kyi, had lost much of her initial lustre especially after her reluctance to speak and act on behalf of the Rohingyas when they were being brutally persecuted by her country’s military, forcing seven lakhs of them to flee to Bangladesh. She even went ahead to defend the military in December 2019 at the trial by the International Court of Justice at The Hague to decide whether the Tatmadaw’s action amounted to war crime and genocide, arguing that the international reading of the situation was blind to the real situation in the country. Still, the Western world by and large has taken a moralistic stand against the coup and has threatened sanctions and isolation of Myanmar, a line of action which many Myanmar observer say will not serve the purpose as it would only impoverish the people further without hurting those behind the coup in any substantial way.
Another curious tendency is to see Myanmar through the prism of China, and therefore to delay a decision on a response till after seeing how China responds. This is unfortunate. From engagements in the past many decades, China’s likely response to any regime change in any country it considers important to its economic and strategic interest, should have been obvious to anybody. China does, and indeed would consider Myanmar important not just as a big resource rich neighbour, but also as a passage to the Indian Ocean to connect to Africa and Middle East which are some of its most important destinations for shopping oil and other resources. Because the Malacca Strait which opens a sea route for the country to the Indian Ocean is controlled by the US therefore making it vulnerable to the possibility of being forbidden to use it in the event of heightened friction with the US, a friendly Myanmar is vital for it. Hence, have no doubt about it, China would cosy up with anybody in power in the country. It rolled out the red carpet for Aung San Swu Kyi while she was at the helm, and now if the coup does hold, China can be predicted to make moves to befriend the military leaders again as it did before while they were in power in their last avatar. Whether this is morally right or wrong is another question, what needs to be understood is that China by necessity would not do anything to alienate anybody in power in Myanmar. This being so, the rest of the world should respond as they think fit to the situation regardless of what China does. As it has been so aptly explained, the pollical DNA of China, as indeed all of Asia and the rest of the world outside of Europe, are quite different from those of the Europeans. These countries do have boundary skirmishes with neighbours, but are not given to exporting their ideologies and belief with Evangelical zeal as Europe has done and America is doing now, invading even distant sovereign states in the name of promoting their brand of democracy. Asian countries are in many ways inward looking and are happy just to be themselves, and least bothered if others believe or do not believe in what they believe. China for instance is a country which even in ancient time built the Great Wall, choosing to shut themselves from the rest of the world if need be. This being so, the world should go about doing as they think is the best course of action without bothering about China, unless the latter encroaches into their own interest in any unwarranted way. The point is to help Myanmar because Myanmar needs help, and not respond to the Myanmar situation as a response to China.
Editor, Imphal Review of Arts and Politics and author