On February 1, the Myanmar military staged a coup d'état that turned the results of the November 2020 election upside down and jailed the country's leading civilians on false charges. Since then, government protests and violence have escalated. Jonathan Tepperman interviewed Thant Myint-U, an author, historian, former United Nations peacekeeper and former member, on Wednesday to get a sense of what lies ahead, the dynamics driving the conflict, and what outsiders can do to promote democracy in Myanmar to defend the National Economic and Social Advisory Board of Myanmar – by email. Your conversation has been edited for length and clarity.
Jonathan Tepperman: Where do you expect the protests from here? Will the government crack down – arrests and injuries have been relatively few so far – and will protests ease if they do?
As Myint-U: The protests clearly show the strength of public opinion against military rule. They have been extraordinarily successful in showing the world the feelings of millions of ordinary people. Strikes by public sector workers have paralyzed the government. The military authorities seem surprised, not only by the scale of the protests, but also by the way they were organized – not by Aung San Suu Kyi's National League for Democracy (NLD) but by networks of often anonymous youth activists who Use new technologies like Bridgefy, a messaging app that uses Bluetooth instead of the internet
The army, which has tried to portray its takeover as both constitutional and temporary, may seek to avoid violent repression but may not know how to otherwise deal with what is known as the Civil Disobedience Movement (CDM). On the CDM side, any retreat at this point will be a tactical one. It will be difficult for the new administration to consolidate its authority anytime soon
JT: What is Tatmadaw's strategy? Will the generals take advantage of ethnic divisions to try to withdraw support from Aung San Suu Kyi and the NLD?
TM: I would be surprised if there was a clear strategy. I don't think the coup was inevitable or something that came after months of planning. Aung San Suu Kyi and the NLD were rather unhappy on the part of the generals, but General Min Aung Hlaing, the commander in chief, believed that the elections last November could go his way. The Pro-Army Party for Solidarity and Development of the Union (USDP) had to win just over 25 percent of the elected seats, as the army automatically receives 25 percent of the seats under the current constitution. However, this did not happen. In mid-December, he upheld the USDP's allegations of massive election fraud. An investigation was called for, and when the NLD unceremoniously rejected the idea, tensions mounted steadily, resulting in an ultimatum, a failed attempt at negotiation, and then a coup.
In addition to dealing with the protests, the generals can now focus on three things: expanding their allegations against the NLD beyond electoral fraud to include high-level corruption and foreign collusion; immediate measures to stimulate the economy, including a multi-billion dollar stimulus package; and new ceasefire agreements with at least some non-governmental armed organizations. There could be an attempt to win over ethnic minorities, but it is difficult to see how it could be successful. It would be easier to imagine an attempt to mobilize the ultra-nationalist mood within the Burmese-speaking Buddhist majority. However, it's hard to say if this would work: Burmese society is incredibly conservative, and ultra-nationalist views certainly have some influence, but the standing of the military is not high even among ultra-nationalists, some of whom, for example, corrupt army leaders blame the past because "the natives" were not protected from illegal immigration by Muslims and Chinese.
JT: Protests are usually only successful if soldiers and police officers switch sides and join the demonstrators. Could this happen here? If not why not?
TM: Nothing in Myanmar's modern history suggests that the army will break ranks in any significant way. This is an army that has been fighting non-stop in some of the most brutal counterinsurgency operations around the world for over 75 years. It is an army that has not hesitated to use lethal force again, civil demonstrators, including Buddhist monks. The troops were told from the age of 17 that the army was the only true guardian of the nation. The military has occasionally been exposed to internal disagreements, but not once has this resulted in an open division. Some police officers may switch sides, but the army has made sure the police don't play a huge role.
JT: Does the coup show that Myanmar's experiment with democracy has failed? Or will it be more difficult to suppress democracy after the country has seen it?
TM: In 2010, a generation of Myanmar generals retired. As part of their retirement plan, they decided to leave behind a hybrid system of government in which the army shared power with the elected politicians. They didn't come up with that overnight. That was what they had been working towards for almost 20 years. The Thein Sein government, which ruled from 2011 to 2015, then pushed through unprecedented political liberalization, which in turn led to the withdrawal of Western sanctions. As of 2016, Aung San Suu Kyi shared power with a new generation of generals and there was tension from the start. It wasn't a democracy. However, it was a new political setup that, along with significant economic growth, began to reshape Myanmar society. Only time will tell whether this rapidly developing society can now withstand autocratic rule.
JT: Are today's protesters different from previous generations? Are they just fighting for a return to democracy or also against economic inequality and ethnic division? Are your tactics better than in the past?
TM: Millions of people are protesting because they voted for Aung San Suu Kyi. They believe that she is the only legitimate leader in the country. Others are motivated less by loyalty to her or the NLD than by a deep hatred of military rule and the fear that their lives, like their parents', will be destroyed by a new cycle of brutal and kleptocratic army domination. A new generation of demonstrators has emerged that are more self-confident, are more familiar with new technologies and have everything to lose when they return to the past. Your tactics certainly work well, but whether there will be a real strategy for change is far less clear. What is missing is a progressive agenda that crosses ethnic boundaries, focuses on discrimination, underdevelopment and inequality, and unites a very divided society.
JT: Do you think the military intends to allow new elections within a year, as they promised? Would such a vote lead to the same result as the last one: victory for Aung San Suu Kyi and the NLD?
TM: The likely standard plan is for elections, perhaps a year from now, but elections that do not include Aung San Suu Kyi or the NLD. In a way, it could be a repeat of 2010, when the first elections under this constitution were held, Aung San Suu Kyi was under house arrest and the NLD was unable to attend. These elections were widely ridiculed as neither free nor fair, but surprisingly resulted in a government of reformist ex-generals. The difference is that 2010 was the exit strategy for then-Commander-in-Chief Than Shwe, who turned 80. The current commander in chief is 64 years old and may wish to stay in power, but in civilian clothes.
JT: The government of Biden responded to the coup with new sanctions. Will these make a difference? Have China and Russia already intervened to save the generals?
TM: Myanmar's generals are one of the most isolated political elites in the world. All of their friends and enemies, dreams and nightmares are alone in Myanmar. Most of them have never traveled, speak no foreign languages and have no assets abroad. They are more isolated than poor people in the country, millions of whom have worked abroad. Targeted sanctions will not change the generals' core political calculations. Broad sanctions could wreak enormous economic damage and destroy the lives of tens of millions of ordinary people.
I'm not sure about Russia, but I don't think China will rush to support the new government. Beijing had a very good relationship with Aung San Suu Kyi and had high hopes for a second NLD term. Beijing's relations with the army, on the other hand, were thorny at best. And the army is probably the most cautious political institution on China, not least because it sees China as the main sponsor of the armed nongovernmental organizations it has fought against in recent years. However, it is possible that the army and China will see new mutually beneficial opportunities in the months ahead.
JT: Such as? What do you think China wants to happen in Myanmar now?
TM: Sino-Myanmar relations have an incredibly complicated history. In the early 1950s, residual armies of the nationalist government of China, the Kuomintang, invaded Myanmar from the Chinese province of Yunnan and, with the support of the United States, occupied much of the eastern highlands. The Myanmar army grew largely in response to this threat, which took a decade to eradicate. In the late 1960s, communist forces, supported by the Chinese People's Liberation Army, invaded Myanmar again from Yunnan to establish a "liberated zone" in large parts of the region. In 1989 this communist uprising collapsed, leaving behind several new successor armies, all closely linked to China. The leadership of these armies all speak Chinese and includes many ethnic Chinese in their top positions. It's the same area that has a methamphetamine industry valued at $ 75 billion a year, as well as hundreds of casinos serving Chinese visitors.
China's economic footprint in Myanmar has also grown steadily over the past few decades. Big Belt and road infrastructure projects have been slow to get going, largely due to Myanmar’s reluctance, but other investments from thousands of small and medium-sized Chinese companies have grown tremendously, as has cross-border trade. China's interests remain the same as always: ensuring stability, especially along the border; Prevent Myanmar from entering into military alliances with rivals; and deepening economic ties. At the same time, China will strive not to be on the wrong side of public opinion.
JT: Do you think Washington and Beijing could work together to put pressure on the generals to restore democracy?
TM: It's not impossible. Washington and Beijing were both happier with the pre-coup situation. Neither of them, Beijing in particular, wants growing instability. The same applies to India and Japan. And a concerted diplomatic effort, ideally with the support of the United States Security Council, would have a far greater chance of success. At the same time, it's hard to see China agree to partner with an outside state in a country it already sees as part of its own backyard.
JT: So is there anything outside of governments that could actually help?
TM: First, it is important to support those who protest against a return to military rule. At the same time, given that many demonstrators are calling for international military intervention, it is important not to create unrealistic expectations that the outside world will solve Myanmar's problems. Second, it is absolutely essential that life-saving aid (including for COVID-19-related health programs) is protected and that everything is done to maintain a livelihood. There is no scenario where the economy falters, tens of millions of desperately poor people run out of money and options, and a miraculous democracy emerges the next day.
JT: What do you think most of us who are watching from the west are missing what is happening in Myanmar right now? What do we not understand what we should?
TM: The political crisis takes place in the context of several other crises. This is a society that has been traumatized by over seven decades of violent conflict. Over two dozen armed non-governmental organizations (the largest of which is closely linked to China and employs more than 25,000 men) and hundreds of ethnic-based militias rule much of the highlands. A million people are refugees and hundreds of thousands of others are internally displaced. Government institutions everywhere are extremely weak and unable to collect taxes or provide health or other social services to the vast majority. Racist and religious discrimination coexists with the exploding inequality of wealth. And in the past year, COVID-19 has resulted in an imminent economic collapse. Between January and October 2020, income rose from less than $ 1.90 per day from 16 to 63 percent of the population. Myanmar's economy is increasingly tied to China's as a supplier of primary goods. And it is an economy headed not by the army, but by transnational networks for making money, which are far more powerful than any institution. A far better understanding of this political economy is required to truly understand Myanmar's options for the future.