A Myanmar protester waves a National League for Democracy (NLD) party flag in front of an armored vehicle during a demonstration against the military coup outside the Central Bank in Yangon, Myanmar on February 15, 2021. Photo: Myat Thu Kyaw/NurPhoto via AFP

CHIANG MAI – As Myanmar’s anti-coup civil disobedience movement heads into a third defiant week, the potential for violence is rising as the new military regime’s orders and bans on protests are widely ignored despite the deployment of armored vehicles equipped with machine guns in the old capital of Yangon and other cities and towns.

Heavily armed soldiers in uniform are now taking over the task of defending the new dictatorship and suppressing the protests from the ineffectual or unwilling police.

But even if the generals manage to suppress the movement via brute force, it is becoming increasingly clear that they will be ruling over a population that is vastly more defiant from when coups were staged in the past.

The coup is also bound to put an end to old timeworn notions of the military being the only force that can hold the country together, a national mythology the military has perpetuated in rhetoric and even museums. But the military’s state within a state and its recent democracy-suspending coup is just as much about economics as nationalism.

“The military’s desire to hang on to power has less to do with patriotism than protecting the economic interests of the military elite,” said Htwe Htwe Thein, a Myanmar-born associate professor at Curtin University in Australia. “For decades, the military has amassed wealth by controlling the bureaucracy and establishing near-monopolies in key sectors.”

She also argues that the reform agenda of coup-toppled Aung San Suu Kyi’s civilian-led government threatened to weaken, albeit gradually over time, “a lucrative system of crony capitalism.”  

In the decades leading up to the relative openness that was introduced in 2011, two military-owned conglomerates — the Union of Myanmar Economic Holdings (UMEH) and the Myanmar Economic Corporation (MEC) — leveraged the privatization of state assets that started in 1988 when the old socialist system was abandoned in the wake of a popular uprising to grab publicly-owned enterprises at fire-sale prices.

UMEH, MEC and a relatively small group of affiliated civilian businessmen popularly referred to as “the cronies” nabbed economic concessions, real estate and lucrative contracts with the state as well as foreign entities.

Army chief Snr General Min Aung Hlaing has told media groups they could face legal action over unverified reports about the military. Photo: AFP / Thet Aung
Coup maker Senior General Min Aung Hlaing in a file photo. Photo: AFP/ Thet Aung

Those conglomerates and the cronies gained control over everything from the trade in beer and tobacco to mining and construction companies, to tourism and property development.

While the military remained the country’s most powerful institution even after political and economic opening started in 2011, Suu Kyi’s National League for Democracy (NLD) began a cautious but steady process of de-militarizing the country after winning a landslide election victory in the 2015.

Some suggest the military’s top brass feared a more aggressive move in that direction after the NLD’s resounding November 2020 election win, contributing to the calculus behind its coup.  

“A major achievement” in demilitarization of Myanmar society, Htwe Htwe Thein argues, “was the 2019 transfer of the General Administration Department to civilian control.” Until then, it had been run under the Ministry of Home Affairs, one of three ministries wholly controlled by the military (the other two being defense and border affairs.)

“It was seen as a sign of the weakening grip of the military over the government administration and patronage, which had been at the heart of its ability to accumulate and protect its wealth,” Htwe Htwe Thein told Asia Times.

The coup makers, however, clearly aim to shroud their putsch in false conceptions of nationalism. The nationalistic notion of the military preventing Myanmar from falling apart was initially challenged in the 1990s by Chao Tzang Yawnghwe, the son of the country’s first president Sao Shwe Thaik.

An ethnic Shan and erstwhile resistance fighter, he has argued in academic papers that the military regime that first seized power in 1962 from a shaky but still functioning democratically-elected government relied on “the use of terror to maintain power.”

Repression breeds resistance and that is what happened after the 1962 coup, which by any measure made the country less, not more, united. The ethnic and political insurgencies, which broke out shortly after independence in 1948 but had by the mid-1950s been more or less contained, flared anew after the coup, especially in Shan and Kachin states.

The ethnic Bamar-dominated central regions went into a cycle of uprisings followed by military massacres, the first at Yangon University in July 1962 when scores of protesting students were killed. Another student-led uprising in the mid-1970s was also brutally put down.

Protesters take part in a demonstration against the military coup in front of the National League for Democracy (NLD) office in Yangon on February 15, 2021. Photo: AFP/Sai Aung Main

The 1988 uprising against military dictatorship, when literally millions of people rose up all over the country, ended when thousands were gunned down by soldiers. In 2007, soldiers harshly put down a Buddhist monk-led pro-democracy movement that became known as the Saffron Revolution.

All these popular movements were crushed with brute military force. But this time, after a decade of more political and social openness, Myanmar’s people are no longer afraid of speaking their minds and taking to the streets to show their anger with the coup.

This is especially true for a younger generation, or Generation Z, which was raised with an open internet, mobile phones and social media platforms that have facilitated the formation of a rich panoply of civil society organizations.

The social media sharing of recent civil disobedience movement activities is emboldening young protesters. When an armored vehicle recently broke down in Yangon, crowds mocked the soldiers by saying “do you want us to call a mechanic” and “should we come and push you.”

Other armored vehicles and tanks have been surrounded by cars whose drivers honked their horns vigorously. Some protesters have even dared to paste anti-coup posters on some of the tanks mobilized around Yangon.

A typical slogan on many protest posters and placards is aimed directly at senior general Min Aung Hlaing, who heads the new junta known as the State Administration Council, reads: “Shame on you dictator. We will never forgive you.”

The extent to which the military is prepared to go to protect its power and wealth was shown on February 12 when the new junta released 23,000 prisoners, evidently with the aim of creating chaos.

That date, a national holiday known as Union Day, is meant to show ethnic solidarity by celebrating an agreement signed in 1947 between leaders of the country’s various ethnic groups.

Soon after the release, burglaries, arsons and general chaos reportedly became widespread in Yangon and other cities, motivating people in many neighborhoods to set up their own vigilante squads to protect their homes.

Myanmar soldiers set up barricades during a demonstration against the military coup outside the Central Bank in Yangon, Myanmar on February 15, 2021. Photo: Myat Thu Kyaw/NurPhoto via AFP

More wicked military-aligned forces may be at work. Some demonstrators fell sick after drinking water that had been donated to them, raising suspicions that the bottles may have been poisoned. If so, it would be similar to a tactic the military used against protesters in 1988, only then from publicly available earthen jars along the route of demonstrations.

There are also credible reports the junta is trying to instigate communal riots between people of different religious faiths to create the kind of chaos it believes it needs to justify its hold on power.

The next step may also be to strike deals with some of Myanmar’s many ethnic armed organizations (EAO) to show that the generals are pursuing “internal peace.” Such agreements in the early 1990s neutralized many EAOs by turning them into business corporations.

The question now is whether Min Aung Hlaing and the top brass will succeed by using force and violence designed to cow the public into submission. What is clear is that the junta is and will be internationally isolated and condemned for however long it retains power.

“It’s as if the generals have declared war on the people of Myanmar: late night raids, mounting arrests, more rights stripped away…military convoys entering communities,” Tom Andrews, the United Nations special rapporteur on Myanmar, tweeted on February 15. “These are signs of desperation, Attention generals: You will be held accountable.”