Observers of Myanmar’s coup like to draw parallels to the 1988 student uprising that catapulted the current generation of Myanmar’s democratic political leaders onto the political stage.
“In 1988, Myanmar was a poor and isolated country in the middle of a political and economic crisis,” former student leader Myo Thant told the writers. “Our student uprising was much better prepared, unlike today when people were surprised by the coup. But still we failed.”
The military government could then portray itself as defending law and order, and it still had a constituency to rely on beyond its ranks.
The February 1 coup, by contrast, was a naked power grab by the top military leadership – toppling a popular government. The regime’s brutal campaign of psychological warfare on its citizens put the lie to their claims that it was just stepping in as caretakers to facilitate fairer elections in a year’s time.
Today, the junta’s constituency is its crack military units and a narrow economic elite of crony capitalists. They have nothing to win in a repeat election, however rigged.
The Civil Disobedience Movement’s resistance has been spontaneous, decentralized and diverse. It has mobilized hundreds of thousands of protesters, the labor movement and ethnic minorities to shut down parts of the country quite effectively.
Myanmar’s banking system, always feeble, looks close to collapse. With banking havens for the junta’s finances, namely the US and Singapore, restricting capital flows, the Biden administration’s freeze on $1 billion of Myanmar’s US-held assets and an ongoing national boycott of military-affiliated businesses, the junta’s finances are being squeezed.
All this definitely means the junta’s strategy of carrying on with business as usual has gone out the window and makes large-scale violent escalation likely.
The writers disagree with the view that the disparate Civil Disobedience Movement can win by sheer power of will and personal sacrifice. Look at the numbers: In some ministries, such as health and education, participation in the movement is substantial, with estimates that a third of staff are actively involved. In others, it is much smaller.
Some 600 policemen are said to have defected so far. Overall, the number of Civil Disobedience Movement participants is likely in the tens of thousands, out of a million or so civil servants across the country.
The junta is cracking down hard. Participating civil servants have been suspended by the junta, with some losing their pay and benefits and others potentially charged with treason.
One senior civil servant told us: “I really want to participate in the civil disobedience campaign but I have to take care of my family – we rely on my salary [and] the housing provided by the department.”
One month on, the story of Myanmar’s coup has become a tale of two governments, the junta and the acting administration of the Committee Representing the National Parliament (CRPH), a group of MPs mostly from Aung San Suu Kyi’s National League for Democracy (NLD) party.
With many of its members including Suu Kyi detained and least one who has died in the junta’s custody, the democratically-elected NLD has been hit hard by the coup.
“We cannot operate as a political party right now. [The junta] seized our leaders… Our party headquarter is closed. But we are trying to connect with our party members,” Phyo Zeya Thaw, NLD Central Committee Member, told the writers.
The CRPH has sought to challenge the junta while running and hiding. It has already announced a public administration program that established local councils led by MPs and loyal local officials to run affairs in Myanmar’s 360 townships in competition with the junta.
Preliminary data from a survey we are conducting on this parallel governance bid suggest that early success is mixed: In parts of the country, the NLD’s grassroots networks have been able to set up structures, in particular in Yangon, Mandalay and Sagaing regions, all part of the NLD’s heartland. In other townships, the junta has the upper hand.
Significantly, the CRPH is now putting itself firmly at the head of the disparate civil disobedience movement. On its website, the CRPH is registering civil servants participating in CDM who it will provide support.
It has also formed an ”acting administration” of acting ministers. They will cover all portfolios of the toppled NLD government until a new unity resistance government is formed.
To form this unity government, the CRPH is competing with the junta in reaching out to both civil society leaders and to ethnic political parties and ethnic armed groups. The success of these overtures may decide the ultimate fate of Myanmar’s coup.
Two other resistance organizations, a General Strike Committee and a General Strike Committee of Nationalities, that sprung up to organize a general strike in February are still organizing protests and strikes independently.
When the CRPH announced last week that it would seek to abolish the much-hated 2008 constitution that gives the military extraordinary power in the affairs of the state and that it would seek to build a federal democracy, it was articulating positions shared by all actors in the resistance.
As Ke Jung, member of the General Strike Committee of Nationalities leadership explained to us: “The announcement is a good first step. We and our colleagues from ethnic political parties and ethnic armed groups, though, need to see more concrete commitments to the abolition of the constitution and the construction of a genuine federal system.”
The CRPH now holds all the cards. The CRPH’s envoys operating from territory beyond the reach of the junta are building a broad coalition. Meetings with four ethnic armed organizations have already taken place.
Now the CRPH needs to lead: First it should meet with a counterpart committee of ethnic minority MPs and agree on the choice of a Parliament Speaker.
Nominating an ethnic minority party Speaker would go a long way to assuage ethnic political and armed actors’ concerns. Further meetings with ethnic political and armed group representatives will need to follow.
Then a cabinet of national unity bringing together various forces inside the Civil Disobedience Movement with ethnic political parties and ethnic armed groups could be in place before the end of March.
This government will be able to stop running and challenge the junta from a secure base in safe territory, probably situated in the southeast region of the country.
Internationally, a bloc against the junta is solidifying. The EU will be joining the US, UK, Canada and Australia in imposing ever tougher measures, a spokesperson of EU High Representative for Foreign Policy Josep Borrell told us.
However, none of these Western governments have been dealing with the CRPH’s acting ministers as the legitimate government of Myanmar. It is arguably time to do so – the CRPH has done enough in challenging the junta in public administration, in leading the Civil Disobedience Movement and in making credible steps toward forming a democratic unity government.
“The CRPH-led government is seeking support to help restore democracy to Myanmar. All democratic governments need to respond to that call. The extraordinary actions of some senior Myanmar diplomats speaking out as they have done, should be enough to compel governments to recognize the CRPH led government,” Janelle Saffin, Australian MP and advisor to the CRPH, told us.
The Western bloc needs to move first to accredit the designated representatives of the interim government and reject the credentials of diplomats that profess loyalty to the junta.
Then other countries will follow. They need to make those Myanmar public funds that are frozen in accounts in the US and elsewhere available to CRPH on the condition that it form this unity government.
These funds will be important in sustaining the democratic resistance in what shapes up to be a long and arduous struggle for a true federal democracy in Myanmar.
Philipp Annawitt served as an advisor to Myanmar’s parliaments and government from 2015 to 2021.
Moe Hteet is the pen name for a political activist based in Myanmar.