This Tuesday, February 1, marks one year since the military (Tatmadaw) took over the reins of government in Myanmar. The military takeover reversed the steady movement toward a more representative political process and instead plunged the country into a deep political crisis.
For many observers, the coup came as a surprise, as structurally the political process was already tilted in favor of the military. The 2008 constitution ensured that 25% of seats in legislatures and important cabinet positions such as defense and border affairs were reserved for the military forces.
The semi-democratic government headed by Aung San Suu Kyi never actually undermined the economic interests of the Tatmadaw. Further, Suu Kyi defended the military against allegations of genocide of the Rohingya on various international platforms.
Probably the concern was that the election of November 2020 did not result in a fractured mandate as anticipated by the Tatmadaw.
The National League for Democracy (NLD), led by Suu Kyi, registered electoral victories in more than 70% of the seats. That likely generated a concern in the military leadership that Suu Kyi might usher in political reforms to reduce the presence of military in the legislative and executive frameworks. In the past, she had publicly expressed her desire to do so.
The Tatmadaw leadership sought to consolidate their hold on the governance process through a coup, which was carried out with clinical precision. Much of the civilian leadership, including Suu Kyi and president Win Myint, were detained in pre-dawn raids without much resistance.
Subsequently, the State Administration Council, headed by the commander-in-chief of the Defense Services, General Min Aung Hlaing, took over the governance apparatus.
However, the Tatmadaw is not in full control of the country. General Min Aung Hlaing has admitted that the Tatmadaw was surprised by the scale of protests that erupted. People from all walks of life, including civil servants, doctors and even police officers, participated in the Civil Disobedience Movement and called for the immediate release of the elected representatives from detention.
A parallel National Unity Government was constituted by the ousted members of the parliament. The NUG called for an armed insurrection against the military rule, and the People’s Defense Force was constituted.
There was speculation that some elements of Tatmadaw might defect to the PDF, which did not materialize. While the PDF launched attacks on the Tatmadaw, its operations were stymied by lack of training and access to weapons. Consequently, it had to depend on ethnic armed forces to fight the Tatmadaw.
Given the return of authoritarian governance, decentralization of power to states where non-Bamar ethnic groups live looks bleak. There is now renewed fighting between armed ethnic groups and the Tatmadaw, which has been accused of using heavy weaponry even in civilian areas leading to forced migration.
While the ethnic armed groups are receiving support from the people, they have not been able to wrest large tracts of territory from the control of the Tatmadaw. They have not been able to coordinate their operations. Further, the Myanmar military has a distinct advantage, as in the past decade, it was able to procure weapons with relative ease.
So overall, there is a painful stalemate in Myanmar. The military has taken over the reins of government but is not in complete control of the country. The ethnic armed groups have put up resistance in some pockets, but they have not inflicted a significant military defeat on the Tatmadaw.
The stalemate will continue, as there is no common ground between the military and the opposition. Suu Kyi was handed multi-year prison sentences, and many democracy protesters were sentenced to long periods of imprisonment.
The military reconstituted the Union Election Commission (UEC), which has called for a shift from the first-past-the-post electoral system to proportional representation. On the other hand, the NUG has called for the scrapping of the 2008 constitution and democracy based on federalism.
The international community’s response to the military coup has been along expected lines. The United States and some other Western democracies have imposed targeted sanctions on Myanmar. However, their ability to alter power relations within Myanmar is limited.
On the other hand, China has tended to support the Tatmadaw on international platforms. In return, the Tatmadaw is hastening the implementation of Chinese projects in Myanmar.
A pilot project to explore the possibility of using the renminbi in cross-border trade with China was also initiated. Defense cooperation has picked up momentum, and the Tatmadaw even procured a submarine from China.
Beijing continues to see the Tatmadaw as an important pillar in its Indian Ocean and Southeast Asian strategy.
The Association of Southeast Asian Nations did take time to formulate a response, but it has made efforts in the recent past to modulate the behavior of the Tatmadaw leadership. Last April, as part of its five-point approach, ASEAN suggested mediation by a special envoy that would involve consultations with all the parties.
However, with the Myanmar military dragging its feet, ASEAN refrained from inviting Generak Min Aung Hlaing to its summit last October. Instead, it suggested that a “non-political figure from Myanmar” participate in the proceedings.
There are concerns that Cambodia, which has assumed the chairmanship of ASEAN, may seek to dilute the bloc’s five-point approach at China’s behest. Such concerns were amplified during Cambodian Prime Minister Hun Sen’s visit to Myanmar in early January.
For India, the developments in Myanmar have been very disappointing. The conflict has resulted in an inflow of refugees and amplified concerns that Indian insurgent groups in Myanmar may find greater space as well as weapons to scale up their operations.
Much to India’s discomfort, there is also a distinct tilt toward China in the Tatmadaw’s international engagement.
It is imperative that India works with like-minded countries in ASEAN to ensure quick resolution of the Myanmar crisis based on principles of territorial integrity, democracy and decentralization.
The views expressed here are personal. Follow Sanjay Pulipaka on Twitter @psanjay_in