CHIANG MAI – One year ago today (February 1), the streets all over Myanmar were filled with people demonstrating against the military’s surprise democracy-suspending coup.
The atmosphere of defiance was initially carnival-like but soon turned lethal when the military responded as it has historically to popular uprisings – with random gunfire into the crowds of protesting citizens. Yet there are still sporadic demonstrations, usually held at night to protect protester identities amid a clampdown that now detains over 8,700.
Today’s one-year anniversary of the coup was met with yet another silent strike, where the streets of the old capital Yangon, the central city of Mandalay and other cities and towns were empty and shops closed in a unified show of civil disobedience. The junta had threatened anyone who took part in today’s silent strike with life in prison.
Now, the main resistance to the coup is being carried out by numerous pro-democracy People’s Defense Forces, or PDFs, which have mushroomed across the country in recent months. Former parliamentarians and other politicians have meanwhile formed what they call a “National Unity Government” (NUG) to challenge the legitimacy of the military’s coup-installed State Administration Council (SAC) junta.
In the most recent indication of the international community’s tacit support for the shadow government, US State Department official Derek Chollet held an online meeting with NUG representatives including its acting president Duwa Lashi La, designated prime minister Mahn Win Khaing Tan and foreign minister Zin Mar Aung on January 27.
The US, Canada and European Union have all imposed sanctions on the junta and even a spokesman for UN Secretary-General António Guterres said in a statement issued on January 30 that he “stands in solidarity with the people of Myanmar and their democratic aspirations for an inclusive society and the protection of all communities, including the Rohingya.”
The SAC has its own version of events around the coup, which insists that it acted lawfully and in accordance with the military-drafted 2008 constitution, which gives the military the right to seize power in the case of a national emergency.
That propaganda is strikingly similar to what British author George Orwell wrote in his dystopian novel 1984, which depicts a future, nightmarish state he calls Oceania. The book’s main character, Winston Smith, walks past a huge board displaying a message from the Ministry of Truth: “War is Peace, Freedom is Slavery, Ignorance is Strength.”
Orwell could not, of course, have predicted that this would be the new normal in Senior General Min Aung Hlaing’s Myanmar. Deposed State Counselor Aung San Suu Kyi is now being charged by the most corrupt institution in the country, the military, with corruption.
The same military that simply ignored the outcome of a general election its proxy lost resoundingly to Suu Kyi’s National League for Democracy (NLD) in 1990, conducted a phony referendum on a military-empowering constitution in 2008 and rigged an election in its favor in 2010, now claims that it had to seize power because the 2020 election was supposedly marred by fraud.
International and local observers maintain that the election, which should have made it possible for Suu Kyi’s NLD to form another government – the first being established in 2016 after the 2015 election, marking the restoration of semi-democratic rule after decades of military dictatorship – was free and fair.
There is by now no doubt that the SAC lacks legitimacy and is widely loathed by the Myanmar population at large. But one year after the putsch that sparked a new surge of armed conflict across the country, destabilizing various areas of the nation that were previously calm, the question is what will happen in year two after the coup?
All signs so far are that the military will dig in and wait for the international community to lower its guard and begin to “engage” with the generals. Indeed, that is already happening.
Cambodia’s Prime Minister Hun Sen, currently the rotating chairman of the Association of Southeast Asian Nations (ASEAN), traveled to Myanmar in early January for talks with Min Aung Hlaing. The strongman’s move was not approved by the other bloc members, but it nonetheless marked a first step towards, if not recognition, at least acceptance of SAC rule in Myanmar.
Then, on January 31, UN Special Envoy to Myanmar Noeleen Heyzer said in an interview with Singapore-based Channel News Asia that “the military needs to be part of the solution” and that she had requested to visit Myanmar and that the reactions of the military have been positive.
As in the past, it’s the proponents of engagement with Myanmar’s generals who end up being engaged — and often used — by them.
Myanmar’s top brass, of course, knows that they must remain in power at any cost — or they will end up in prison, or worse. Fear is the glue that holds the Myanmar military together, and, as a Western military analyst puts it, it is seemingly prepared to see the country destroyed with everything at their disposal rather than yielding to the opposition.
The anti-coup armed resistance may enjoy widespread popular support, but it faces insurmountable odds. According to Western and Asian military analysts, there are now at least 100 PDFs in nearly all of Myanmar’s 14 states and regions – and possibly even in the Union Territory around the military-fortified capital of Naypyitaw.
Outside the Myanmar heartland, newly formed PDFs have linked up with longstanding ethnic rebel armies, which are providing them with training and arms. But their chances of defeating the Myanmar military on the battlefield are still extremely remote, if not chimerical.
The military’s firepower, which now includes helicopter gunships, jet fighters and heavy artillery, is overwhelming superior to that of the resistance forces, which relies on mostly rudimentary small arms and crude low-grade bombs made from explosives apparently taken from local construction sites.
Meanwhile, the military is brutally punishing local communities that show support for the PDFs, with entire villages looted and burned to the ground. Not even places of worship, such as Christian churches in eastern Kayah state, have been spared from the military’s destruction.
The resistance also suffers from a fatal lack of centralized coordination. The NUG has a defense minister but it is far from clear if he is able to communicate with or command forces in the field.
What is being reported from conflict areas are mainly random attacks, which may have been successful locally, but without a unified command and common strategy, such small victories will not rock the power of the Myanmar military.
The bottom line is that a year after the coup and 60 years after Myanmar’s first military takeover in 1962, there won’t likely be any fundamental change in the country’s military-dominated power structures until and unless there is a deep and serious split at the highest levels of the armed forces.
To be sure, there have been some security force defections to the resistance, particularly among the police, but so far hardly enough to tilt the balance in favor of the pro-democracy movement. And even if such an intra-military split were to emerge, it would likely result in an even bloodier civil war than the one unleashed by last year’s fateful coup.
Follow Bertil Lintner on Twitter at @gardlunden