Following the death of scores of pro-democracy protestors in Myanmar over the weekend, the future of this blighted country looks bleak. But former ambassador Chris Lamb argues the lessons of history and the changes in Myanmar society show the junta can’t win in the long run.
A lot has been written about Myanmar since the military takeover in the hours before dawn on 1 February. Much of it has been about the violence on the streets, which after a weekend when at least 114 people were shot dead is understandable. But more needs to be said about the reasons for the coup, the historical context for what we see today, and how both affect what is happening in full public view before an increasingly critical global audience.
It is time to tick a few boxes.
The first time an elected government was removed in Myanmar was in 1962 when the Tatmadaw (armed forces) commander, General Ne Win, overthrew Prime Minister U Nu and abolished the 1947 independence constitution. It was an almost bloodless event that at the time many people saw as a logical and not unreasonable reaction to fears of the imminent disintegration of the then Union of Burma.
It was only later that Ne Win’s Revolutionary Council made up entirely of Tatmadaw officers launched what was known as the “Burmese Way to Socialism” and ultimately the end of Burma as a prosperous nation. Socialism was, however, used by Ne Win as the ideological glue binding the Tatmadaw and the civilian bureaucracies.
The evolution of Tatmadaw rule into the “Socialist Republic” in 1974 saw the institution of a one-party state with all significant offices held by the men of Tatmadaw, who retired from their military command posts to take up parliamentary or other civilian positions.
The second, in 1988, was in part a takeover from itself. The collapse of the Ne Win system that year was accompanied by the promise of constitutional amendments allowing free-and-fair, multi-party elections. This promise was maintained by the new Tatmadaw regime, which styled itself with Orwellian flair as the State Law and Order Restoration Council (SLORC). Headed at first by General Saw Maung, and after 1992 by his deputy General Than Shwe, SLORC abolished the 1974 constitution.
SLORC decided it had restored law and order in 1997 and changed its title and defined purpose to become — with an inspiration that rivals Orwell’s Ministry of Truth — the State Peace and Development Council (SPDC). It is tempting to believe Orwell, who wrote Burmese Days in 1934, saw this coming.
The SPDC remained a body formed by, and largely constituted of, Tatmadaw officers. It remained in office until March 2011, when it handed over power to the parliament elected under the 2008 constitution, a document put to a national referendum by SPDC and approved through a process widely described as rigged. The SPDC announced 94 percent of voters in favour.
The 2008 constitution included provisions that guaranteed Tatmadaw control of all essential state security functions, a quarter of the membership of all elected bodies, and a requirement that any proposal for constitutional amendment obtain three-quarters support in the national parliament – an effective veto over change.
Tatmadaw propaganda appears on the entrance to the royal Mandalay Palace, Mandalay, Myanmar - January 15, 2014. Image credit: Adam Jones, Flickr.
The National League for Democracy (NLD) was founded by Daw Aung San Suu Kyi in September 1988, ten days after SLORC seized power but pursuant to the promise of multi-party elections first mooted by Ne Win. Many tribulations befell her in the years that followed, but NLD remained a registered political party despite persistent harassment of its leadership. The party was ordered to cease political activities in 2004. Suu Kyi was seen by the Tatmadaw, and the population alike, as the only person with the stature and personality to deprive the military of its control, generating both fear and hope in both camps.
There was, however, a general appreciation of Suu Kyi as the person most likely to make a difference, and also of her as a person who could achieve change with the support of large sections of the Tatmadaw because of her place in the country’s history – the daughter of independence hero General Aung San. It was because of this strength that she was kept under various forms of house arrest between 1989 and 2010 (with some breaks during which she was able to build the image of NLD and herself throughout the country).
When she attained power after elections held in 2015, it was clear one of her priorities would be to remove the Tatmadaw’s control of parliaments by virtue of its 25 percent guarantee of the share of seats. Whenever this issue was raised, it was immediately clear the Tatmadaw leaders, especially Commander in Chief Senior General Min Aung Hlaing would not entertain such a change. However, many others in Myanmar had believed the Than Shwe constitution was part of a planned transition from military to civilian rule.
The Myanmar general elections in 2015 were the first contested countrywide by NLD. The result gave NLD 86 percent of the seats in the national parliament. This was more than enough for the election, by the parliament, of the president. As Suu Kyi had been rendered ineligible to be president by qualifications placed in the Than Shwe constitution, the parliament elected the nominee of the NLD at the time, U Htin Kyaw. He retired on health grounds in 2018 and was replaced by NLD nominee U Win Myint.
Daw Aung San Suu Kyi, as daughter of General Aung San (left), has always been seen as a threat to the Tatmadaw's authority, by both the military and pro-democracy campaigners alike. Image credit: Robert Bociaga Olk Bon, Shutterstock.
Tatmadaw Commander in Chief General Min Aung Hlaing has been in this office since March 2011 and so was present during the three presidencies since the retirement from public life of Than Shwe. Many Myanmar people, including Tatmadaw officers, were surprised when he was elevated to this position by Than Shwe, for he had not had a particularly distinguished army career and was promoted above many more senior colleagues.
In that sense, Min Aung Hlaing was seen as a parallel to an earlier president, U Thein Sein, who was elevated by Than Shwe and served between 2011 and 2016, despite there being others seen as more senior and deserving.
Thein Sein quickly became a president who seemed to have the public’s interests at heart and was known for his instruction in 2011 to parliamentarians to go to their constituencies, meet the people, understand their problems, and bring them to the capital for solution. Nobody had ever done that before.
Min Aung Hlaing, on the other hand, was widely rumoured to have engaged in corrupt activities through ownership of shares in companies run by the military. Despite some efforts to meet a wider range of people than is normal for Tatmadaw commanders, he never won public admiration or trust.
NLD won a stunning victory in the elections on 8 November last year, when it improved on its 2015 numbers. There was a widespread expectation the NLD would lose some seats in ethnic regions, but would hold its numbers in the Bamar (ethnic Burmese) heartland. The elections were observed by respected international observers (such as the Asian Network for Free Elections and the Carter Center) as well as 13 accredited domestic groups. All found the procedures on election day stood the test of fairness.
When results started coming in, the first murmurings of dissatisfaction emerged from the Tatmadaw, matching protests lodged with the Election Commission by the pro-military Union Solidarity and Development Party (USDP). Nobody took the complaints seriously, and the country began to prepare for a peaceful transfer of power.
It was striking at the time to see how similar some of the protests were to those lodged in the USA by people alleging voter fraud and other irregularities, and perhaps that dulled the impression that the protests should have generated. When challenged about the Tatmadaw’s intentions, and whether it would allow a peaceful transfer of power, the Tatmadaw spokesman played down the questions. It was not until a couple of days before the newly elected parliament was to meet for its swearing-in ceremony that anyone started to think that the ceremony might not take place.
Why 1 February
At this point it’s necessary to note that the elections took place under Than Shwe’s 2008 constitution, held up by the Tatmadaw as the way forward. Had the new parliament been sworn in as scheduled at 10 a.m. on 1 February, it would have had a five-year term ahead of it, under the constitution.
It would have had the authority to choose the president and it would have been responsible for choosing the next Tatmadaw commander in chief when General Min Aung Hlaing compulsorily retired on 3 July – his 65th birthday.
As banal as this sounds, Min Aung Hlaing’s personal expectations stand out as the core element in the takeover and its date. It is widely believed he aspired to the national presidency himself, but the size of the NLD victory dashed that hope, and also introduced the real possibility that antipathy to the Tatmadaw everywhere in the country would permit Suu Kyi to mobilise the people for constitutional change aimed at reducing Tatmadaw influence.
There are plenty of signs that most of the people were looking forward to the swearing in of the new parliament, and few signs that the Tatmadaw or the police were preparing for anything else. When the army and police struck, there were no signs of much preparation. People detained were at home or asleep, and they were not taken off to detention sites for some time, sometimes for days or longer. There were no measures in place to lock down communications or take any action for public control. There was no immediate release of legal language to justify what was being done.
In other words, although some close observers did say they had picked up noises that the Tatmadaw might move before the parliament was sworn in, very few of those in power, including in the NLD, saw it coming. Min Aung Hlaing would have anticipated no serious resistance.
The situation which confronted Min Aung Hlaing and his self-appointed State Administrative Council was the appearance on the streets, day and night, of millions — yes, millions — of Myanmar citizens demanding respect for the 8 November elections and the resumption of democratic government.
Now, almost two months later, the demonstrations continue, undeterred by extreme violence. They are everywhere in the country, from the big cities to the villages and involve people of all ethnicities, religions, cultures, genders and age groups. Age is a special consideration, for the demonstrators include the bulk of the country’s youth, most born and raised after Saw Maung’s takeover in 1988 and virtually all, thanks to President Thein Sein, fully internet-literate.
Internet literacy enables the population, led by the youth, to communicate with each other, and with their colleagues and friends outside Myanmar. This has produced a great deal of public pressure from outside the country, and while most of the Tatmadaw have not travelled widely, nearly all of them have relatives who have. There is much more knowledge of the outside world now than in 1988, and the lessons which Min Aung Hlaing would have learned as a young man would no longer fit to the world he inhabits now.
Young anti-coup protesters raise the three-finger salute, which has become synonymous with pro-democracy movements throughout the region, Yangon, Myanmar - March 11, 2021. Image credit: Maung Nyan, Shutterstock.
The indications from yesterday and today say that this is where astrologers (very popular in Myanmar) would be looking:
- Will the formation of an “alternative” government by members of the Committee for the Restoration of the Pyidaungsu Hluttaw (the two houses of the freely-elected national parliament) get traction with the international community?
- Will other governments, particularly those in the region, continue to withhold recognition of Min Aung Hlaing’s State Administrative Council?
- Will senior leaders in the Tatmadaw recognise that blind obedience to Min Aung Hlaing will take the country down a dark path from which there will, ultimately be no escape?
The question in this Tomorrow boils down to heart-rending choices for the Tatmadaw, not for Min Aung Hlaing. Most people in Myanmar have grown up being taught that the Tatmadaw is the single force with the strength to hold the country together.
What they have learned since 2011, and the arrival in power of President Thein Sein, is very different and that much of the history they have been taught is tainted. There is a world beyond Myanmar, one in which Burma stood proud through personages like UN Secretary General U Thant and, closer to home, U Nyun as Executive Secretary of the regional UN body ECAFE (now called ESCAP – the Economic and Social Commission for the Asia Pacific). They have been able to learn a little about their own country’s history and about the various cultures which give geographic Myanmar its own broad strength.
They have learned that the Tatmadaw has been misused by its own leaders and that while democracy has its challenges it is the way to return to a time when the country could be proud of its economic and social strengths, and in which its peoples could live together in harmony.
They see the holders of their own future in their kids in the streets, demanding democratic reform and stating and restating loudly their determination to stay in the streets until they succeed.
They know that Min Aung Hlaing cannot win in the end and that he and his henchmen will be held to account. The international community can help that happen, but ultimately it is the people of Myanmar who are taking names and the reckoning will be dramatic when it happens.
Chris Lamb is a former ambassador to Myanmar and is president of the Australia Myanmar Institute.
Banner image: Police crackdown on anti-coup protesters, Yangon, Myanmar - March 9, 2021. Credit: Maung Nyan, Shutterstock.