The 2021 Myanmar coup: what is different this time?

By Morten B. Pedersen, Senior Lecturer, International Politics – UNSW Canberra

Myanmar’s coup differs from those seen in the country’s troubled past and occurs under very different circumstances. Analyst Morten Pedersen argues responses must be different too: international actors need to prevent escalation to the point of no return and resist any temptation to force Myanmar’s armed forces back into isolation.

The dominant response to the military coup in Myanmar on 1 February has been, “Here we go again”. Media commentaries have highlighted the strong similarities between recent events and the previous coup in 1988, which in turn are explained by the supposedly incorrigible and unrepentant nature of the Myanmar armed forces (the Tatmadaw). Not surprisingly, the foreign policy debates of the 1990s are also echoing through time with strident calls for sanctions on the new military government and more muted warnings (mostly expressed in private but with no less urgency) of the serious harm further isolation of this long-suffering country could do.

It is still too early to say with any degree of certainty what the implications of the coup are for Myanmar’s political development or what the most appropriate international response might be (beyond strenuously objecting to what is clearly an illegitimate usurpation of power against the will of the majority of the Myanmar people, which should be a “no-brainer” for all principled actors). However, as a starting point, it is imperative that we recognise that, rather than a replay of 1988, the 2021 coup is in fact a different type of coup by a different kind of military at a different point in world time – and requires a different international response.

The differences between 1988 and 2021 are many, but let me focus here on five key ones. First, unlike 1988, the purpose of the recent coup is not to change the political system but rather to change the government. The coup leaders have been careful to position the take-over within the framework of the 2008 Constitution and assure people that they will return power to an elected government after holding fresh elections (according to the constitution, this would have to happen within two to three years, depending on the exact process). They might, of course, simply be trying to placate the international community, or the Myanmar people, or their own soldiers, or all of the above. However, there are reasons to believe that this is indeed their preferred outcome. The transition to a quasi-democratic political system in 2011 was not only in line with the Tatmadaw’s self-image as “guardians” of the Union (rather than rulers) but has in many ways served its institutional interests as well. The coup leaders, however, have serious grievances against Aung San Suu Kyi whose enormous popularity and renowned obstinacy ultimately upset the fragile power-sharing system undergirding the post-2011 reforms. Thus, we can expect the new military rulers to maintain the constitution but take steps to marginalise the National League for Democracy (NLD), so the party cannot repeat its previous landslide election victories and reclaim government office.

Second, while many of the early statements and actions by the coup leaders do bear a strong resemblance to 1988, the Tatmadaw is a far less isolated and insular institution today than it was thirty years ago. Unlike his predecessor who was in many ways a recluse, the current commander-in-chief, Senior General Min Aung Hlaing, is a politician in waiting who has long had his eyes on the presidency and is as comfortable meeting with foreign dignitaries as he is with new information technology. The ideology of the Tatmadaw has also significantly evolved. While military officers in the 1960-80s were indoctrinated in the “evils” of democracy, since then they have been taught that their duty is to help establish and protect what the constitution calls a new “discipline-flourishing multiparty democratic system”. Most importantly, the lived experiences of the current generation of soldiers are very different from the earlier generations. Like the Myanmar people at large, they have benefited from more freedoms and broader economic growth. Many of them have also had more interactions with foreigners, both military and civilian, and are more familiar with international standards, experiences, and viewpoints. It is thus likely that there is significant “unease” within the ranks of the Tatmadawitself about the coup – and that this could grow further if the new military rulers turn increasingly reactionary and repressive.

Myanmar military
The Myanmar Tatmadaw has evolved enormously over the last thirty years and is now less isolated under  Senior General Min Aung Hlaing. Image credit: anonymous605936, Shutterstock.

Third, the political landscape in Myanmar today is far more pluralistic than before. In the 1990s, the military was essentially isolated from society and facing off against a single “enemy” – the NLD (this is not to disregard the role of the country’s numerous ethnic rebel groups, but their struggle for federalism and ethnic rights was always largely separate from the struggle for democracy). In 2021, the military, by contrast, has become the focal point for a broader coalition of Buddhist nationalist forces that includes political parties, leading monks, and civil society organisations, such as the Association for the Protection of Race and Religion (MaBaTha), who are all anti-NLD. The NLD, similarly, is part of a much broader network of inherently anti-authoritarian organisations, including a very active private media and numerous new think tanks and other politically oriented civil society groups. Although the NLD was never very good at building effective political alliances, this diversity of groups makes for a much stronger and more sustainable opposition movement. Both sides can count on the support of different segments of a vastly more “connected” and politicised population. However, there is no doubt that supporters of the NLD and the struggle for democracy far outnumber supporters of the military and its reactionary political agenda – or that the current protests against the coup will continue to grow to a point where the coup leaders will have to either compromise or use large-scale violence to restore order.

Fourth, Myanmar is much more integrated into the world today than it was three decades ago. The country’s international political and, especially, economic relations have greatly strengthened and diversified – as have its security partnerships (read: arms trade). There is also a much greater presence in the country of foreign missions, transnational corporations, and international organisations, including media and aid groups. In absolute terms, this means that the generals have more to lose from negative international responses to the coup than before. However, in relative terms, they are less vulnerable than they were in 1988. Not only are their foreign currency holdings much larger (in 1988 the country was essentially bankrupt); they also have more options for balancing against any losses they may suffer from partial Western sanctions or the withdrawal of individual companies.

Fellow ASEAN members Indonesia and Malaysia have called for a special ASEAN summit to discuss the military coup and its consequences for the region. Image credit: @MOFAMyanmar, Twitter. 

Finally, international politics has changed immensely since 1988 and the end of the Cold War in particular. Over the past week, many people have been asking, “How can they do this in the 21st century?” But the premise of that question is faulty: They can do this — and quite possibly get away with it — exactly because it is the 21st Century. What better time to stage a coup than in a world of growing great power rivalries, democracy decline, and with the disruptive impact of the Trump presidency still reverberating around the globe? Even if Myanmar’s military leaders were not well-informed about world affairs (which many of them actually are these days), they would not have to look very far from home to find several contemporary examples of the feasibility of coup-style politics. Indeed, if we were to be perfectly honest with ourselves in the West, when have we last successfully stood up to a coup anywhere in the world – never mind in China’s backyard?

Personally, I find it somewhat hopeful that the coup leaders are formally committed to respecting the 2008 Constitution (for all its flaws and whatever breaches they are guilty of in practice), mainly because it gives them a face-saving way out, should they come to perceive that the costs of the coup are unsustainable. Conversely, I am very, very afraid that escalating confrontations between protesters and the security agencies will lead to large-scale bloodshed and the end of all hope for a quick return to civilian government. While it may be easy to distinguish between “right” and “wrong” in the current situation, the only way that this does not end in tragedy is through compromise. And when a military hierarchy obsessed with order and stability (one thing that has not changed) confronts an essentially leaderless popular movement driven by youthful anger and shattered hopes compromise is perhaps the hardest thing of all.

For international actors, the single most important consideration in the short term should be how to avoid that the current crisis escalates to the point of no return. In the medium term, we must resist any temptation to force Myanmar, including its armed forces, back into isolation — and insularity — and risk sacrificing all the progress that, despite appearances, has in fact been made over the past thirty years.

Morten B. Pedersen is Senior Lecturer in International Politics at UNSW Canberra and former Senior Analyst for the International Crisis Group in Myanmar.

Banner image: Protesters march against the military coup, Nyaungshwe, Myanmar - 15 Feb 2021. Credit: Robert Bociaga Olk Bon, Shutterstock.