Myanmar's Military Coup Nurtured Widespread Chaos

Photo Source: BBC

By Naveed Qazi | Editor, Globe Upfront

For flimsy allegations of voter fraud, after National League for Democracy won an election with a landslide victory, in November 2020, the Tatmadaw, Myanmar’s military, had set in motion an early morning coup in February 2021, for a year long emergency. It had transferred power to Commander in Chief of Defence Services Min Aung Hlaing, who had played a role in the Rohingya pogroms, and other ethnic tensions.

According to human rights groups, around eight hundred civilians were killed, and more than four thousand had been imprisoned. The military generals had ordered the press not to use the terms such as ‘coup’, ‘junta’  or ‘regime’. 

Since then, Myanmar had been rocked by more than three hundred bomb blasts. Most of the explosive attacks involved hand grenades, mine attacks, and parcel bombs, which had targeted areas connected to the junta, such as police and administrative offices. Analysts believe that bomb blasts have happened as peaceful protests have dwindled, due to state oppression, reflecting signs of a civil war.

The motives of coup remain unclear. However, it seems that military, in it's chicanery, was driven to preserve its role in the Burmese politics. The activist group, Justice for Myanmar, think that there had been a significant financial and business interest of Min Aung Hlaing, in instigating the coup: in general, oil profits often go in the hands of the military rulers, who also enjoy incomes from the sale of rubies, and jade stones.

Hlaing had set up a kangaroo court to try NLD leaders, including Aung Sang Suu Kyi, who has operated under the political worldview of Burmanisation, and safeguarding cultural, social, religious, and linguistic outlook of the Bamar majority. Her lawyer Khin Maung Zaw had later revealed that she was being charged with sedition and corruption. But, in its latest report, the Asian Network For Free Elections monitoring group had said that the results of the 2020 general elections were ‘by and large representative of the will of the people’.

However, the politics of Burma is plagued by larger ethnic problems. According to an article by Terese Gagnon and Andrew Paul in Al Jazeera: ‘Myanmar is better understood not as a cohesive nation, but as a territory forced together by the iron grip of the military, fraying at its edges. The ethnic armed groups which are clashing with the army are not just rebels, but in many cases de facto governing bodies in parts of the country long abandoned by the central authorities. The people living in these territories understand themselves as citizens of independent, sovereign states. In collaboration with local civil society, these ethnic organisations provide healthcare, education and other social services while fulfilling virtually all functions of the state. In contrast, the central Myanmar government has never consistently achieved this even in the territories it controls.’

In the wake of the military coup, these minority ethnic groups, such as Karen, Rohingya, Kachin, and many others, are increasingly united in their opposition to the military junta, even if they are coming from different perspectives. It has become increasingly clear that this movement is rooting for more than simply the release and reinstatement of Aung San Suu Kyi, and other detained NLD party members. The aspirations are in lieu with an anti authoritarian project in Myanmar, as even many members of the Bamar majority are increasingly grappling with the reality of being part of a diverse, multi-ethnic political entity.

However, in an attempt to safeguard the junta, General Hlaing roots for the Thai model, and is also an ardent admirer of Thai generals. He has an excellent back channel with former generals, and incumbent Prime Minister, PM Prayuth Chan-o-cha.

The International Commission of Jurists, believed that military had violated the Myanmar’s constitution, by violating the ‘rule of law’ principle. The military had invoked Articles 417 and 418 of the 2008 Constitution, as the legal basis for the military takeover. However, Article 417 of the Constitution authorises only an incumbent president to declare a state of emergency, following a consultation with the National Defence and Security Council (NDSC).

When President Win Myint had refused to sign the proclamation of the emergency, that he alone was authorised to function, the military threw him into prison, and made military backed Vice President Myint Swe hastily sign the proclamation as ‘acting president’. General Hlaing had later made public that elections would be held when the situation improved.

As a reaction, strikes, protests, and other forms of disobedience had paralysed the nation. There were staged cacerolazos, a red ribbon campaign, labour strikes, a three finger salute (widely adopted as a protest symbol) out of many civil resistance efforts. Several netizens had joined the Milk Tea Alliance, an online solidarity movement in Asia. 

Protests also happened outside Burma from the diaspora. Several of them protested near Burmese embassy on Santhon Nuea Road in Bangkok, Thailand. Burmese citizens had also gathered in front of the United Nations University in Tokyo, Japan. More than 150 Burmese Americans protested in front of the embassy of Myanmar in Washington DC.

Much of the violence in Myanmar had taken place in major cities as well as in the periphery. In the Karen state, more than forty people were injured, about nineteen were killed and thousands displaced, during repeated aerial bombings in March 2021. The Tatmadaw had also escalated military operations in Kachin state, and increased violence towards civilians in Karenni state. Fighting had also displaced more than thousand people, and killed civilians in Shan state, too.

The military junta had cut internet and phone lines across large parts of the country, and strangulated other communications such as 3G mobile networks, prior to the military’s announcements on Myanmar's state media.

Around fifty journalists had been detained, including two US citizens, in the notorious Insein Prison. Demands by senior Biden administration officials had been ignored. Atleast one of the Americans had been reportedly tortured, while the other had been denied consular access. The imprisoned journalists had been charged for spreading fake news, an offense which is punishable upto three years in prison.

To allay the crises, various Buddhist monasteries and education institutions had denounced the coup. Aside from the Buddhist sangha, local clergy and monastics of the Catholic Church had similarly voiced their opposition to the military takeover. The Shwekyin Nikaya, Burma’s second leading monastic order, including leading monks such as Nanissara Bhikkhu, known for his amicable relationship with the military, called for ceasing of the assaults on the unarmed civilians, and for refrain from engaging in theft and property destruction.

There were several economic impacts of the coup as well, involving Amata, Thailand’s largest industrial estate developer, which halted its $1 billion industrial zone development project in Yangon in response to the coup. Suzuki Motor, Myanmar’s largest automaker, also stopped its operations. Kirin Company, too, ended its joint venture with the military owned Myanma Economic Holdings Limited.

Twenty three nations had denounced the coup. It included United States, where US President Joe Biden announced his administration would impose sanctions on the military leaders of the coup in Myanmar, and freeze $1 billion dollars in government assets held in the United States. New Zealand, one of the other complainers, had suspended its diplomatic ties with Myanmar, after the coup. South Korean national assembly had also passed a resolution denouncing the coup. However, countries such as Thailand, Cambodia and Vietnam called the coup as 'an internal matter'. Conversely, intergovernmental organisations, including the ASEAN, and the European Union condemned the coup, expressed concern, and called for dialogue from both sides.

“Myanmar’s new military junta should immediately and unconditionally release all detainees, rescind the state of emergency, and recognise the duly elected parliament,” said Brad Adams, Asia director of Human Rights Watch. “The global community should finally act in a coordinated and sustained way to defend the Myanmar people’s fundamental freedoms and right to choose their leaders, and impose targeted sanctions and other measures to reverse military abuses.”

In a rare move, the UN general assembly had called for an arms embargo, in a resolution demanding the restoration of the country’s democratic transition. The move might delegitimise the military junta, condemn its abuse and violence against its own people. There have been only three such previous general assembly resolutions, which condemn the coups, since the end of the Cold War. The junta might shrug off this resolution, but at the same time, it will make harder for them to normalise its relationship with the world: the coup might result as their fait accompli.

China had hinted its willingness to assist in the peace process, if the regional process failed. However, there had been a suspicion about Chinese hand in the coup, as most of the arson, during the protests, had been of Chinese assets, which was estimated at $37mn. Over the years, a love-hate relationship has developed between China and the Burmese military. But, more recently, China had established very productive relations with the NLD leadership. Although, it has been clear that junta would not allow the Chinese to interfere in its internal affairs, especially when anti-China sentiment is high and rising, including boycott of Chinese products. Infact, Burmese traders have been approaching Indian companies for agency, to sell their products in Myanmar, in ever-increasing numbers, sensing a potential business boom. 

But politically, India has been playing a hand of a reluctant neighbour, with neither the heft or the intent to initiate a peace process. It has avoided direct criticism of the military junta that had initiated a crackdown, on lines similar to what happened in the country during 1988 protests, codenamed 8888 uprising. Infact, India had joined China, Russia and Vietnam to oppose the UN security council resolution, which was drafted in February 2021.

Strategically, India does not want to upset the Tatmadaw by provoking it into inaction against the rebel groups from India’s northeast based in Myanmar’s Sagaing Division, the last trans-border base area for these groups. It also does not want to push the military junta into the waiting arms of the Chinese, who will do business with whoever runs the country, unconstrained by fixation about democracy. However, the Tatmadaw needs the Indian army more to fight the Arakan army, which has challenged Burmese control of the conflict-ridden Rakhine state, than Indians need the Tatmadaw to fight the feeble insurgencies of the northeast. That's why there is a sensitive relationship between the two neighbours, and India has to play it's cards right to avoid confrontations with Myanmar, especially during any political chaos. 


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