31 May 2021
Myanmar: In the Throes of a Revolution?

Four months into a constitutionally dubious military takeover of civilian power in Myanmar by the Myanmar Army, the Tatmadaw, the situation in Myanmar has moved from media headlines to social media platform, political fora and the interiors, but continues to simmer if not boil. The daily toll of casualties from the use of lethal force may have come down and day-to-day life partially resumed, giving the appearance of some return of normalcy. But a climate of fear and loathing remains. The resistance is changing character and its ‘revolutionary’ spirit with increasing shades of violence. There is no certainty of its direction or outcome, and present signs are messy, as indeed they are on the other side of India, in Afghanistan.

Burma’s independence in 1948 did not come from a mass movement like India’s. Although it had wide popular support persuading many of Burma’s ethnic leaders to join the Panglong Agreement of 1947, it was led by the Burmese Independence Army headed by the charismatic ‘Bogyoke’ (General) Aung San (Daw Aung San Suu Kyi’s father) mentored by the Japanese that had close ties with the Indian National Army led by ‘Netaji’ Subhash Chandra Bose. At a crucial point during World War II, it switched sides and joined the British Army under General Slim against the Japanese to liberate Burma. It was the Burmese Army, not a mass movement, that brought independence to Burma.

Notwithstanding it’s partially deserved but also self-serving claim of being liberators and guardians of Myanmar’s independence and integrity, the Tatmadaw is in many ways, its post-colonial successor. Its relationship with the people has been distant, authoritarian and exploitative like that of the British but with overtones of Myanmar’s past imperial glory represented by its great warrior-heroes. Its pattern of repression of public protests and popular movements in some ways mirrors colonial repression of peasant, student and popular movements under the British, building on the same laws of sedition and penal provisions developed by the British in India. The current protests may thus be understood as a turning point in its independence movement similar to the ‘Quit India’ movement of 1942, a defining moment when India decided to have nothing to with the British. It is probable that Myanmar’s ‘independence’ is now taking the mass turn that it missed then, directed at its military successors.

Although the scale of popular protests and civil disobedience, and their repression are well documented – over 800 killed, some 5000 detained, arrested, ill-treated or tortured in custody, including women and poets; ever more repressive and draconian laws against fundamental rights and liberties including protections from arbitrary arrest, privacy, communications and mobile internet; and other informal methods of intimidation and instilling fear in the population to prevent protests – two fundamental truths stand out.

First, that the military crackdown does not represent any social or demographic constituency – majority, minority, ethnic, religious or linguistic. It is a straightforward war by the military against its own people to preserve its primacy of military over civilian power and its institutional interests, in the guise of protecting ‘disciplined democracy’. In the 1990s, it was able to blunt the protests in the Bamar heartland by assuming the mantle of Bamar and Buddhist nationalism. This time, there is a solidarity cutting across ethnic lines united by their common suffering.

And second, that after 50 years of suffocating military rule and the liberating experience of 10 years of freedoms under the reformist USDP government of 2010-15 and the NLD from 2015-20, the Myanmar people are in no mood to go back to the past. Many perceive the hand of China behind the Tatmadaw.

Although the protesters are a rainbow coalition grouped around the Civil Disobedience Movement, General Strikes Committees, Peoples Defence Forces etc. without well known faces and leaders who are under arrest, they have rallied behind ousted legislators who have formed a Committee Representing the Parliament (CRPH) that has abolished the 2008 military-drafted Constitution under which the 2010, 2015 and 2020 elections were held, adopted a new ‘Charter’ for a ‘federal, democratic union’ with a federal army, and proclaimed a National Unity Government with a Cabinet that includes several but not all of Myanmar’s larger ethnic constituents as the ‘legitimate’ elected government of Myanmar.

The NUG has a long way to go to actually bring unity across ethnic groups that have been at loggerheads with the largely Bamar authorities at the Centre even under the NLD, and while they remain a paper government without physical territory or international recognition, the Myanmar people have for the moment reposed their faith in them. Some protestors have also been appealing to the international community to intervene on their behalf against the Tatmadaw invoking at times, the doctrine of ‘Responsibility to Protect’.

The reaction of the international community so far has been ambivalent and ineffectual. With the UN Security Council divided between the West seeking stronger action including sanctions against the Tatmadaw, China and Russia who have shielded the latter on grounds that such action would be counter productive, and the ASEAN keen to prevent great power competition and preserve its centrality in the region, the burden of crisis resolution has naturally fallen on the ASEAN where Indonesia has taken the lead in trying to chart a course of action. It convened an extraordinary Summit mobilized in Jakarta on April 24 attended by Myanmar’s military chief and head of its newly constituted State Administrative Council, Sr. General Min Aung Hlaing that adopted a 5-point ‘consensus’ on Myanmar that included a ‘cessation of violence’ and the appointment of a Special Envoy of the ASEAN to find a to find a negotiated solution to the political crisis in Myanmar.

While mass protests and the toll of daily casualties from the use of lethal force against them may have come down, and draconian measures including random abductions of civilians and alleged activists, and economic hardship may have forced many to return to work, any appearance of a pacification of the resistance is deceptive. The protests have ebbed but not died. They have mutated and migrated to smaller towns. Instead of festive mass demonstrations animated with clever slogans, they have turned to mobile flash protests. Dozens of such protests have mushroomed all over the country in small towns in the Bamar heartland notably in Sagaing Region bordering India, traditionally a politically active region, including Kalay and Tamu close to the Indian border.

The protests have also taken newer and deeper forms of non-cooperation. With the Tatmadaw determined to impose normalcy, reopening schools and educational institutions and forcing government servants back to work under threats of penalties, the protests are deepening. Parents, teachers and students are boycotting schools. There are calls for citizens to refuse to pay electricity bills and for businesses not to pay taxes. A full-fledged non-cooperation movement rather like what happened in India against the British seems to be in the making.

In the ethnic areas, besides pitched battles and the use of air power in Kachin and Karen areas, small towns and new defence militias, like Mindat in Chin state and Loikaw and Demoso in Kayah, hitherto quiescent states, have emerged as centres of resistance. While the local ‘People’s Defence Forces’ armed with improvised weapons are no match for the superior firepower of the Tatmadaw, they have sometimes held out for days, ambushed military convoys, captured arms and inflicted enough casualties on the army to be taken note of. These are mostly not formally trained Ethnic Armed Organizations (EAOs). Many of the latter too are trying to coordinate efforts and form a Joint Command although they do not have a history or habit of joint struggle and have a long way to go before they become a formidable united force. If they do, they could even pose a military challenge to the Tatmadaw. Many, like the Arakan Army and ethnic Chinese EAOs near the China border remain aloof from these anti-Tatmadaw postures. With their involvement, there is also a risk of internationalizing the conflict.

For its part, the Tatmadaw too shows no signs of softening or compromise, or honoring the 5-point ASEAN consensus except to its convenience. It has ruled out any mediation on the part of the ASEAN until it ‘stabilizes’ the situation as it sees fit, and re-imposes its version of law and order. It has also made no move towards the National Unity Government. On the contrary, it has outlawed the NUG, and threatened to de-recognize and disband the NLD effectively ruling them out of future elections. Daw Aung San Suu Kyi was formally allowed to meet her lawyers for the first time on May 24 in what could be a prelude to formally convicting her of serious, so far unspecified, charges. ASEAN itself has not yet nominated a Special Envoy and is facing increasing disillusionment among the protestors in Myanmar.

In the absence of any mediatory process, the Tatmadaw is proceeding as it likes to implement its road map of stabilization, outlawing the NLD and NUG, realigning political forces in its favor from among ethnic and political parties, cobbling together a ‘kings’ coalition to contest fresh elections when they are ready to foist such a coalition as the face of a civilian government similar to the USDP government of 2010-15 but with a tighter leash on democracy, perhaps even rewriting the 2008Constitution and altering the election process to a proportional representation system in order to blunt the NLD’s popularity.

But in thinking that old and new tactics can work now, the Tatmadaw is out of touch with reality and making the same miscalculations that it made in 1990, 2015 and 2020 when it went ahead with elections thinking that it can prevail against the NLD by fair means or fowl. This time it is unlikely to work. Many political observers have written off Daw Aung San Suu Kyi on account of her many failures in the NLD’s first term. If the Tatmadaw tries to convict her harshly, she will likely once again become a symbol of popular resistance as she did in 1988. That will be the tinder for a revolution that the Tatmadaw will not be able to stop.

All this has grave implications for India. Instability in Myanmar could spill over into Myanmar’s neighbors, amongst them, Thailand, India and China. While Thailand has traditionally been the most hospitable, with military rule in Thailand and the center of gravity of the protests this time being closer to India, we may expect the pro-democracy movement as well as the ethnic Chin community that form part of the Kuki-Chin-Mizo-Zomi tribes to look much more towards India.

While ASEAN is in some ways best placed to handle the political crisis in Myanmar, only three of its members actually share borders with Myanmar. Three others affected, India, China and Bangladesh, are not members of ASEAN. India needs to be in touch with all parties, anticipate challenges, and consult with ASEAN more intensely. Alternatively, ASEAN must involve the three more formally in its crisis resolution efforts in Myanmar.

But for ASEAN to do this, it will have to involve the resistance or opposition in the form of the NUG more actively. This may not be easy for an organization consisting of a variety of political systems, not all democratic. India will not be able hide behind good statements or the ASEAN for too long. It will have to find a way to deal with, and protect its interests in, Myanmar. That way should not be the China way of supporting the Tatmadaw to extract security and economic concessions from it. It will have to be its mirror opposite – standing by the popular will and working with ASEAN to broaden its approach to include the people’s will. Given ASEAN’s traditions of consensus and non-interference in internal affairs of member states, that might be a difficult proposition.

A shorter version of this blog was published in the Times of India.

The writer is a Senior Visiting Fellow at CPR and former Ambassador to Myanmar, Afghanistan and Syria