History Rhymes Tragically in Myanmar

By David I. Steinberg 26 March 2021

Mark Twain is said to have remarked that if history does not repeat itself, it often rhymes. Societies have a tendency to continue patterns of policy or actions, sometimes in spite of their previous and obvious deleterious or ineffective effects.

Evident in Myanmar today is the tragedy that is unfolding. Discernable patterns emerge where the leadership and the people have been through much of the same trauma before, but seem to be unaware of, or indifferent to, prior consequences. The times, generations, technology, and the international sphere may have changed, but the institutional patterns reemerge with dire consequences, even if memories have faded.

The Feb. 1 coup was the fourth since Burmese independence in 1948. The first, in 1958, was “consensual” because the legislature agreed to a time-limited Tatmadaw (Myanmar military) takeover, although it did so under duress. The second in 1962, designed to perpetuate military dominance, resulted in the loss of one life, and was an attempt at complete domination of society through an autocratic, single-party socialist state. The third in 1988, followed the “chaos” that was in effect a response to a failed people’s revolution and the massive losses of life that the military had unintentionally instigated through brutality and mismanagement. It was designed to prop up an unsuccessful military government and continue its hegemony in society. Myanmar cannot match the frequency of Thailand‘s coups, but it far outstrips Thailand in loss of innocent lives and the Tatmadaw in Myanmar far exceeds Thai military control over its society.

At first, the 2021 coup seemed different from that of 1988. Ostensibly, it was prompted by Tatmadaw allegations that the National League for Democracy’s (NLD) overwhelming victory over the military-backed Union Solidarity and Development Party in the November 2020 election was marred by massive fraud, and the NLD’s subsequent refusal to negotiate with the military.

Yet the Tatmadaw had command of those state administrative elements that ensured that their interests, and those that that they regarded as essential to a unified state, would remain under their control through the military-written constitution of 2008. Thus the election did not seem to threaten military interests, no matter how much it may have humiliated the Tatmadaw. The charges of NLD manipulation of the November 2020 elections seemed an exaggerated and very weak excuse on which to place their actions.

The Tatmadaw appeared initially to be avoiding violence, contrary to 1988, and used police rather than soldiers to control anti-coup demonstrations. But as the protests continued and spread nationwide, indiscriminate military killings and beatings became evident. It seemed the Tatmadaw had learned nothing from the hostility it had created through its brutality a generation earlier.

According to the State Administration Council, as the military called its supposed temporary government (it refused to be known as a “regime” or “junta”), elections will be held after one year, providing some stipulated conditions have been met, such as dealing with Covid-19 and election reform, as well as ethnic minority peace, which seems unrealistic, and the winning party will take over government.

This is a theoretical repeat of 1958, when the Tatmadaw-administered government, with the consent of the civilian legislature, ruled for a supposed six month period that turned into eighteen months. At that time, the military did a credible, if autocratic, job and supervised a relatively fair election in which the military’s preferred party lost, and the Tatmadaw went back (temporarily) to its barracks.

The situation is different today. A young generation has access to technology that keeps them in touch with the world, each other and which unites them. This generation cannot be isolated, is far better educated and is aware of the limitations of military authority. If they are forcibly cowed, that will be short lived and some apolitical event or incident could easily set off a new series of protests at any time. The real purpose of the coup seems to be the emasculation of the NLD and the removal of its leader Daw Aung San Suu Kyi from the political sphere.

After the 1962 and 1988 coups, the judicial system was completely under military control. The charges made against those opposed to the military in 2021 are risible instances of the “rule of law,” which the military constantly invokes as it cuts off rights and subjects the population to authoritarian demands.

The opposition NLD today has invoked some of the past actions of the same party. When the military ignored the results of the 1990 elections, which were swept by the NLD, a group of elected members went into hiding and proclaimed an alternative government to the military.  Eventually, it fled the country to Thailand, and ended up in Washington, D.C. where it lobbied Congress and successive administrations to recognize its legitimacy. So too after the 2021 coup, some elected NLD members, who could not take their seats in parliament, proclaimed the Committee Representing the Pyidaungsu Hluttaw (CRPH) as representing the legitimate government, and sought support and foreign recognition. The military considers that those in or associated with the CRPH are involved in treasonous acts and has threatened them with prosecution.

The United States has also resumed an earlier pattern. In the 1990s, it imposed rigorous sanctions against the then junta in Myanmar, which simply let the Chinese assume a position of engorged importance—resented by the Burmese and of concern to the U.S. The new series of sanctions in 2021 are far more targeted and sophisticated than previous ones, but U.S. and Western leverage is extremely limited. Yet Congress feels it must respond to the outrageous crimes against humanity; the most ardent supporter of Daw Aung San Suu Kyi in Congress has been Senator Mitch McConnell.

The imposition of sanctions is unlikely to bring regime change, which was the policy of both the Clinton and Bush administrations in the 1990s and 2000s. The West, including the European Union, Canada, and Australia will probably follow with sanctions. China, India, and the ASEAN states will demur. Japan’s Ministry of Foreign Affairs will be under pressure from the U.S., but Japanese business interests are extensive and are, in effect, the modest counter to Chinese influence. China will support any stable government in Myanmar because of its strategic interests and its extensive Belt and Road infrastructure projects.

However this present crisis ends, we are witnessing the beginnings of a long-term tragedy. The Tatmadaw appear to have learned little from its earlier actions and the enmity that the bulk of the populace feels toward their brutal actions will only increase. Future violence prompted by some apolitical event is predictable. The younger population, frustrated by repression yet aware of the opportunities of their contemporaries in neighboring states, will be denied the ability to contribute to society. The people at large will suffer as the economy contracts, foreign investment dwindles, employment stumbles, and the international market for many of Myanmar’s products are boycotted in sympathy for the Myanmar people.

Mark Twain was right. History does indeed rhyme. Even the modest progress of the past has been erased. Perhaps the NLD administration of the past five years has been wanting, but the current debacle means only the disintegration of the limited good that has developed. Our sympathy goes out to the suffering people of Myanmar.

David I. Steinberg is Distinguished Professor of Asian Studies Emeritus at Georgetown University


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