Guest Column

Myanmar Junta’s Leadership Has No Idea What Forces Have Been Unleashed

By CHARLES PETRIE 1 May 2021

The coup is destined to fail. It will fail because the senior leadership has not understood how much less in control of the country the Tatmadaw (the military) actually is today. The coup is a total overreach by the Commander in Chief, Senior General Min Aung Hlaing. Not only did the coup completely upend the (albeit uneven) progress towards democracy and the  (fragile) peace process that were underway, but it threatens the very interests of many from within the former regime of Senior General Than Shwe as well as powerful regional players with major geopolitical stakes in the country. The Commander in Chief has unleashed such a level of brutal violence against the very widespread civilian protests that many inside the Tatmadaw should be worried. The Tatmadaw, who have always seen themselves as the protectors of the integrity of the nation, risk becoming the architects of Myanmar’s implosion.

The Commander in Chief probably believed that the Tatmadaw could follow the old playbook of oppression and military occupation that had worked in the late 1980s, the early 1990s and even in 2007 following the “Saffron Revolution”. But he hadn’t counted on the fact that Myanmar today is a fundamentally different country. The people of Myanmar, and especially the young, have tasted the relative freedoms that came with the opening up of the country in 2011, and they are not prepared to surrender these freedoms.

The Commander in Chief’s idea of staging a coup to deal with an undesired political outcome might have worked had it not been for an earlier military Seven Step Road Map. The Road Map was the last junta’s (State Peace and Development Council) plan to civilianize the government. Its final step was put in place following the 2010 election. Despite many problems with the 2008 constitution, from 2011 Myanmar started down the route of separating the military from the governance of the country. Until then the military were directly involved in all aspects of economic and social life. The civil administrators were for the most part retired or demobilized military officers. The economy was either directly in the hands of the senior leadership of the SPDC or was run indirectly for the benefit of shadowy military and other “crony” elites. Even the thousand or so militia and criminal economic actors in control of resource-rich areas had to acknowledge, for their survival, the authority of the Regional Commanders, who were themselves part of the SPDC leadership structure.

But starting in 2011, all of this changed. Following the lead of President U Thein Sein, much of the former leadership either retired or took off their uniforms to manage the political and economic opening of the country. And the transformation was truly radical. Regional assemblies and Chief Minsters (albeit appointed by Naypyitaw) replaced the Regional Commanders. Political space opened up and unheard-of levels of freedom of expression slowly emerged. Extremely hopeful ceasefire negotiations started with ethnic resistance groups that had, until then, refused any such overtures. Key among these was the Karen National Union (KNU), historically among the most important ethnic armed organizations (EAOs) in the country. Even if as of 2016 many of the processes stalled under the post-2015 elected National League for Democracy-led government, the transformation of the governance architecture of the country had irreversibly changed — or so it seemed.

But there was one group who seemed to have missed these changes, and that was the current Tatmadaw leadership. During the years of transformation, the Commander in Chief was actively engaged in fighting insurgents (and terrorizing ethnic nationality civilian communities) in remote areas of Kachin, northern Shan and subsequently Rakhine states. As a result, the period of transformation passed him by, and he staged a coup on Feb. 1. But rather than taking control of the country, he has opened up a Pandora’s box. The young and civil society have mobilized against the military in a manner unseen before; administrative officials, public civil servants, transport workers and many other workers have gone on strike; in addition, some significant EAOs have recruited, rearmed and taken up a very public posture in opposition to the coup, even in some cases actively appearing on the streets of provincial towns to defend the right of the people to protest.

Making the future stability of the country even more complicated, new ethnic armed and other resistance groups are being formed in a number of areas, particularly western Myanmar, which before the coup had been relatively calm. Meanwhile, the banking system and the broader economy are on the verge of collapsing, and health and public medical services are no longer able to function, with the very real prospects of a multi-faceted country-wide health emergency on the near horizon.

Three months after the coup, the country is sliding quickly into becoming a failed state. The urban centers of Myanmar risk being caught up in guerrilla warfare. Previously contested but broadly peaceful ethnic ceasefire areas are being plunged back into active armed conflict. There is a real prospect that vast areas of Myanmar may find themselves under the control of no one individual group or authority and/or having to deal with predatory criminal networks under the control of warlords (individuals with the command of a militia), criminal economic actors (the same without armed men), or criminal networks. This is in stark contrast to the conditions existing in parts of the country, where longer established EAOs have articulated political agendas and are providing governance and services to vulnerable populations in their areas of control or influence.

Situations of state failure are not easy to recover from. The emergence from a failed state configuration is not a simple question of filling a void, it demands the destruction of an existing criminal equilibrium as a pre-condition to even starting to establish forms of accountable governance. A failed state is defined by an environment of widespread corruption, criminality, involuntary movement of populations, sharp economic decline, and violence. To paraphrase the seventeenth century philosopher Thomas Hobbes, life for the individual in a failed state is one of continual fear and the danger of violent death; it is basically solitary, poor, nasty, brutish, and short. And that is the prospect facing the people of Myanmar today.

As Myanmar rapidly hurtles into the abys, the most frightening consideration is that the Commander in Chief is probably oblivious to the extent and consequences of this initial miscalculation. The not-too-distant past teaches us that one should not underestimate the inability of the Tatmadaw to understand how desperate and volatile the socio-economic conditions that they have created are actually becoming. Under the SPDC, the military leadership lived with the fiction of double-digit growth rates. During the period 2002-2007 the official GDP growth rates ranged from 12.2% to 13.6%, which would have put Myanmar on a par with Singapore, which it clearly has never been. Literacy rates of more than 96% were also officially reported during the same period, figures that were never reflected in the realities encountered on the ground. It was this inability to understand the socio-economic realities of the population which triggered the Saffron Revolution following the dramatic price increases of fuel and compressed natural gas in August 2007. The Tatmadaw leadership today is no different. It is an institution completely unable to comprehend the structural destruction of the state that it is causing.

The coup has failed, and the Tatmadaw will ultimately lose the war.

While—through the utilization of overwhelming force, increasing firepower, and unrestrained brutality—the Commander in Chief can try to defeat the peaceful protesters and bring down the civil disobedience movement through their annihilation, it will be at the cost of the destruction of the country. And in so doing, the Tatmadaw will have confirmed a well-deserved place in the Hall of Infamy. Is this how those who believed they had a historic destiny to preserve the nation want to be remembered by history?

Charles Petrie is former UN Assistant Secretary General, UN Resident & Humanitarian Coordinator Myanmar (2003-2007). In November 2007, he was declared persona-non-grata by the then regime for having exposed publicly the underlying socio-economic causes of the Saffron Revolution . His views are his own.


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