Guest Column

Myanmar’s Society Has Been Transformed Over the Last Decade

By Bertil Lintner 22 December 2021

As recently as a year ago, foreign analysts were still talking about “Myanmar’s transition to democracy” and a “peace process” that might have stalled but was certainly not dead. Vast amounts of money had been poured into what was believed to be peace work, while academics, security consultants and others wrote one paper after another about the “transition” from military rule to the more civilian-based system of government that Myanmar was supposedly experiencing. Today, after the February 1 coup and the brutal suppression of all opposition to the military’s supreme role in Myanmar politics, it should be evident that all that was based on gross misinterpretations of what really happened during the decade that followed the 2010 election and the introduction of a more open political environment.

It should be enough to read the 2008 constitution, which was drafted under military auspices and laid the foundation for continued military rule regardless of who formed the government in Naypyitaw, to realize that what we saw after the 2010, 2015 and 2020 elections was not a transition to any fundamentally new political system. That constitution states that the “Defense Services” shall “be able to participate in the National political leadership role of the State” — and they have done so, by holding 25 per cent of all seats in the bicameral National Assembly and securing for themselves control over the three crucial ministries: defense, home affairs (which includes the internal security apparatus) and border affairs.

The charter’s Chapter 12 lays out the complicated rules for constitutional amendments, which effectively give the military veto power over changes to the present power structure. Minor constitutional changes may be considered by the parliament if 20 per cent of the members submit a bill. However, a tangle of 104 clauses states that major charter changes cannot be made without the prior approval of more than 75 per cent of all MPs, after which a nationwide referendum must be held where more than half of all eligible voters cast ballots.

And the generals stated time and again that it was their duty to uphold and defend that basically undemocratic constitution. On January 28, only days before the coup, Senior General Min Aung Hlaing said that the Myanmar military “needs to abide by the Constitution” which he described as the “mother of the law.” He has even — most recently on October 12 — claimed that the military takeover was carried out “constitutionally”.

But, if it was not as many foreign pundits asserted a transition, what did actually happen after the 2010 election, which led to the supposedly reformist General Thein Sein becoming president of Myanmar? After all, political prisoners were released, press censorship was lifted, and political parties could operate openly. The answer should be obvious to any serious observer of Myanmar politics: the unprecedented openness that people enjoyed led to a transformation of Myanmar society. An entire generation learned how to use the internet, communicate on social media, and to hold workshops and seminars on subjects related to democracy and civil rights. That, in turn, gave birth to Generation Z and the massive opposition to the coup, first by peaceful means and then armed struggle against the coup-installed junta, the State Administration Council (SAC).

It is possible that the generals had not expected that kind of development when changes were introduced after an election in November 2010, which was blatantly rigged in favor of their own party, the Union Solidarity and Development Party (USDP). But why did they then, in the first place, agree to open up the country? The heavy dependence on China was one factor. Western sanctions and boycotts had led to a serious reliance on China for trade and diplomatic support, and, according to internal Myanmar military documents seen by this writer, the situation had become so grave that the generals believed the country was in danger of losing its sovereignty. In order to become more acceptable to the international community, it would be necessary to make certain changes — and the generals could afford to do that because the 2008 Constitution guaranteed and safeguarded the supreme power of the military.

The other reason was that the old strongman, Senior General Than Shwe, was about to retire and wanted to secure his legacy in Myanmar history, not as a despot but as someone who had created a new nation, including, as many rulers had done in past history, building a new capital. He was also, insiders say, worried that he and his family might sooner or later face the same fate as that of his predecessors, generals Ne Win and Saw Maung, who ended their lives in disgrace and shame. Therefore, he selected not one but three successors: General Thein Sein, prime minister and Secretary 1 in the then junta, the State Peace and Development Council, as president, while General Min Aung Hlaing, not a particularly strong and charismatic officer, would be the military chief and promoted to Senior General, and General Shwe Mann would become the speaker of the lower house of the parliament and later also USDP Chairman. With power divided between those three, Than Shwe would be safe. Or at least so he thought.

Coup leader Senior General Min Aung Hlaing

The first miscalculation was Shwe Mann. He realized at an early stage which way the wind was blowing and began cooperating with the popular pro-democracy leader, Daw Aung San Suu Kyi — which led to his downfall. In August 2015, he was removed as head of the USDP and, in April 2016, sacked from the party altogether. Eventually, in 2019, he formed his own political party, the Union Betterment Party, which, however, failed to win a single parliamentary seat in the November 2020 elections.

Thein Sein, though, fared much better. He managed to break Myanmar’s international isolation and became the darling of the West. The former general was hailed by the New York Times, among others, as “the Mikhail Gorbachev of Myanmar.” Nicholas Farrelly, an editor of New Mandala, a pseudo-academic website based in Canberra, Australia, wrote in May 2012 that Thein Sein deserved the Nobel Peace Prize for initiating talks with the country’s ethnic rebels. Gwen Robinson, a former correspondent with the Financial Times, dubbed him “Myanmar’s reformist president”, while Thein Sein was also described as the “Listener-in-Chief” in an article in Foreign Policy in November 2013.

All that praise overlooked the fact that Thein Sein did little more than implement policies that had been laid down by the military leadership before the 2010 election and his subsequent appointment as President. Thein Sein also showed his true colors when, in January 2020, in an endorsement of the USDP and the policies of the military warned that Myanmar was facing growing threats to “territory, race and religion” and called on the people to vote for candidates who would “protect the country” in the upcoming elections in November. Since this year’s coup, Thein Sein has made donations to families of USDP members who have been killed or wounded on suspicion of acting as SAC informants. Needless to say, he has not donated any money to the many families whose loved ones have been gunned down by the military and the police just for demonstrating peacefully against the coup.

But what should have become obvious did not prevent, for instance, Marte Nilsen, a researcher at the Norwegian government-funded outfit Peace Research Institute Oslo, from writing about a “reform process” and, in an article published as recently as December 13 in the Norwegian magazine Bistandsaktuelt, describing Thein Sein as head of a “reform government”. It is worth noting that three ministers in the SAC-appointed cabinet also served in that “reform government” headed by Thein Sein: ex-Colonel Wunna Maung Lwin, then and now foreign minister, ex-Brigadier-General Khin Yi, immigration and population minister then and now, and ex-General Maung Maung Ohn, then deputy home minister and now information minister. In 2007, Khin Yi, the then police chief, ordered the bloody crackdown on the mass movement led by Buddhist monks known as the Saffron Revolution. Aung Naing Oo, the SAC’s investment and foreign economic relations minister, was not a minister under Thein Sein but was his foreign investment czar.

That naivete and lack of understanding of the realities on the ground is evident also in the outside approach to Myanmar’s so-called “peace process”, initiated by Thein Sein and continued in more or less the same manner after Daw Aung San Suu Kyi became State Counselor in 2016. That “process” attracted a host of foreign peacemakers with little or no knowledge of Myanmar’s ethnic problems. The governments of Norway and Switzerland especially, as well as the European Union and other governmental and private outfits, brought with them hundreds of millions of dollars, turning peacemaking into a lucrative industry that achieved nothing when it came to alleviating the sufferings of the people in the frontier areas.

A then popular practice to “push the process forward”, as the peacemakers said, was to invite representatives of the military, the government, and some ethnic armed groups on study tours to other conflict areas across the globe, including Northern Ireland, Colombia, South Africa and Guatemala. The main player behind those trips was a UK-based outfit called Intermediate, founded and led by Jonathan Powell, who served as former UK Prime Minister Tony Blair’s chief of staff from 1997 to 2007.

But the lasting value of such trips was questioned then and even more so now as the civil war after the coup is spreading from the frontier areas, where the fighting never stopped, to central Myanmar. A foreign analyst in Myanmar described it long before the coup as “an endless parade of international peace junkets that preoccupy ethnic leaders while the actual negotiations have bogged down.” Meanwhile, “those who address ongoing conflicts and point out the problems are cast as spoilers of the progress,” the analyst said. One Myanmar human-rights worker cynically referred to these developments as a “peace opera.” One might add that it was an opera where too many divas aspired to be the lead performer, and no one wanted to sing in the choir.

Peace seminars were held in Oslo where carefully selected people, presumably with the “right attitude”, were invited, and, in 2016, Switzerland played host to a delegation from the Restoration Council of Shan State and its leader Yawd Serk. That prompted Anthony Davis, an analyst with Jane’s Information Group, to write in the Bangkok Post on February 7, 2016 that while Yawd Serk was “enjoying the hospitality of the Swiss government as a champion of peace and dialogue”, his troops were fighting other ethnic armies in northern Shan State. It was not clear, Davis wrote, how much that “all-expenses-paid flight of fancy cost the Swiss taxpayer” and “how much Yawd Serk benefited from exposure to Swiss models of good governance.”

People stage an anti-regime protest in downtown Yangon in February. (The Irrawaddy)

It was obvious that those “peace initiatives” and trips were a complete waste of money, and, again, reflected the naivete of Western donors. If they had studied past efforts to end the wars in Myanmar rather than searching for models in far-flung places, they would have discovered that the Myanmar military’s approach to “peace building” has remained unchanged since the first peace talks were held in Yangon in 1963. The rebels have to surrender and give up their arms and, in return, they will be given business opportunities. If they don’t want to hand over their weapons, they can become local militia forces and also engage in any kind of business to support themselves. And that’s what in the parlance of the post-2010 “peace process” was called DDR, or “Disarmament, Demobilization, Rehabilitation.” There was no room for amending the 2008 Constitution in order to give the outlying ethnic areas autonomy, which is what the ethnic armed organizations and even ethnic parties have always demanded.

Now, nearly eleven months after the coup, it would not be too much to ask that there should be some soul-searching on the part of those who spent millions of dollars on that charade: what was achieved and was it worth it? And there should also be a critical re-assessment of the policy of “constructive engagement” that blinded the West during the decade before the coup. Thein Sein was never “Myanmar’s Gorbachev”, and there was never any transition to anything.

The coup took place because the military had made some serious miscalculations — apart from the defection of Shwe Mann and the fact that post-2010 policies had inadvertently created a new generation of people who did not want to give up the liberties they had become accustomed to. The generals clearly underestimated the degree of popular support Daw Aung San Suu Kyi and her National League for Democracy (NLD) Party enjoyed. They did not realize that she and her party symbolized the desire for a better and a more free future while the USDP, despite Thein Sein’s initiatives when he was in office, represented the old order. Sources I met in Yangon just before the November 2015 election told me that the generals thought Thein Sein was popular because of what he had done and that the USDP would win. A week or so before people went to the polls, there had even been a meeting in Naypyitaw where USDP stalwarts and the military had decided who should be the minister of what after the election. Only grudgingly — and after intervention by the old strongman Than Shwe — did they allow the NLD to form a new government after they swept the poll.

Then came the 2020 election and, reportedly, the military leadership believed that, this time, the USDP was going to win because, they thought, the NLD has been a disappointment and had lost support in ethnic areas and among the urban middle class. While that may be true, the 2020 election — like the 2015 election and, long before that, the 1990 election which the NLD also won but was prevented from forming a government — should be seen as a referendum where the NLD stood for the hope of a better future and USDP represented the old, despised military-dominated order. The military leadership, however, decided that one term with an NLD-led government was enough, and, therefore, the tanks rolled into Naypyitaw and Yangon.

But that turned out to be the generals’ most serious miscalculation to date. They probably never expected the opposition to the coup to be so massive. With young people to the fore, millions filled the streets in cities and towns all over the country, from Putao in the north to Kawthaung in the far south. Snr-Gen. Min Aung Hlaing has made the military the country’s most hated institution, and it will probably never recover from his fateful decision to oust the elected government and mercilessly gun down people who demonstrated against his power grab. What the population at large think about him and his henchmen was clearly shown on December 10, when the whole country was shut down in a “silent strike” against the military. Streets in cities and towns nationwide were deserted throughout the day, shops were closed and people stayed at home in a mighty show of defiance.

It has often been said that the military has messed with the wrong generation, and to win the battle but lose the war and to be on the wrong side of history are two oft-used — and misused — clichés to describe a situation where an increasingly anachronistic institution seems to succeed only to fail in pursuing a larger, more overarching goal. But they are wholly apt to describe the situation in Myanmar today. The question is how much more damage military rule will inflict on Myanmar society politically, socially, economically and ethnically — and if the next batch of foreign “specialists” who get involved with Myanmar will be more enlightened than those in the past.

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