Factory workers shout slogans as they rally against the military coup in Yangon, Myanmar. Picture: Reuters
Factory workers shout slogans as they rally against the military coup in Yangon, Myanmar. Picture: Reuters

Myanmar’s military has few options

By Shannon Ebrahim Time of article published Feb 26, 2021

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With tens of thousands of civilians in Myanmar continuing to demonstrate 25 days after the military coup, the government has almost come to a standstill.

Thousands of public sector workers from 245 districts and 21 ministries remain on strike, and government offices, hospitals and even schools are deserted, according to sources on the ground. The gravity of the latest developments cannot be understated considering that for 50 of Myanmar’s 70 years of independence it has been under military rule.

Significant steps had been made over the past five years in terms of consolidating democracy, and the National League for Democracy (NLD), of which Aung San Suu Kyi is the party leader, had won 80% of the vote in last year’s November elections – a significant increase in support from the 2015 elections.

When military rule ended in 2011, many felt that there was a civilian government in name only. In keeping with the country’s constitution of 2008 which was passed by the military, 25% of the parliamentary seats were reserved for the military, as were the Home Affairs, Defence and Border Affairs portfolios. Despite the militarisation of Myanmar’s politics, the military could not live with the erosion of its indirect rule over time, and found the landslide victory won by the NLD unpalatable.

Challenges to Commander-in-Chief of the Defence Forces Min Aung Hlaing did not sit well with the military’s top brass, particularly after the banning in 2018 of Hlaing and 18 other officials from using social media after they incited ethnic and religious hatred against minority groups such as the Rohingya. After UN investigators confirmed that Hlaing would be investigated and prosecuted for genocide over the crackdown on Rohingya Muslims, Hlaing was left with little, if any, support at home or abroad. Having reached retirement age, and with no guarantee of immunity from prosecution after retirement, Hlaing resorted to a military coup to secure his position.

The military has imposed a one-year state of emergency and restricted access to the internet, phones and television, and protests have been met with water cannon, live ammunition, and detentions. State Counsellor Aung San Suu Kyi was arrested along with President Win Myint, cabinet ministers, chief ministers of regions, writers and activists, in what Suu Kyi has called “an attempt to put the country back under dictatorship”.

The international community reacted with swift condemnation of the coup and the military’s detention of political leaders, although criticism and even targeted sanctions against military leaders have not altered the junta’s course.

South Africa also called for the immediate release of Aung San Suu Kyi and other political leaders, and called for a return to the rule of law. South Africa’s emphasis has been placed on the need to resolve political differences through peaceful and inclusive dialogue.

The UN Security Council, China, the EU and the US have urged the Association of Southeast Asian Nations (Asean) to mediate in the crisis. Indonesia has played a leading role in calling for Asean to facilitate dialogue between the junta and protesters, and the Indonesian Foreign Minister Retno Marsudi has been travelling the region to build support for a summit of foreign ministers on the Myanmar crisis. Asean was criticised for not effectively addressing the Rohingya crisis, and it now wants to show that its “decision-making by consensus” is not an impediment to collective action.

While non-interference in the domestic affairs of other countries is a core principle of China’s foreign policy, it has urged all parties to peacefully solve their problems in accordance with Myanmar’s constitution. China did not veto the UN statement which calls for the release of Suu Kyi, support for the democratic transition, the need to uphold democratic institutions, as well as human rights and the rule of law.

During her tenure as state counsellor, Suu Kyi had frequently visited Beijing, and sought friendly relations between the two countries, in the interests of Myanmar’s economic development. A stable Myanmar with strong economic growth would also serve as a market for Chinese products. Suu Kyi had also proved to be an ally to China when, under the NLD government, Myanmar had participated in the China-Myanmar economic corridor as part of China’s Belt and Road Initiative.

The junta will find few friends in the international community who will support its stranglehold on power, and economic and political isolation will not serve the interests of either the military or the people of Myanmar. The hope is that a peaceful way out of the impasse can be found, preferably through the intervention of regional leaders, and that democracy can be restored. This time it would seem that the people of Myanmar are not prepared to back down until their political rights are restored.

* Shannon Ebrahim is Independent Media’s Foreign Editor.

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