Conflict, a coup, military rule – what’s really going on in Myanmar? Former Myanmar-based reporter and editor and one-time Greens candidate Alec Wilmot shares his unique insights and thoughts on the situation there.
By Alec Wilmot
I remember the moment Myanmar’s political trajectory fully came into focus for me. I was strolling around the Yangon suburb of Bahan on a sunny afternoon in 2017 when I passed a newsstand and ran my eyes over the papers. Rakhine clearance operations, what the Myanmar military (Tatmadaw) was calling their savage displacement of the Rohingya minority, was the dominating story. The papers were all dutifully towing the military line; Islamic fundamentalism had finally boiled over into revolt and was being contained by the nation’s brave protectors.
It was an old chestnut of propaganda by the bellicose junta, the kind that had often been met with public derision. We Myanmar watchers were hoping the slaughter could be quickly intervened with. Then, the response of Aung San Suu Kyi, democratic stalwart, civilian government leader and many Burmese people’s personal hero, settled the issue; reports of Rohingya woman survivors, she announced, were “fake rape”. With that, the operations went on with broad public support.
I stood for a while trying to process what I was feeling. The civilian government’s endorsement of the military was unexpected. Deep down it felt like the entire democratic project was being betrayed just as it was being realised. I settled on the sad affirmation that despite the high hopes for the new constitutional order, they were unable and unwilling to break the chain of endless bloody warfare. Some went on to rationalise the decision. If the National League for Democracy (NLD) did not lend its support, the argument went, they might have simply been removed from power.
Well, this year we found out that such a coup was not just possible, it might have been made inevitable when the will of the party was tested, and it declined the confrontation. They chose to invest the people’s trust in the military, and it ultimately cost them everything.
For Aung San Suu Kyi’s part, she revealed herself to be one of the rarest political animals; a committed democratic electoralist, yes, but for an ethno-nationalist state. The Lady always played her politics close to the chest – her inner circle are all older, life-long party loyalists going back to the 1980s, and her feelings and thoughts were often made known through them.
I met one of the party seniors, Dr Pe Myint, when he became Minister for Information. I asked the minister what the state media line was going to be on printing the word “Rohingya” as the media came under increasing pressure to describe the minority as foreign “Bengali”. “If you were a chimpanzee, and an orang utan came to you and said, I am chimpanzee, and you could see they were not, what would you do?”, he responded cryptically. Those sorts of racial attitudes were not at all shocking, it fit with their generation.
So in response to the February coup, based on those years I spent in Myanmar, it was my summation that the experiment in democracy had all the cracks at its foundation. The shock was that it had come so early. The democratic government had, realistically, always existed at the pleasure of the nation’s ruling military elite. This arrangement was in the 2011 constitution that the military had written. The new freedoms were contingent on their ability to re-rehabilitate the military as a political and cultural institution (it considers itself the spiritual vanguard to the nation. It is also the direct source of Myanmar’s blood and soil nationalism). The Tatmadaw went from being the target of revolution in 2008 to enjoying stable electoral popularity in minority government by 2016, thanks to some old-fashioned bipartisan effort.
The great benefit to shedding its international pariah status had been the lifting of sanctions and plenty of free market liquidity. NGOs and international development agencies began to alleviate some of the nation’s direst poverty with direct intervention, but there was also great opportunity to open up mineral extraction, manufacturing capacity and new resource chains. The change to the urban landscape was incredible to see as Yangon modernised as fast as its rickety infrastructure could bear.
It was of course making the old elite, who had retained their monopoly on land, resources, education and capital, fabulously richer whilst creating painful transformations of the social and economic order for everyone else. There was the spontaneous creation of an immiserated urban poor: young workers drawn from rural communities, now living in enormous squalid slums, all looking for low paying garment factory work in the special economic zones built to serve foreign conglomerates. Communities further afield would suffer more persecution for what lay deep beneath their feet. Much national conflict is driven by the curse of abundant high-value natural resources.
What made the coup unexpected was that it scotched all those generous benefits. The Tatmadaw decided to throw out the democratic constitution and the global market access ostensibly because they were unhappy with the function of the Union Electoral Commission. The UEC had been refusing to hear the military parties’ case for electoral fraud in Myanmar’s recent general election, which they had expectedly lost.
I think the recklessness shocked everyone. We all underestimated how insular, how rigid and callous the Tatmadaw still is. It has an old school fascistic drive to conflict and domination. Western liberal journalists are shocked to encounter a hierarchical power that can resist the allure of so much global market lucre. Myanmar, as its inhabitants like to say, is not like other countries.
I admit when I felt I had written myself to the half-way point of this piece, I read it over and found my tone to be glib. I do not think I am being overly cynical – one of the harsh truths of Myanmar politics is that there has never been a peaceful default or point of re-unification. To those who know the country and see international outcries for peace, the first and burning question is: when was there ever peace?
Now, with the certain convictions of Aung San Suu Kyi and her senior advisers by bogus trials, the country has lost the only major democratic campaigner and alternate power base there has been since the 1980s. The project has proven a failure, but it also laid bare its problems. There is a new generation fighting now who have drawn their line in the sand at the very outset. They wisely seek the total destruction of the Tatmadaw.
This is no easy feat. The Tatmadaw has the second largest army in South East Asia and is vastly better organised and equipped than its ethnic armed adversaries, to say nothing of urban protesters. It has the practicalities of running a police state down to a fine art. Inter-factional cohesion among the warring ethnic armed groups is another serious problem for flanking and pressuring the Tatmadaw into submission. This enormous road block to a reckoning with power cannot belie the core truth of the matter today: the new fighters know that so long as the Tatmadaw stands, with its rigid racial ideology, enforced by ceaseless sadistic violence, there will never be peace. It is a boot on the neck of everyone, and there is an outpouring of new multi-ethnic solidarity in this new fight.
I reached out to some Myanmar contacts, some here in Australia and some in Yangon, because I wanted to get an insight into how this huge popular front thinks of itself in the aftermath of the coup, and the theme that continually cropped up was a new and radical sense of solidarity with the many trampled peoples of the nation. It marks a real departure from the old fight; an exciting one.
I marvel at the bravery of the young millennials and Gen Z who are going into combat with the military state. It means everything to them, and they are proving it – hundreds have given their lives so far, and they are not faltering. While the National Unity Government has emerged as an improvised underground democratic party with huge support, it continues to have teething issues and makes bizarre PR decisions such as identifying with Juan Guaido. It crucially did vote in a policy to repatriate displaced Rohingya and provide a path to citizenship.
We shall have to wait and see. The next opportunity to re-make Myanmar may be decades away at this point – there is no telling. But if one thing can be said now, it is the new generation of fighters are absorbing all the lessons they can.
Alec Wilmot is a reporter and editor formerly based in Myanmar for almost four years.
The views and opinions expressed in this article are those of the author.
Hero image: Pixabay.