Civil society has met the military’s coup in February and detainment of democratic heroine Aung San Suu Kyi with both nonviolent and violent forms of protest. Will we see a revival in Myanmar’s democratic experiment and restoration of civilian rule? Or will the country experience a repeat of the failings following the 1988 student protests?
Myanmar’s five year constitutional democratic experiment has sunk not far from shore. Aung San Suu Kyi’s refusal to condemn the genocide of the Rohingya Muslim minority beginning in 2017 drew international criticism and marked her fall from grace as a human rights heroine and Nobel Peace laureate. In February, Myanmar’s military, the Tatmadaw, carried out a coup, detained top government leaders, including Aung San Suu Kyi, and Senior General Min Aung Hlaing declared a state of emergency for one year. The coup is in response to last November’s parliamentary elections where the National League for Democracy (NLD), Aung San Suu Kyi’s party, won in a landslide against the Union Solidarity and Development Party (USDP), the military’s proxy party (Beech & Nang, 2020). The USDP argued that election results are invalid because of voting fraud, and the military said it will conduct free and fair multiparty elections after the year in a state of emergency (Beech, 2021b). Civilians have launched mass civil disobedience campaigns through protests and labor strikes, crippling the nation’s economy and bringing daily business to a grinding halt. After these efforts failed to restore civilian control, many activists and workers are training in guerilla warfare and responding with violence against military and police officers in city demonstrations. However, because political leaders have not invested in building strong and independent democratic institutions during the past five years separate from the military, these civilian efforts remain extra-institutional and are likely to end in continued military rule and a repeat of the failure of the 1988 student protests.
Background: Weak Institutions and Military Rule
Democratic erosion assumes that a transition from democracy to autocracy happens over time, but there were no dialogues or opportunities for the opposition to fight the military’s attempts to consolidate power (Gamboa, 2017, p. 457). Because Myanmar has not built up many strong, independent institutions apart from the military, the military seized power through their usual modus operandi of extra-institutional means. The coup was not the gradual, incremental chipping away of a constitution or institutions like many other established democracies experience, but the sudden and brutal takeover of power. The country’s 2008 Constitution continued entrenching the Tatmadaw’s control over every sector of government and effectively excluded civilian rule. The Constitution mandates that military officers head ministries of security forces like border affairs and defense and that 25% of parliamentary seats are reserved for military officers (Paddock, 2018). Through research investigating why Venezuela’s Hugo Chavez successfully eroded democracy but Colombia Alvaro Uribe’s erosion efforts failed, Gamboa (2017) concluded that the most successful opposition to democratic erosion requires using institutional strategies, or conventional political channels, with moderate goals (i.e., thwarting the president’s project but not actively preventing him from completing a constitutional term; Gamboa, 2017, p. 462). However, because Myanmar lacks established institutional channels of conflict resolution, civil opposition have no other recourse but to use extra-institutional strategies with radical goals, including guerilla warfare, protests, boycotts, and strikes (p. 463). Gamboa (2017) found that extra-institutional strategies combined with radical goals can have negative consequences for democracy because it threatens the opposition’s legitimacy, lowers the costs of and increases the incentives for the regime to respond repressively, and neglects the need for a viable regime to replace the military dictatorship (p. 457).
Civil Resistance: Nonviolent and Violent Forms
The civil opposition has forged ahead with a mix of nonviolent and violent civil resistance, but these efforts are unlikely to restore civilian rule or produce military loyalty shifts due to the military’s monopoly on power. Activists sought to use nonviolent resistance campaigns through protests and financial coercion to starve the military of resources and economic growth. Labor strikes at all levels of the economy including workers in banks, ports, government ministries, hospitals, railways, dockyards, schools, shops, and factories have resulted in the cessation of 90% of national government activity (Beech, 2021c). Without employees at the central bank (including five deputy directors who were fired), taxes are not being collected. There is no one at the government ministries to grant licenses for imports and exports, and money flows in and out of the country have stopped (Beech, 2021c). Furthermore, thousands continue protesting despite the military and police killing over seven hundred people since the coup, including women and children (Paddock, 2021). But after the initial month of peaceful protests, members of the ousted parliament feel that civil disobedience targeting the economy was not enough, and a revolution using a federal army that joined all of Myanmar’s diverse ethnic groups is needed to restore civilian rule (Beech & Times, 2021). Ordinary people, office workers, students, and activists have started guerilla force training and mobilization in the jungle. Protesters in cities are forming barricades against military incursions, sabotaging military linked facilities, and preparing smoke bombs and fire bombs in advance of violent encounters with police (Beech & Times, 2021).
Stephan and Chenoweth (2008) found that nonviolent resistance produces loyalty shifts within security forces more effectively than violent resistance does, an important domestic factor because security force defections make nonviolent campaigns forty-six times more likely to succeed than nonviolent campaigns where defections do not occur (p. 22). However, the half a million men that make up the standing force are taught that they are guardians of Myanmar and Buddhism and that without the military, both would collapse. This means maintaining stability and order at the expense of all else, and therefore, the country’s enemies are not external or foreign, but any civilians, protestors, and ethnic groups disobeying the military or working against the military’s interests (Beech, 2021a). Soldiers are fed a robust diet of anti-democratic propaganda and are constantly monitored by their supervisors in-person and on social media. If it was only this ideology sustaining soldiers’ and officers’ allegiance to the military, the civic opposition might experience more success in campaigns to transfer their loyalty but soldiers’ whole lives are encompassed by and tied to the military, making defections highly unlikely. The Tatmadaw is a state within a state, largely insulated to foreign and domestic pressures. Soldiers live lives physically separated from civilians which makes demonizing civilians as enemies easier and seeing civilians as fellow countrymen much harder (Kausikan, 2021). The military has its own television stations, publishing houses, film industry, banks, hospitals, schools, insurance agencies, stock options, mobile networks, and even vegetable farms (Beech, 2021a). Officers’ children marry other officers’ children in an isolated family tree that perpetuates the military’s supply of dedicated soldiers. The result of Tatmadaw’s state within a state is a culture within the military of unquestioning obedience and brutality, even when soldiers receive orders to shoot children and unarmed civilians (on one Saturday after the coup, security forces killed more than one hundred people, seven of them children; Beech, 2021a). Because the military sees its people as enemies, any resistance, nonviolent or violent, will only bring increasingly more brutal crackdowns and death counts. Mass defections, or some other pathway to break up the military’s monopoly of power, is a prerequisite to sustainable democracy in Myanmar’s context.
Déjà Vu: 1988 Student Protests
However, the opposition now is largely employing the same tactics of resistance as it did following the 1988 student-led movements which not only proved to be ineffective at creating these mass defections and establishing institutions separate from the military, but ended in another coup. It feels like the country is living through déja vu: both coups were preceded by mass mobilization for nonviolent resistance, democratic victories, and short lived democratic experiments. By 1988, the military dictatorship had ruled the country for twenty-six years. After a student was killed by riot police, hundreds of students in mass student-led protests in Rangoon, the most populous city and then capital, were arrested or killed. The Burmese Congress appointed the man responsible for the Rangoon massacre as the chairman of the Burmese Socialist Program Party (BSPP). The opposition organized a nationwide strike and protests with cross-sector support from Buddhist monks joining students, factory workers, civil servants, across diff ethnic groups (Stephan & Chenoweth, 2008, p. 38). In 1990, the military held multiparty elections where the NLD won eighty percent of the vote (p. 38). But the military’s proxy party, then called the State Law and Order Restoration Council (SLORC) refused to honor the election results. The military launched another coup in September, reimposed martial law, banned gatherings, shot protestors, and detained, arrested, or exiled many NLD activists. Opposition demonstrations fizzled out due to in-fighting, especially after the military placed Aung San Suu Kyi under house arrest later that year because the opposition movement was heavily reliant on one central leader (p. 39). The military defeated guerilla resistance in border areas and successfully polarized and co-opted groups of Buddhist monks, impeding a unified front. Regime defections were an exception to the rule, and Suu Kyi failed in pursuing a dialogue with military leaders to install democratic institutions (p. 40). Lastly, international sanctions, especially from the U.S., were largely ineffective because the military regime substituted imports from other foreign partners like China and India. International sanctions failed to raise the regime’s political costs in repressing the nonviolent opposition, and yet the U.S. is reaching for the same strategically ineffective tools again (Kausikan, 2021). Ultimately, the 1988 resistance movement was ineffective in producing loyalty shifts within security forces or altering their self-interest. The opposition failed to present itself as a viable political alternative to junta with governmental and institutional replacements, and the civil opposition now seem to be making similar mistakes.
Differences in 2021
Still, there may be some cause for hope. Nonviolent mobilization has been widespread, cross-sector, and strategic, not only aimed at street protests. With Aung San Suu Kyi and much of the NLD leadership detained, mobilization may be more decentralized and less reliant on a single personality. There is still a need to reconcile across adversary factions to prevent in-fighting and get marginalized ethnic groups to actively join in the effort. Both nonviolent and violent campaigns need to raise the costs of regime repression so that regime control is weakened. The political costs of repressing a small, factionalized group of extremists is much lower than repressing an entire nation of people with activists representing all sectors of the whole population. Internationally, Stephan and Chenoweth (2008) found that repression against nonviolent campaigns in the Philippines against Ferdinand Marcos and against Indonesia’s Suharto in East Timor resulted in well-timed and strategic sanctions against the opponent regime which contributed largely to the nonviolent campaigns’ success (p. 42). More widespread media attention to the military’s killing of children and innocent civilians may draw public ire and motivate international populations to put pressure on their governments to act quickly. In the U.S, the East Timor Action Network of human rights organizations, religious groups, and other grassroots organizations pressured the government to stop providing Indonesia with military aid and training until it ended human rights abuses and allowed self-determination (Stephen & Chenoweth, 2008, p. 30). Since Myanmar is not solely reliant on the U.S. or the West for supplies and resources, it is up to the Association of Southeast Asian Nations (of which Myanmar is a nation state), China, and India to put external pressure on the military regime. Although there is still the lofty goal of building a legitimate democracy or freeing Aung San Suu Kyi, policy goals for now should be moderate and focus on decreasing deaths, establishing concrete dates for new elections, and restoring a semblance of civilian rule with the state of emergency lifted.
Beech, H. (2021a, March 28). Inside Myanmar’s Army: “They See Protesters as Criminals.” The New
Beech, H. (2021b, January 31). Myanmar’s Leader, Daw Aung San Suu Kyi, Is Detained Amid Coup. The New York Times. https://www.nytimes.com/2021/01/31/world/asia/myanmar-coup-aung-san-suu-kyi.html
Beech, H. (2021c, March 19). Myanmar Protesters Answer Military’s Bullets With an Economic Shutdown. The New York Times. https://www.nytimes.com/2021/03/19/world/asia/myanmar-workers-strike.html
Beech, H., & Nang, S. (2020, November 11). Myanmar Election Delivers Another Decisive Win for Aung San Suu Kyi. The New York Times. https://www.nytimes.com/2020/11/11/world/asia/myanmar-election-aung-san-suu-kyi-results.html
Beech, H., & Times, T. N. Y. (2021, March 24). “I Will Die Protecting My Country”: In Myanmar, a New Resistance Rises. The New York Times. https://www.nytimes.com/2021/03/24/world/asia/myanmar-coup-resistance-protests.html
Gamboa, L. (2017). Opposition at the Margins: Strategies against the Erosion of Democracy in Colombia and Venezuela. Comparative Politics, 49(4), 457–477. https://doi.org/10.5129/001041517821273044
Kausikan, B. (2021, April 9). The Dangerous Impasse in Myanmar. Www.foreignaffairs.com. https://www.foreignaffairs.com/articles/burma-myanmar/2021-04-09/dangerous-impasse-myanmar
Paddock, R. C. (2018, January 27). For Myanmar’s Army, Ethnic Bloodletting Is Key to Power and Riches. The New York Times. https://www.nytimes.com/2018/01/27/world/asia/myanmar-military-ethnic-cleansing.html
Paddock, R. C. (2021, April 11). More Bloodshed in Myanmar as Crackdown on Coup Protests Continues. The New York Times. https://www.nytimes.com/2021/04/11/world/asia/myanmar-coup-protests.html
Stephan, M.J., & Chenoweth, E. (2008). Why Civil Resistance Works: The Strategic Logic of Nonviolent Conflict. International Security 33(1), 7-44. https://www.muse.jhu.edu/article/241060.