Myanmar’s generals a year after the coup – Politics


Myanmar’s army, called the Tatmadaw, is a large force. According to experts, General Min Aung Hlaing commands more than 300,000 soldiers. When he staged a coup on the night of February 1, 2021, he abruptly choked off a decade of tentative democratization. The democratically legitimized government under Aung San Suu Kyi was overthrown and she herself was imprisoned. But what are the general’s chances of consolidating political control of the army in the long term? In any case, the civil war has been escalating ever since.

One thing is certain: the number of his opponents has skyrocketed since the coup. While the army used to fight against rebellious ethnic minorities on the fringes of the state, the fronts have now multiplied: everyone who opposes the military coup is considered “terrorists” by the regime; they are hunted down, tortured and killed. The generals bombard their own population, whether armed or unarmed hardly seems to play a role. Anyone who dares to bang pots on the first anniversary of the coup as a sign of protest is threatened by the junta with life imprisonment.

As long as Russia supplies arms and China facilitates trade, the regime seems safe

The army commits serious crimes but has little to worry about the threat of outside intervention. The Ukraine crisis is absorbing everyone’s attention, and even before that there was little will in the world to intervene militarily in Myanmar. The neighboring countries are at odds, and external pressure seems manageable for the generals as long as Russia supplies weapons and China facilitates trade.

On the other hand – and this is becoming increasingly important – the generals have to contend with a major weakness: “Any regime needs at least a touch of legitimacy to stay in power for a long time,” says Gareth Price, Asia expert at the Chatham House political institute in London. “But it is not clear how the junta in Myanmar could acquire this legitimacy, and that will be a problem for them in the long term.” The generals may dress in neat uniforms and act as state guards, but they are, as Price puts it, “just a bunch of gangsters.” And everyone in the country knows that.

Authoritarian governments rule much of Asia, but they’ve found ways to secure at least a shred of acceptance. Violence and coercion alone do not establish lasting rule. China and Vietnam are one-party systems that allow little freedom, but at the same time they have promoted prosperity and fought poverty. In Thailand, soldiers repeatedly use coups to protect a monarchy that is deeply rooted despite growing criticism of the king. As strange as it may sound, even a regime as inhuman as North Korea does not refrain from ideologically underpinning its rule by cultivating an intense personality cult. And the military rulers of Myanmar? Even a brutal regime like that of Bashar al-Assad in Syria can count on more supporters than the junta in Naypyidaw, Price notes sarcastically.

It used to be different in Myanmar. Army leaders could at least claim that as guardians of the nation they prevented the collapse of the state. That secured them a certain amount of support from the majority population, the Burmese. The enemy was all the small armies of ethnic minorities living on the fringes of Myanmar, the Chin or the Karen. The multi-ethnic state that used to be called Burma never found peace. The Second World War and an unsuccessful decolonization plunged the country into a permanent crisis that secured the Burmese-dominated military a key role.

But in early 2022, Myanmar is no longer the country that the generals half-ruled in previous decades. For ten years, the population has witnessed the emergence of democracy. She doesn’t want to go back in time. But the generals ignored that, maybe didn’t even understand it. They’ve been betting since February 1, 2021 on just having to build up enough pressure to get people to bow. But that didn’t work. And without the cooperation of the masses, the country’s economy cannot be built up. Because it collapsed.

But what is likely to damage the generals most is that the ethnic rebel groups have forged alliances with the democratic resistance, some of which are also armed. This makes it increasingly difficult for the army to present itself as the protector of the nation. Because the resistance is now largely fed by the majority people of the Burmese.

Thousands of soldiers and police officers are said to have deserted

The junta’s opponents know that no foreign troops will come to their aid. That’s why they have only one hope: that the Myanmar army will eventually break up. Political scientist Price sees the first signs of this in the reports of desertions. The soldiers are supposed to wage war, but don’t know what for.

The civil underground government of Myanmar, or NUG for short, is trying everything to help soldiers escape, spokesman Sasa said a few weeks ago when asked. Allegedly, 2,000 soldiers have already left the troops, and there are also 8,000 police officers like him Economist reported. A deserted captain described the mood on the platform Myanmar Now: “If anyone could desert who wanted to, only the commander-in-chief and the flagpole would remain in the barracks.”

If that is indeed the case, there could soon be a crucial test for the military leadership, perhaps the greatest threat to the continued rule of Commander-in-Chief Min Aung Hlaing. Will he still be leading the army in five years? Political scientist Price dares to make a prognosis: “I don’t think so.”


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