The junta says it is keeping the country together. Governments must stop buying its brutal excuses.
Protesters take part in a demonstration against the military coup in Yangon, Myanmar, on May 15. STR/AFP VIA GETTY IMAGES
Myanmar’s military is still killing its own citizens by the dozens. Ethnic fighting against the regime has reignited in the borderlands, and civilians in the country’s heartland are picking up guns to defend themselves. But Senior Gen. Min Aung Hlaing, who seized power in a Feb. 1 coup, insists the military—known as the Tatmadaw—is the only thing holding Myanmar together. “[No one can] deny that the Tatmadaw has been striving to prevent the country’s disintegration,” he said in March.
The next day, as Myanmar marked Armed Forces Day, the Tatmadaw again cracked down violently against peaceful protesters, killing more than 100 people. There were reports of shocking cruelty, including soldiers burning a 40-year-old man alive and fatally shooting a 17-year-old who wasn’t involved in the demonstrations as he rode past on a motorbike. Although there are no longer hundreds of thousands of protesters in the streets, smaller demonstrations continue, and some civilians are turning to armed revolt.
Since the military ousted the civilian government led by the National League for Democracy (NLD) party, it has killed more than 800 people, all the while claiming that it is delivering peace and stability. This dark propaganda would be easy to dismiss, if not for the fact that regional diplomats seem to buy it—or are at least going along with the narrative as a necessary part of negotiations. Most of Myanmar’s neighbors are pushing for a solution to the crisis that includes the Tatmadaw, while the pro-democracy movement seeks to remove the military from politics. But engagement with the junta only emboldens the regime and legitimizes its rule.
Southeast Asian officials purport to fear the potential chaos the Tatmadaw’s removal from power could cause while ignoring the tangible chaos it has created. Philippine Foreign Minister Teddy Locsin Jr. said in February that the “army is indispensable to the unity of Myanmar” and that the Philippines is “cognizant of the army’s role in preserving its territorial integrity and national security.” Likewise, the veteran Singaporean diplomat Bilahari Kausikan wrote in Foreign Affairs in April that the military has a “record of holding an otherwise fissiparous postcolonial country together” and that without it, Myanmar could become mired in conflict like Iraq, Libya, or Syria.
Regional diplomats and observers are understandably concerned that a power vacuum in Myanmar could provoke greater conflict. In Shan state, for example, fighting among ethnic groups has continued after the coup, rather than the groups uniting against the military. The Restoration Council of Shan State (RCSS) has clashed repeatedly with the Taang National Liberation Army, which both seek greater autonomy, and the Shan State Progress Party, another Shan nationalist group. During a trip to the state last year, Taang people told me that they viewed the RCSS as a colonizing force, similar to the Tatmadaw.
But the Tatmadaw itself seems intent on dragging Myanmar into a period of major instability. The protest movement against the coup was possibly the largest in Myanmar’s history, and it was met with mass violence. In Yangon, the country’s largest city, bomb blasts targeting military officials have become a regular occurrence. Across Myanmar, local junta administrators and alleged informants are frequently targeted in extrajudicial killings. Armed conflict has broken out in areas that were peaceful before the military takeover, with pro-democracy civilians teaming up with ethnic armed groups in some areas.
The Tatmadaw government’s history of violent oppression against ethnic minority groups drove their militarization in the first place. Over several decades, the military has sent thousands of Karen refugees fleeing across the Thai border, where some 100,000 people from Myanmar remain in refugee camps as of 2019. In 2009, it attacked the Myanmar National Democratic Alliance Army’s stronghold in Shan state, pushing around 30,000 refugees into China. And in 2017, the Tatmadaw’s campaign in Rakhine state killed thousands of Rohingya civilians and forced more than 700,000 people to seek refuge in Bangladesh—one of the worst refugee crises in modern history.
The coup has only reignited conflicts between ethnic armed groups and the government, threatening to destabilize swaths of Myanmar’s borders with China, Thailand, India, and Bangladesh. Saw Kapi, an ethnic Karen conflict analyst and director of the Salween Institute for Public Policy, said Myanmar’s “internal politics have been very divided all along,” with most conflict caused by the military’s treatment of ethnic minorities. He added that the Tatmadaw may be the “most potent institution” in Myanmar, but he rejected that it holds the country together. “[The Tatmadaw] has been able to hold itself together at the expense of the country,” Saw Kapi said.
The Tatmadaw is not protecting Myanmar but rather holding the country hostage, preventing economic and political development to maintain its own power and wealth and using the threat of violence against civilians to keep foreign intervention at bay. Although many of Myanmar’s neighbors in the Association of Southeast Asian Nations (ASEAN) have vocally condemned the coup and subsequent violence, they are dragging their heels as the junta gradually solidifies control. Hamstrung by wrongheaded notions of noninterference and the fact that most members are also authoritarian regimes, the bloc even reportedly shot down a proposed arms embargo.
The bloc has also refused to recognize the underground National Unity Government made up of deposed lawmakers from the civilian government. When ASEAN held an emergency summit in April to address Myanmar’s political crisis, it invited Min Aung Hlaing. But the implicit threat of further military violence largely restrained the bloc’s ability to pressure the Tatmadaw government. It stripped a line from the consensus reached at the summit demanding the release of political prisoners and allowed Min Aung Hlaing to set an indefinite timeline for fulfilling other demands, including a call to end the violence and a visit from a special envoy, which still has yet to be appointed. “We don’t care who’s causing it. We just stressed that the violence must stop,” Malaysian Prime Minister Muhyiddin Yassin said at the time.
Meanwhile, the top priority of many people in Myanmar is not to end the violence but to achieve democracy. Hundreds of protesters have already died for this cause, and the armed uprisings show many more are willing to risk their lives for it. The coup and the subsequent violent crackdowns have undermined the Tatmadaw government’s legitimacy and made compromise with the pro-democracy movement impossible, according to Saw Kapi. “It is now considered a murderous insurgent regime. The prevailing desire of the people now is that the top leadership of Tatmadaw must go, the Tatmadaw must be reformed,” he said.
Civilian government representatives continue to reject negotiations with the military regime, choosing instead to form a new armed group to take on the Tatmadaw. The junta has piled charges on civilian leaders and announced plans to dissolve the NLD, the party of former leader Aung San Suu Kyi, who faces six criminal charges. The military plans to hold new elections, likely without the NLD’s participation and almost certain to be skewed in its favor to lend a veneer of legitimacy to its illegal power grab.
The coup put an end to Myanmar’s brief and already compromised experiment with democracy. The military-drafted 2008 constitution gave the Tatmadaw a guaranteed 25 percent of the seats in parliament—a built-in veto to any constitutional amendment. The constitution also made every election an existential vote between democracy and dictatorship. After voters resoundingly chose democracy again last November—even as the NLD had failed to live up to expectations—the military realized its only path back to power was through force.
If ASEAN leaders intend to play a constructive role in resolving the Myanmar crisis, they should recognize the Tatmadaw for what it is: a brutally violent occupying force with no political legitimacy that shows no reluctance to destroy the country in order to rule over the rubble.
© 2021, THE SLATE GROUP