Peoples' power versus military might
published : 25 Feb 2021 at 04:00
newspaper section: Oped
Millions and millions of protesters swarmed onto the streets throughout Myanmar earlier this week in an overwhelming rejection of the military's seizure of power. Despite dire threats and warnings from the country's coup leader, the army chief Senior General Min Aung Hlaing, marchers thronged the thoroughfares even in small towns to demonstrate their deep support for democracy and their rejection of the coup.
Myanmar's civil disobedience movement, which sprang up spontaneously in response to the soldiers seizing total control of the country at the beginning of February, has led the opposition to the coup. This has grown in numbers ever since doctors, nurses and health workers initiated the campaign. Civil servants across the country have joined the protests and refused to go to work. In the past three weeks the country has ground to a halt: gas and petrol supplies are running desperately low, with banks and government offices closed -- including hospitals, schools and universities.
On Monday the movement called a general strike which was almost universally observed: shops, restaurants, transport -- including food delivery services -- commercial and government offices were all shut.
In a deeply superstitious country like Myanmar, Monday's date the 22-2-2021 or 22222 is symbolically significant -- and more importantly it draws on parallels with the famous 8888, a crucial stage in the mass pro-democracy protests of 1988, which left an indelible mark on the Myanmar psyche.
Although crushed by the military in the subsequent weeks, the immediate consequences were the resignation of the former dictator General Ne Win (soon to be replaced by a military council -- the State Law and Order Restoration Council, or Slorc), the birth of the notion that a multiparty democracy was the best fit for Myanmar, the birth of the National League for Democracy (NLD) and the emergence of Aung San Suu Kyi as the living symbol of the country's aspirations for a democratic future.
This current struggle is between the democratic aspirations of the majority -- including ethnic minorities -- and the army's desperate attempt to regain its shrinking authority and control during the country's transition to democracy, which they define as 'guided democracy'. It is these competing visions of democracy that is being played out on the streets of the country. And both sides are preparing for a long battle.
The army has put into place its roadmap for the future: promising fresh multiparty elections after the current state of emergency expires in a year's time and promising to hand over power to the duly elected majority party, or coalition as they would prefer to see. This is something similar to what happened in 1958, when the then prime minister, U NU, temporarily handed over power to the army chief General Ne Win. Fresh elections were indeed held in February 1960 -- four months after the military caretaker government took office.
But the army having crafted a constitution in 2008 that catered for its political vision are now trying to correct some of the perceived inadequacies that have emerged as a result of their abject failure to understand the peoples' deep desire for democracy, as represented in the second overwhelming electoral victory of Ms Suu Kyi and the NLD at the November 2020 election.
Myanmar's top generals have launched a surgical strike against Ms Suu Kyi -- the country's popular civilian leader and her party. Her trial will begin next Monday where she is charged with violating import restrictions, several walkie-talkies and other foreign equipment discovered during a search of her premises after she was arrested. She also faces an additional charge of contravening Covid restrictions during an electoral rally last October.
If convicted, it will prevent her from standing in future elections. The authorities are still investigating more serious accusations related to receiving foreign funds -- which could amount to more severe charges. Other prominent NLD politicians, including President Win Myint is also charged with breaking Covid restrictions, alongside the Mandalay Chief Minister Zaw Myint Maung. A case of corruption is also being prepared against the Yangon Chief Minister Phyo Min Thein, according to government sources.
The military commanders also seem intent on preparing a case against the NLD in order to ban it from politics and declare it an illegal organisation. "It's clear the army wants to lop off the top of the party so they can't compete in future elections, as well as prevent the NLD being a thorn in their side at any future poll," said a former European diplomat based in Myanmar, on condition of anonymity.
But the military junta has also dealt a death blow to developing democratic ideals and practices, with the worst being the wholesale changes in the laws and new edicts. Activists and human rights groups in Myanmar have condemned these measures as unacceptable and a gross erosion of basic civil and human rights, especially the changes to citizens protection and security laws.
These include a prisoner's right to a lawyer -- even Ms Suu Kyi has been denied access to her lawyer since she was detained at the beginning of February. The army seems has given itself the right to prisoners for an unlimited time, the right to arrest people without a warrant and search homes unimpeded by local administrators, carry out surveillance unconstrained, intercept any form of communications, and the right to ask for users' information from operators. The government has also enacted a draconian cyber law which essentially allows them full access to digital information and all social media -- with the right to prosecute anyone they deem has crossed the line.
"The changes in the laws amount to the removal of all rights of freedom of speech, association and liberty as well as the rights associated the rule of law and fair trial," Stephen McNamara, a UK lawyer who has worked with lawyers in Myanmar since 2007.
"These changes in the basic laws of Myanmar are wider than any amendments since the nineteenth century. It reflects a military that intends to stay in power for a very long time," he told the Bangkok Post.
The fact that the military launched the coup when it could not get its own way clearly reflects the army's mentality and priorities. They could not accept the NLD's crushing victory in the elections -- and the second time in five years was gulling. They were shocked by the extent of the NLD's electoral triumph and had been counting on being able to form some sort of coalition government with various parties, including their pro-military partners, ethnic political parties and perhaps even the NLD.
The military foresees a political future where the army is an integral part of the political setup: Integrated into the power structure and administration along the lines of their perception of Thailand. In fact the commander in chief, who is personally fond of Thailand, sees this as a model -- an important role for the army, where their economic interests are protected, a self-sufficiency economy and a 'democratic' outlook -- resisting leftist, socialist or communist leanings. It is a concept of pluralist democracy with no interest group having the dominant role or power, allowing the army to continue to play a critical role.
Of course the coup leaders also see former Senior General Than Shwe's 'roadmap to democracy' -- developed in 2003 by then then intelligence chief and prime minister Khin Nyunt -- as part of the model to follow. The projected final stage, before a more liberal form of democracy, was a coalition government of national unity. That is what the military is currently rolling out now as part of their current administration. And what they want as the result of the next election. Part of the constitutional change that is likely to be enacted is proportional representation so that they can have a proliferation of parties in parliament, with the military bloc of 25% holding the balance of power.
But while the army may have their plans, these will not be acceptable to the NLD, and even more so totally rejected by the protesters in the streets demanding the 2008 constitution be radically changed and most importantly into a democratic federal state. They are showing no signs of fatigue or letting up.
"We cannot allow a return to military rule, it destroyed our lives and country before," said Ma Myint, a young female professional who has been protesting every day in downtown Yangon without fail. "I'd rather be dead than live under the military again. For me and my children to be able to have a real life, we need democracy," she told the Bangkok Post.
A specialist on Myanmar
Larry Jagan is a specialist on Myanmar and a former BBC World Service News editor for the region.