Myanmar revolts against dictatorship
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Myanmar revolts against dictatorship


When Myanmar's military coup took place three years ago, few thought it would turn out this way. Never has a military in Southeast Asia staged a successful coup and then failed to consolidate power afterwards. Yet this is precisely what's happening in Myanmar. A fierce and determined coalition of resistance forces is in the process of prevailing over Myanmar's battle-hardened army.

Although there have been failed coups in Southeast Asia -- the Philippines' and Thailand's in the 1980s and Cambodia's in 1997 -- once a putsch is successfully executed, it invariably moves ahead. Apart from Myanmar's, Indonesia's in 1965 and Thailand's 13 military seizures of power since 1932 fall in this category. Yet Myanmar's latest coup has proved to be an extraordinary exception.

After nearly 50 years of military dictatorship from 1962 and one decade of political liberalisation, economic reform and development progress in 2011-21, the Myanmar people have put their lives on the line for a future no longer under the generals' boots. In reaction to the coup on 1 Feb 2021, led by Senior General Min Aung Hlaing, a combined force of local youths, ethnic armies, civilian leaders, and a defiant population have fought back in a deadly civil war to regain the democratic system they lost.

With a growing number of battlefield victories in recent months, the resistance forces behind what they now call a "revolution" have turned the tide in the civil war. As Myanmar's military dictatorship now appears untenable, the country's future will soon hang in the balance in need of stakeholder dialogue at home and engagement from the international community and regional players, particularly Asean. Defeating the military is one thing, but putting together a viable pluralistic state with popular legitimacy in an ethnically fractious nation -- an aspiring "federal democratic union" -- will prove difficult and existentially daunting. Myanmar's grinding and virulent internal conflict could also drag on for more months as the generals make their last stand around major towns, such as the capital of Nay Pyi Taw, relying on air power, armour, and artillery to hang on to whatever power they have left.

But the numbers are stacked against the junta, the self-styled State Administration Council. Once having a formidable 500,000-strong armed forces, Myanmar's military today is estimated at around 150,000 or fewer, overstretched across towns and regions that underpin the 55-million population, three-fifths of whom are Burmese, while the rest comprises myriad ethnic minorities, led by the Shans and the Karens. Widely known as one of the most battle-tested militaries in the world for having fought countless battles over decades against ethnic armies resisting central authority and seeking autonomy, the military picked the wrong fight this time.

Following the coup, Myanmar soldiers turned their guns on their own people in a murderous campaign to subdue anti-military street demonstrations, initially led by the Civil Disobedience Movement. As troops killed hundreds of ordinary Burmese indiscriminately in subsequent weeks, popular anger boiled up. The critical catalyst was the Myanmar youths in towns across the country who rose up and fought back. Unlike their forebears who tolerated half a century of military rule, these Myanmar teenagers and 20-somethings had grown up during the decade of openness and possibilities, with improved standards of living and rising expectations.

Organised into People's Defence Force units nationwide, these brave youths first took up homemade arms and whatever rudimentary weapons they could muster to fight back against soldiers and steal small weapons in the process. They later lined up with and received arms and training from the ethnic armies, formally known as the Ethnic Armed Organisations. The EAOs and PDF cells operate in coordination with the umbrella civilian-led National Unity Government. Using guerrilla tactics as well as conventional warfare, the resistance forces have taken the military to task and achieved at least a stalemate on the battlefields a year into the coup period.

But the odds increasingly turned in the resistance's favour as military brutality and outright barbarism provoked a popular revolt whereby the vast majority of the population, regardless of ethnic background, turned against the ruling generals. After being attacked left and right, up and down the country, the military lacked recruits, reinforcements, and resupplies, with a sinking morale. It was a matter of time when it would face the point of no return.

That point came just over three months ago with "Operation 1027" under the so-called "Three Brotherhood Alliance" consisting of the Myanmar National Democratic Alliance Army, the Ta'ang National Liberation Army, and the Arakan Army. Their coordinated offensive in northern Shan state bordering China succeeded in seizing two dozen towns and hundreds of military outposts, assisted by other EAOs and resistance columns in the Myanmar heartland. The 27 Oct operation was a breakthrough in self-belief and battlefield reality. However it fought back; the military was no longer going to prevail. The resistance forces will eventually triumph.

Although the resistance is likely to win its revolution in turning back a military dictatorship, it has a long way to go. The EAOs are motley and traditional adversaries among themselves and against central authority, while the PDF youths lack experience in shaping what comes next, as the NUG remains inchoate and devoid of clear and convincing leadership. Half of the fight is to kick out Gen Min Aung Hlaing, his cohorts and SAC cronies. The other and more important half is to convert and build the revolution into a workable compromise and power-sharing in the spirit of the 2011-21 period that was led by the reform-minded Gen Thein Sein and the democracy icon and politically spent Aung San Suu Kyi.

Winning the civil war but letting the peace degenerate into renewed ethnic conflicts, unfulfilled expectations, and a potential breakup of Myanmar into autonomous statelets harbouring drugs and crimes would be detrimental not just to the local population but also to the regional neighbourhood and international community. Asean has been ineffectual and divided over Myanmar, but it now has a second chance to get on the right track by engaging the NUG, EAOs, and even military elements beyond Gen Min Aung Hlaing and the SAC.

What's happening to Myanmar's coup and autocratic rule is a cautionary tale that subverted democracies can be regained and reinvented. Myanmar is a case not of democratic rollback but of autocratic reversal. The entrenched and pro-autocracy elites in Myanmar's eastern next-door neighbour should take notice.

Thitinan Pongsudhirak

Senior fellow of the Institute of Security and International Studies at Chulalongkorn University

A professor and senior fellow of the Institute of Security and International Studies at Chulalongkorn University’s Faculty of Political Science, he earned a PhD from the London School of Economics with a top dissertation prize in 2002. Recognised for excellence in opinion writing from Society of Publishers in Asia, his views and articles have been published widely by local and international media.

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