Having continually disputed the results of the November elections over the past few months, the armed forces in Myanmar took to overthrowing the National League for Democracy (NLD)-led government earlier this week, thereby putting an end to an era of tenuous civilian rule and limited democratization. Activists and political leaders have been arrested, including State Counselor Aung San Suu Kyi, internet access was temporarily cut off, and the result of November’s election abrogated. Myanmar, in short, had retreated into the darkness of gun barrel politics.
The past decade of civilian government have not been all that detrimental for the army. With the 2008 Constitution granting it 25 percent of seats in the Pyidaungsu Hluttaw, the army held an effective veto over constitutional changes, which require the support of three-quarter of MPs. Army-endorsed entrepreneurs and technocrats have continued to sit at the upper echelons of the economy, as well as staffing key departments and bureaus – including ones pertaining to national and domestic security. Indeed, under the civilian-led government, the army’s popularity had only increased, as it was perceived to be both more democratically legitimate (on the surface) and responsive to the ethnocentric nationalism that underpinned the continual state-driven persecution of the Rohingya population.
So why did the coup happen? The superficial answer, of course, was the landslide victory for the NLD in the elections on November 8, when it won 396 out of 476 seats – six more than at the previous election in 2015. The military-affiliated Union Solidarity and Development Party, on the other hand, secured just 33 seats. According to this line of argument, the military launched the coup because it was wary and paranoid over its loosening control over the country’s legislative decision-making powers.
Yet this hypothesis makes limited sense: the differential of six or seven seats does not make that much of a difference when it comes to the vote; after all, opposition intimidation and alternative forms of tacit coercion could easily be deployed by the army in order to secure policy changes and concessions – the case in point being its continued pressure on Aung San Suu Kyi’s regime to not speak out over or halt its harshly discriminatory policies toward the Rohingya. Additionally, the military has retained the monopoly over violence that underpins domestic compliance and order. To posit that the legislative changes indicated a turn for the worse in the army’s actual power would be to under-estimate their wherewithal and prowess at large.
A more plausible reading is that the army had sought to employ the NLD regime as a tool of deflection and legitimation: deflection, in absorbing the bulk of criticisms and backlash from the West for the regime’s policies towards the Rohingya; and legitimation, in granting the regime the veneer of competitive accountability. The army’s prior expectation was that with the economy taking a battering from COVID-19, and the foreign reprobation toward Aung San Suu Kyi building, the popularity of the civilian government would be slowly eroded over time. This, of course, turned out not to be the case in the 2020 elections – with Aung San Suu Kyi transforming her alienation from the West into an opportunity to invoke nationalistic rhetoric in shoring up support from traditional non-supporters of the NLD.
The fears of the army were only confirmed by the NLD’s electoral pledges to reintroduce legal changes aimed at systemically reining in the Tatmadaw’s powers. These sentiments, coupled with the overarching feeling that the country’s economic liberalization would weaken the army’s grip over its media, public discourse, and civil society, precipitated the coup.
I do not believe the prognosis is only grim for Myanmar, notwithstanding the immediate calamities and predicaments confronting some of its bravest and brightest political figures. The lurch back into military rule is certain for the short to medium term – with the army declaring a state of emergency for a year, appointing a new roster of ministers (some of which are academics that had previously been closely affiliated with the NLD), and promising to hold new elections after the state of emergency period. Yet the authoritarian retrenchment here could be short-lived, for the following reasons.
Firstly, the socioeconomic landscape of the country has been altered significantly since the first decade of the 21st century. Whilst the army might have held an exclusive monopoly over the country’s economy two decades ago, its influence had been steadily eroded due to the structural reforms introduced at the beginning of the last decade. These have included significant anti-graft laws, relaxation of currency regulations, and substantial lifting of restrictions on foreign investment, which increased from $300 million in 2009-10 to $20 billion in 2010-11 – a six-fold increase, collectively shrinking the military’s direct market shares.
Civilian-led economic activities have climbed steadily, as the country shifted to a more diverse range of trade powers and liberalized the foreign exchange market, through granting access to private banks. Whilst military leaders retain veto powers over the existence and operations of the country’s preeminent corporations – including those involved in the jade and mining sectors – they no longer can buy off opposition or threaten powerful civil society actors at ease, in ways short of a literal coup. In other words, unless the Burmese military can structurally and effectively stifle opposition and quell any and all passive socioeconomic resistance to their rule, they must fundamentally seek to make concessions on the political front (again), in order to stabilize the economy and maintain their revenue streams.
Secondly, Western sanctions and retaliation are likely to take a substantial toll on the military. Indeed, whilst the U.S. is by no means the primary economic partner to the country, for the military – in seeking to hedge against overreliance upon Chinese support – must keep the West sufficiently (though certainly not substantively) pacified so as to not pursue the “nuclear options” of literal military intervention, or an all-out economic blockade. Domestic pressures in the West – with the recent resurgence of human rights-centered discourses – are likely to steer countries in the European Union, and the U.S., towards more aggressive, proactive measures directed towards the army. Should the U.S. opt to re-invoke clauses of the de facto suspended Burmese Freedom and Democracy Act of 2003, Burmese military leaders may well find their assets and economic interests substantially undercut – though the extent to which that could meaningfully deter them from lashing out against the politically disenfranchised minorities and dissidents in the short to medium run remains largely unclear.
Finally, there remains the question of China. There is a temptation to posit that China is likely to have welcomed the military coup, in putting an end to the “Burmese Spring.” Yet such a reading fundamentally neglects China’s increasing strategic ambivalence toward Myanmar. With the Belt and Road Initiative at the forefront of its regional agenda, and with its fundamental skepticism towards Muslims (which can be rightly said to be rooted in ethnocentrism that is widely seen in its domestic policies), China is reluctant to pick sides in the domestic struggle. Indeed, Chinese Foreign Minister Wang Yi visited and held talks with Aung San Suu Kyi just three weeks prior to the coup – with the former leveraging the latter’s domestic popularity as a means of bolstering the credibility of Chinese economic ventures in the country.
Whilst the stability and predictability of the Tatmadaw certainly conform better with China’s traditional modus operandi, the NLD’s ability to command nationalistic support is vital in China’s endeavor to secure civil society synergy – and the export of the country’s cultural heritage and legacy – in Southeast Asia. It is hence unlikely that China would throw its weight behind the military – despite vetoing the condemnatory resolution in the United Nations Security Council, it had also called for “all sides” to “properly manage their differences under the constitution and uphold stability.” The Foreign Ministry’s words could of course be construed as tokenistic – though those who are familiar with Chinese politics may well spot that the incorporation of the expression “difference resolution” carries very different implications to a statement prescribing “stability” only.
The prognosis for Myanmar is not all that grim in the long run – yet the upcoming months, if not years, could well see the country regress into full-blown authoritarian rule. May fortune be with those who stand in defiance, for what is right, for what is just.
Brian Wong is a Rhodes Scholar-Elect from Hong Kong (2020), upcoming DPhil Candidate at Oxford, and a current MPhil in Politics at Wolfson College, University of Oxford. They are the Founding Editor-in-Chief of the Oxford Political Review; Founding Secretary of Citizen Action Design Lab, Founding Fellow of Governance Partners Yangon, and a frequent contributor to media and academic publications.