Can Myanmar’s Protesters Win?

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Can Myanmar’s Protesters Win?

They are up against a ruthless, entrenched military. But history tells us not to underestimate the power of the people.

Can Myanmar’s Protesters Win?

An anti-coup protester holds a smoke bomb behind makeshift barricade, as the protesters confront police in Yangon, Myanmar Sunday, March 28, 2021.

Credit: AP Photo

Nobody – least of all the Tatmadaw, Myanmar’s military – could have imagined that the February coup in Myanmar would trigger such a flood of outrage, mass civil disobedience, and the forging of a multi-ethnic alliance across the nation.

Most Myanmar experts from the region’s plethora of think tanks would have scoffed at the suggestion that even two months after the coup, Myanmar’s military would not have been able to crush the revolt.

The heady days of the protest are best described by long-time analyst and ex-political prisoner Dr. Khin Zaw Win, writing for openDemocracy: “The protests are marked by their size as well as diversity. It is truly amazing to witness people from different ethnicities, faiths, and occupations from everywhere in Myanmar coming together in a single purpose – to bring down the dictatorship.”

Khin Zaw Win, the director of the Tampadipa Institute in Yangon, also observed that even the much-persecuted Rohingya are included in the movement: “Long-suppressed voices like those of the Rohingya and Muslims are now being seen and heard prominently, and women are participating in strength.”

The regime has unquestionably been weakened by the Civil Disobedience Movement (CDM) that mushroomed all over the country after the coup. The nationwide non-compliance has throttled almost all sectors, from government administration to banks and the rest of the economy.

The military has responded with force. A brutal crackdown has turned parts of Yangon and Mandalay into war zones in the last two weeks. The civilian death toll of both protesters and hapless bystanders has surpassed 536, with 2,600 people detained.

A Myanmar specialist at Chiang Mai University, Dr. Ashley South, told The Diplomat that, despite the repression, “It is impossible for the junta to normalize this coup. Schools have closed down. It is amazing the only functioning schools in Myanmar today are in the liberated zones of ethnic armies such as the KNU [Karen National Union] and parts of Kachin, Mon, and Shan States.”

On the day of the coup, most the senior National League for Democracy (NLD) leaders were detained, but a number of members of parliament escaped from the capital, Naypyidaw, and set up a an anti-coup Committee Representing Pyidaungsu Hluttaw (CRPH), as Myanmar’s parliament is known. The committee claims to be the legitimate government as a representative of the NLD government that was re-elected in a landslide in the 2020 polls.

Amid the brutal crackdown, thousands have left the cities and headed for ethnic states. The CRPH has joined thousands of urban activists in fleeing from the military raids in urban areas on a mission to develop a parallel clandestine government, now being set up in under the protection of the ethnic peoples’ movements.

However a series of air strikes on Karen villages near the Karen National Liberation Army’s 5th Brigade sent more than 5,000 villagers fleeing to the Thai border seeking aid and sanctuary. This raises serious doubts as to the degree of protection ethnic armed organizations (EAOs) can provide against a major Tatmadaw offensive.

The KNU has also recommended that urban activists who wish to take up arms do not visit their areas, as they are already stretched to supply Karen people with food, shelter, and security, now with the additional influx of over a thousand refugees from the cities.

General Min Aung Hlaing’s regime has struggled to establish a functioning administration at home, while on the international front few countries have so far formally recognized Naypyidaw’s new regime.

The U.N. secretary general has strongly pledged to work for the restoration of democracy. His special envoy for Myanmar, Christine Schraner Burgener, has warned that no country should recognize or legitimize the junta

However the warning did not stop the representatives of eight countries from attending a Myanmar Armed Forces Day parade on March 27 – the same day the nation mourned the killing by police and military of 114 people, including bystanders and children.

Russia and China, major arms suppliers to the Tatmadaw, attended the event, along with India, Pakistan, and Bangladesh. Among Myanmar’s nine fellow member states of the Association of Southeast Nations (ASEAN), only Laos, Thailand, and Vietnam attended. Indonesia, Malaysia, and Singapore, which have expressed alarm over the shooting of unarmed demonstrators, were conspicuously absent.

Meanwhile, a major international lobbying battle over which government will represent the people of Myanmar is likely unfold in the coming months leading to the annual U.N. General Assembly meeting in September.

Myanmar’s current ambassador to the United Nations, Kyaw Moe Tun, has lambasted the regime back home, making a passionate speech urging the U.N. to use “any means necessary to overturn the military coup.”

Despite being fired by the junta, Kyaw Moe Tun continues to work for U.N. recognition of the CRPH government. Many Myanmar diplomats abroad have also affirmed their allegiance to the ousted democratic government that appointed them.

There are various precedents for recognizing the CRPH as the legitimate government. The U.N. credentials committee will no doubt be reminded of the U.N. General Assembly verdict on the Cambodia seat in 1979 after the overthrow of the Khmer Rouge, and its ongoing recognition of a Cambodian coalition government in exile. This controversial precedent could be adapted to deny the U.N. seat to a regime that is driving Myanmar toward civil war.

However the clinching argument should be that the new head of state in Myanmar, Sen. Gen. Min Aung Hlaing, was cited as the general who ordered the ethnic cleansing of the Muslim Rohingya in Myanmar’s west, according to a U.N. Fact-Finding Mission report published in 2018.

The U.N. report stated that “Myanmar’s top military generals, including Commander-in-Chief Senior-General Min Aung Hlaing, must be investigated and prosecuted for genocide in the north of Rakhine State, as well as for crimes against humanity and war crimes in Rakhine, Kachin, and Shan States.”

If the junta cannot persuade the U.N. General Assembly to accept its credentials, that will be a huge victory for a CRPH parallel government. Even if China and Russia try to block this move, there could be a compromise option of leaving the seat vacant until democracy is restored.

The hopelessly unrealistic expectations of a speedy U.N. intervention or ASEAN pressure to halt the bloodshed are fast fading. The R2P (responsibility to protect) slogans seen on many protest posters and placards in the streets of Yangon represent a desperate appeal for U.N. humanitarian intervention, but so far the protocol has never been used to prevent to prevent crimes against humanity from taking place.

However, South argues that R2P status could be applied to the only organizations currently protecting civilians in Myanmar – the EAOs. “As the U.N. seems unable to protect the people of Myanmar,” South proposes, “it is imperative to recognize and support EAOs, who are struggling to provide assistance and protection both to ethnic nationality civilians targeted by the Myanmar Army, and to those fleeing from the SAC junta’s murderous violence in the towns and cities.”

As the killing continues unabated and U.N. action is blocked by Russia and China, this idea could have a special relevance as Myanmar moves dangerously close to civil war. A new humanitarian crisis is looming along the Thai-Burmese border after a several air force planes bombed Karen villages in zones patrolled by ethnic soldiers belonging to the Karen National Liberation Army. Thailand accepted 3,000 refugees on a temporary basis, but turned back another 2,000.

Western analysts and risk consultancies have generally concluded that despite the bravery and tenacity of Myanmar’s People Power, their struggle is doomed to defeat, given they are pitted against a ruthless military caste that has run the country for the last 70 years.

I recall how many diplomats and analysts routinely expressed the same attitude toward East Timor’s demands for independence, as if ending the Indonesian occupation was some absurd fantasy. I was told it would never happen. But by 2000 it had happened, and East Timor – now Timor-Leste – became the first new state of the 21st century.

Long–running dictatorships in Indonesia and Philippines were also overthrown by a combination of “people’s power” and other factors.

In the case of the Philippines, the defection of Gen. Fidel Ramos and the defense minister expedited the downfall of the dictator President Ferdinand Marcos. The United States then crafted the end-game. Marcos and his family were extracted from Manila in a U.S. helicopter, providing a safe exit to Hawaii.

Clearly a precise replica of that end-game is not possible in the case of Min Aung Hlaing and his junta. However, the defections of more than 600 police officers to the side of the CDM offers evidence that demoralization can happen side-by-side with brutal repression.

In just two months it is hardly surprising that the protest movement, despite massively successful boycotts and a general strike, has yet to topple one of Asia’s most entrenched and feared armed forces. But what they have achieved is the isolation of the regime, which is now floundering in a post-coup quagmire and hoping to somehow shoot their way out of the crisis.

No one knows if there are army captains or colonels who enjoyed Myanmar’s period of opening up and the economic growth of the last decade from 2011 until the coup – and are now seething with a secret anger. Are they quietly calculating the right moment to join the Spring Revolution, either as defectors or leaders of a mutiny?

What will be the end-game in Myanmar? It’s too soon to tell, but history has taught us not to count out the determination of the people, whether in Myanmar, the Philippines, or Timor-Leste. It could still be that Min Aung Hlaing is the one left scrambling for an exit strategy when all is said and done.