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[Premium] Chairman’s Note (02/2021)- Myanmar’s Military Intervention: Why and What Next?

26 Feb [Premium] Chairman’s Note (02/2021)- Myanmar’s Military Intervention: Why and What Next?

The military intervention in Myanmar against the National League for Democracy (NLD) government on 1 February 2021 surprised many and the situation in the country remains fluid with fast-moving parts. The SIIA and I organised an update on Zoom on 18 February, and a good number of you were able to attend that confidential and candid discussion.

We will organize another Zoom update in early March and email to invite you as our corporate member and friend of the SIIA. We hope that you or a suitable representative might attend if time and interest allow.  Until then, as some have requested, this note will summarise some of the key points made and also provide a brief update on key events in the week since. Please note that this is provided on a confidential basis to you, as our member and friend.

Reading the Situation: The situation is still at an early stage and fast-moving, both inside the country itself as well as regionally and internationally. Although information is plentiful through platforms such as social media, reading the situation is challenging with fake news reported and internet connection sporadically cut off. Furthermore, it is difficult to understand the mindset of the military commanders. While the SIIA and I provided advice to the Thein Sein government in 2014, when they chaired ASEAN, these were the military reformers. History may provide a reference point as does the deeper reasons for their intervention.

Reasons: The stated reason to intervene were allegations that the November 2020 elections were fraudulent. The military will seek to show that electoral fraud allegations are valid. But while the trigger, it is not the main reason. There was an almost complete breakdown of trust between the military and the NLD government. The military see the 2008 Constitution as a part of their “roadmap to democracy” and their gift to the country. From their perspective, the Constitution includes a compact that, while elections are held, there is a guarantee of the military’s continuing role in Myanmar. This is secured through the 25 per cent of seats reserved in parliament, and in every house of parliament in every state; three of the largest and best-funded ministries (Defense, Home Affairs and Border Affairs) report directly to the Commander-in-Chief, not to the President. The Constitution’s criteria also would disallow Aung San Suu Kyi (ASSK) from being President.

NLD “Revolution” and the Future: The NLD’s creation of the Office of the State Counsellor to give ASSK de facto control is a strong point of contention. So too is the NLD’s push to change the Constitution. These weaken the Constitutional guarantees and undermine the legitimacy for the military to have a future role and, from the military’s perspective, amount to a “revolution” through the ballot box. Connected to this is General Min Aung Hlaing’s retirement projected for mid 2021. He has political ambitions and believed he has a chance to win the vote. The poor result of the military-backed USDP was a huge setback to such future plans.

What Next? The army envisions itself as holding the nation together. They maintain that this is their purpose now and that the State of Emergency is limited to one year, to hold new and fair elections. At the same time, their prosecutions of ASSK on trivial charges seems intent on disbarring her personally from contesting the elections. To win the election, the military’s intention appears to be to bring together a military-led coalition government of non-ASSK parties and personalities. The cabinet appointed after the current intervention notably includes some civilians who have left the NLD or are associated with ethnic parties.

Western Response: The military has withstood decades of broad sanctions; it was the people who suffered. Given this, the international community does not have strong levers to change the situation. For the USA, the Biden administration is also mindful that China’s influence grew in the decades of sanctions. At present, statements have been cautious. An early statement from the UN Security Council has expressed deep concern but not condemnation. Similarly, the USA wisely, has only imposed sanctions targeted against identified military individuals and named military companies. The European Union too have condemned the military action and imposed new sanctions. Some call for the immediate reinstatement of the NLD government.

Japan and China: Japan has considerable investments and while the government has spoken against the military intervention, they are reluctant to condemn. However, if there are prolonged and widespread violations of human rights, Japan also tends to follow the West. Japanese companies with direct dealings with military-owned companies are also looking to divest those interests. In China’s case, there is a clear downplaying of the issue, calling it a “cabinet reshuffle”. Yet, China does not simply have puppets in the military. In fact, there is now a multi-faceted relationship with China, with elements of conflict concerning ethnic armed organizations along the borders, as well as growing investments in the Myanmar China Economic Corridor. Yet the dominance of Chinese investments precisely led to the previous opening under the military, and complexities in the relationship were made more apparent when the Myitsone Dam project was suspended. While there are cartoons going around depicting the generals as marionette puppets of Beijing, it is not quite so simple. China will be concerned if there is great instability.

ASEAN Responses: Within ASEAN, there is a division of voices. Thailand and Cambodia regard this as a domestic issue while Indonesia is trying to lead efforts to foster dialogue. For Singapore, foreign minister Vivian Balakrishnan has expressed concern, emphasised the need for dialogue and called against any shooting of civilians. Singapore has also called for the release of ASSK and NLD leaders from detention. If the situation descends into shooting and violence, as there was in the Saffron Revolution, condemnation and sanctions will increase.

Will Protests Escalate? The Tatmadaw may not have fully anticipated the number and the breadth of protests. These started with “civil disobedience” but there are now protests on the streets, of growing size and spread across many urban centres. The young people of Myanmar are understandably frustrated with the military intervention and are mobilizing civil disobedience movements and protests. The functioning of some banks and essential sectors has been impacted and it is conceivable that the economy may fail to function. With growing numbers, violence may well increase. At present, there have been some scuffles and three have been killed. The younger generation also do not have the memory of what took place in 2007.

How Will the Military Respond? It is a severe test if the Tatmadaw can police and contain the protests without increased force and shooting on the streets. The traditional mindset is explained by then Senior General Ne Win, shortly before the 1988 protests were suppressed: “When the army shoots it shoots to hit. There’s no firing in the air to scare people.” Similar deadly force was used in 2007 against the Saffron Revolution. In those two cases, the escalation occurred some 4-6 weeks after the first protests. Reports are that the military is trying alternative methods such as arresting identified and key protestors at night from homes. The military commanders know they should try to avoid mass and violent suppression as warned by many including Singapore. But it is uncertain if they have the capacity and training to “police” protests and restrain from their past practices.

We at the SIIA will continue to keep track of this fast-moving fluid situation. In our Zoom discussions I have been more candid, than in this note. May I however ask that you keep this confidential as the SIIA continues at present to enjoy access to a range of views within Myanmar. I would be happy to hear your views and, if necessary, to speak more directly.

Yours sincerely,

Simon Tay