Two years ago, the Tatmadaw, as Burma’s military is called, staged yet another coup. To mark the unfortunate anniversary, last week many Burmese staged a “silent strike,” staying home. For those not engaged in open rebellion against the junta, especially in Yangon, filled with CCTV cameras capable of facial recognition, there was little else they could do. These days, popular resistance is met with brutal imprisonment and lethal force.
The military first seized control of the country six decades ago. In February 2021, Senior Gen. Min Aung Hlaing, described as “power-hungry, slithery and wolflike,” became the latest soldier determined to grab dictatorial power. Unsurprisingly, he and other top military leaders, many of whom profit from favored businesses, do very well. Min Aung Hlaing’s wife reportedly is fond of designer handbags.
However, the consequences of the general’s power grab for most everyone else has been tragic. Nikkei Asia reports:
The economy and currency have tumbled perilously, the peace process with insurgent ethnic minorities has foundered, the medical system has buckled after defiant doctors and nurses quit public hospitals or were arrested, and hundreds of thousands of internally displaced people cower along remote borders.
Ironically, the coup was against the military-dominated civilian administration created by the same Tatmadaw a decade before to attract Western support and investment. Following the example of Thailand’s army, Burma’s military rulers had rigged the system, giving the army complete control over the security agencies and a quarter of the seats in the parliament. However, Min Aung Hlaing’s expectation that he could formally rule by finding coalition partners in a fractured parliament foundered when Aung San Suu Kyi’s National League for Democracy (NLD) won resoundingly.\
Min Aung Hlaing claimed to be acting against electoral fraud — in a system rigged by the military for the military.
After the NLD’s overwhelming reelection in November 2020 — where the party won more than 80 percent of the parliament’s seats, compared to the 7 percent received by the military’s puppet, the Union Solidarity and Development Party — Min Aung Hlaing realized that his presidential ambitions were dead and that Aung San Suu Kyi’s government would continue to gain authority and stature, a process that could ultimately sideline the military politically. So, Min Aung Hlaing, a hardliner who played a leading role in prior crackdowns, did what he knows best: He crushed his opponents.
The Tatmadaw staged yet another coup, which it, like Thailand’s military, planned to follow by destroying democratic processes and rewriting election rules. The junta rounded up Aung San Suu Kyi and other NLD leaders, concocted ludicrous charges, staged Stalinesque show trials, and imposed lengthy prison terms. After crippling opposition forces, Min Aung Hlaing intended to steal an election victory for his political factotums.
However, the world has changed. Even partial democratization exposed the Burmese people to the possibilities of a free society integrated with the West. Younger generations, which had experienced a decade free from direct tyrannical military rule, proved especially unwilling to docilely accept Min Aung Hlaing’s diktats. Demonstrations exploded nationwide, along with a civil-disobedience campaign that disrupted everything from commercial banks to government agencies.
The regime responded with increasing violence against protesters and anyone else who resisted the Tatmadaw. Min Aung Hlaing claimed to be acting against electoral fraud — in a system rigged by the military for the military. Worse, his stormtroopers turned their fire on the very people he claimed to be protecting. The consequences were horrific.
Human Rights Watch detailed: “At least 17,000 protesters and activists have been arrested and 2,900 killed, according to the Assistance Association for Political Prisoners, a nongovernmental group. The security forces have carried out arbitrary arrests, torture, sexual violence, mass killings, and other abuses that amount to crimes against humanity.” More than 30,000 civilians may have died from the Tatmadaw’s depredations. Some 200,000 Burmese have fled the fighting into Thailand, and hundreds of thousands reportedly have been displaced within the country.
Last fall, Nada Al-Nashif, the UN’s acting high commissioner for human rights, warned:
Military tactics increasingly involve indiscriminate attacks and weaponry.… In Magway and Sagaing regions as well as Kachin, Shan, Kayah, and Kayin states, residential buildings — as many as 30,000 — schools and other civilian infrastructure have been burnt to the ground during military ground operations.
That’s not all. Al-Nashif added:
The death toll of people in custody is steadily rising. At least 273 persons have died in formal detention settings, such as prisons, detention and interrogation centers, and police stations as well as at least 266 reported deaths following raids and arrests in villages, at least 40 of whom were reportedly killed with headshots.
The Tatmadaw has executed several opponents, including NLD officials.
The non-profit organization Freedom House rates Myanmar near the bottom internationally in terms of political freedom and civil liberties. In describing the 2020 coup, it states:
Protesters were met with indiscriminate violence from military forces, and journalists, activists, and ordinary people risked criminal charges and detention for voicing dissent. Armed conflict between the military and ethnic rebel groups continued, as did the forced displacement of hundreds of thousands of Rohingya, a mostly Muslim ethnic minority.
For decades, the Tatmadaw conducted murderous campaigns against multiple ethnic groups fighting for self-determination. A tenuous ceasefire was reached with many of these forces a decade ago, but fighting resurged after the coup. Equally important, and surprising for the junta, was the turn of many urban Burmese from civil disobedience to violent resistance in majority Burman areas. Newly formed People’s Defense Forces “have responded with bombings, focused assassinations and ambushes on military convoys.” Combat appears to have reached a bloody equilibrium: The insurgents can seize Tatmadaw positions and even cities, but they cannot hold them in the face of return offensives and air attacks.
The regime is growing more frustrated, even desperate. The military has few safe areas, its resources are stretched, and its soldiers must kill members of their own communities — and even families. Nikkei Asia reports that, “[a]s of late 2022, the Tatmadaw, with roughly 120,000 combat-hardened troops, had lost control of large swaths of rural areas although it continued to hold all major towns and cities.” Tragically, the number and scope of atrocities are increasing. Kyaw Win, founder and director of the Burma Human Rights Network, observed, “You can see hundreds of villages around the country being burned down and destroyed and nearly 2 million [people displaced].”
Indeed, the regime essentially admitted failure last week, on the anniversary of its takeover, when it again extended its state of emergency by six months. The reason, explained the junta, which calls itself the National Defense and Security Council, sounded like a critique of the military’s own murderous policies: the “killings of innocent people, blowing up [of] public places, imposing [of] armed intimidation and coercion on the people.” Unsurprisingly, the junta’s captive constitutional court ruled that “the extension of the state of emergency is constitutional.”
As a result, the Tatmadaw’s plan for an election without any of the parties and politicians supported by the vast majority of the population — a sham intended to provide a fig leaf for Min Aung Hlaing’s ascension to the presidency — is likely to be delayed. Acting President Myint Swe complained that “internal and foreign forces are trying to interfere with the election.” Apparently, the military realizes that a poll conducted with much of the country aflame, making voting impossible, would not provide even a pretense of credibility. However, waiting won’t help. No contest organized by a junta that has killed and imprisoned so prolifically will be accepted by Myanmar’s people — or by anyone else.
If the Ukrainians are fighting for freedom and democracy, as oft claimed, so are the Burmese.
Although the economy has recovered some since the coup, especially the garment industry, tyranny and instability offer a poor investment climate. Now the delay in creating Potemkin civilian rule will increase pressure on foreign firms to leave the country. Some companies have been waiting, hoping that even a faux election would legitimize their decision to remain. However, an executive at a Japanese firm told Nikkei Asia, “We do not know how long the military government will remain in power, and companies that were thinking of waiting until the general election to make decisions may find themselves pulling out sooner rather than later.”
Moreover, a number of Chinese enterprises reportedly were prepared to enter the Burmese market after the formation of a nominally civilian government. One local businessman allowed, “We are waiting for China to resume infrastructure investment after the general election.” If so, that day is now further off. With the targeting of existing Chinese firms by protesters critical of Beijing’s acquiescence to — if not support for — the coup, Chinese enterprises will be wary of making future investments so long as violent opposition makes much of Myanmar unsafe for the Tatmadaw and its allies.
Equally serious is the continuing outflow of talented Burmese abroad. Nikkei Asia reports: “People’s difficulties are also evident in the long lines that form daily at passport centers in Yangon. More and more people are now weary of Myanmar’s troubles and looking to work abroad.”
However, the Tatmadaw still has two significant advantages. One is airpower. With about 70 aircraft, the junta supports ground operations and ravages civilian targets. Air attacks add a new dimension to the ethnic conflicts that run back decades. If nothing else, the deadly consequences act as a brutal warning to those tempted to resist the military.
The second is support from China and, especially, Russia, which has relieved international pressure on the junta. The PRC long engaged prior military regimes, but the nationalistic Tatmadaw resisted the former’s tight embrace. Indeed, the military’s desire to increase its international options by ending Western sanctions was one reason for the shift to a quasi-democratic system. Moreover, Beijing had established good relations with Aung San Suu Kyi’s civilian government. Still, though China’s engagement with the junta was initially unenthusiastic, ties have grown closer of late.
Moscow has taken over as the Min Aung Hlaing regime’s principal foreign backer. As Nikkei Asia explains:
As many as 6,000 young Tatmadaw officers have been sent to Russia for training. In June 2020, the general was awarded Russia’s Medal of the Ministry of Defense for Strengthening the Military Commonwealth, and a few months after he came to power he was inducted as an honorary professor at Russia’s Military University.
The warm relationship with Moscow has been key to modernizing and rearming Myanmar’s armed forces after decades of sanctions and arms embargoes. It has reduced military dependence on China, which Burmese generals look upon with almost as much suspicion as they do Western powers.
Of course, the benefits of the relationship flow both ways. Min Aung Hlaing’s Myanmar is an important arms market: The junta “wants to import more military hardware from Russia, especially fighter jets and helicopters. Russia is eager to ramp up its arms trade with Myanmar to make up for falling sales elsewhere in the region.” The resulting reign of death and destruction looks similar to the relationship between Washington and Riyadh, in which U.S. weapons makers bank high profits from underwriting Saudi Arabia’s brutal war against Yemen.
What should the U.S. and other democratic states do? One option would be to formally recognize the National Unity Government (NUG) now in exile and provide it with some of the $1 billion in frozen Burmese government assets. Cooperating governments also could direct humanitarian aid to areas of the country outside the Tatmadaw’s control, where the regime has blocked access to relief agencies.
Washington and Europeans should apply additional sanctions on the Burmese state — for instance, on jet fuel, which keeps the air force flying. Also of concern is the continued use of Western equipment in the regime’s domestic weapons production. Allied governments also should press countries that remain economic players in Myanmar, such as Australia, India, Japan, and Singapore, to penalize the Tatmadaw and other state institutions. Outside involvement has not moderated the regime’s depredations, which have worsened over the last two years.
Perhaps most important would be to engage the NUG and Burmese civil society to determine whether the Burmese people desire broader economic sanctions, which would hurt them as well as the Tatmadaw. Current targeted sanctions on individuals have only limited effectiveness. In contrast, penalizing the Myanma Oil and Gas Enterprise, a state energy company, and a private garment industry would dry up government funds but also substantially increase hardship for those already suffering. The ultimate target should remain the military and its captive regime.
Many Burmese ask why the West has rallied to Ukraine’s defense but does far less for them. Years ago, I was asked a similar question by the ethnic Karen leadership in their fight against the Tatmadaw: Why had America intervened in the Balkans but not in Burma? Every conflict is different, and the U.S. has no security interest sufficient to warrant going to war against the Min Aung Hlaing regime.
However, Washington — and other governments concerned about the terrible repression instituted by the Tatmadaw — could, and should, do more. After all, if the Ukrainians are fighting for freedom and democracy, as oft claimed, so are the Burmese. Only the latter must resist their own government, which is violating its most basic moral responsibilities to its own people.
Doug Bandow is a Senior Fellow at the Cato Institute. A former special assistant to President Ronald Reagan, he is author of Foreign Follies: America’s New Global Empire.
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