In this piece, drawing on fieldwork experiences in Myanmar, Tomas Cole of the Department of Social Anthropology at Stockholm University, warns about the skewed understanding of the country and the coup that results when the analytic (or journalistic) gaze is too narrow. He dreams of a future federal and democratic Myanmar, a disbanded Tatmadaw and genuine peace for all. Photo Credit: Benjamin Small
IN THE VAST MAJORITY of reporting, and indeed much academic work, on the ongoing crisis in Myanmar themes of state-building and the transition to liberal democracy being imperilled have taken centre stage (Campbell 2021). Consequently, solutions forwarded to resolve this crisis have revolved around the return of the democratically elected NLD to power, and of a return to the political situation prior to the coup. However, while offering important insights, this perspective’s dogged focus on state-building and transition threatens to obscure the bigger picture of how this crisis came about. If we widen our gaze, both geographically, to the unruly edges of the state where armed conflict is surging, and temporally, to the months and years preceding the coup, significantly different perspectives on and solutions to the coup come into view. From this perspective, the coup become one particularly brutal event in a long history of protracted cycles of political crisis. Moreover, from this vantage point more radical solutions arise, such as the drafting of a new (federal) constitution, scrapping many of the nation’s illiberal land and investment laws, and the disbanding of the feared Myanmar Military, known as the Tatmadaw.
From the perspective of Naypyidaw and central Myanmar, the coup appears as a violent interruption of the country’s fragile and faltering but still forward moving process towards democracy and prosperity. Beginning in 2012 the first round of bilateral ceasefires was signed between the quasi-military government of former general Thein Sein and many of the country’s armed revolutionary groups. By 2015 these bilateral ceasefires were formalised into the National Ceasefire Agreement (NCA), shortly followed by the first democratic election in decades. This election led to a landslide win for Aung San Suu Kyi’s National League for Democracy (NLD). A year later, a series of peace talks commenced, to great fanfare from the international community. These “openings” unleashed a strong ground swell of optimism, as well as considerable flows of international investment into the country as sanctions were lifted. As such, the years following 2012 became known as a period of “transition” that bore with it the illusory promise of a sea change in Myanmar’s political landscape, from an isolated military dictatorship to a modern nation-state, with a liberal democracy and a firm “rule of law”.
In this light, the February coup halted this forward march in its tracks. The shock and absurdity of this moment was vividly captured in a viral video where an aerobics instructor dances in the foreground to an upbeat Indonesian dance track – ironically enough, about the power struggle between the people and the authorities – on a roundabout to a large road in the capital of Naypyidaw while, seemingly unbeknownst to her, in the background columns of army vehicles sweep towards the parliament complex behind her.[i] As a corollary, the vigorous rejection of the coup-makers by the general population, initially through a non-violent Civil Disobedience Movement (CDM) but increasingly through armed People’s Defence Forces (PDF), is regularly attributed to the people having gotten a taste for progress and not wanting to turn back the clock. As many foreign commentators have stressed, the people of Myanmar are demanding a return of the NLD, of liberal democracy, and of “normality”. This point was underlined when in June this year the UN General Assembly firmly condemned the military coup and demanded the restoration of the country’s democratic transition.
However, if we widen our gaze to include the unruly edges of Myanmar, this unitary vision of the current crisis as a disruption of a political transition and of state-building halted in its tracks by a military take-over becomes harder to discern. As some of my colleagues have pointed out recently, Myanmar has never been a unified nation, but rather, a bundle of heterogeneous groups, often with highly divergent aspirations and visions (Gagnon and Paul 2021). Since the eve of independence in January 1948 the country has been wracked by interminable cycles of armed conflict at the fringes of the state – by many counts, this coup being the third of its kind since 1948. How then does the current coup look, when viewed from the edges of the state?
Take the example of the highland areas along Myanmar’s long border with Thailand where I conducted fieldwork from 2016 to 2017. Two months prior to the coup, on the 1st December 2020, the Tatmadaw began shelling villages in northern Karen state, known locally as Mutraw district, as they attempted to construct a road to connect their military bases in this area (KPSN 2021a; 2021b). These attacks escalated over the following weeks and months such that, by the beginning of 2021, over five thousand people had been displaced. Yet, these events were far from isolated. As I documented, during my fieldwork in this area, while full-blown war had halted following the ceasefire, in recent years there had been a gradual uptick in armed skirmishes. The Tatmadaw established thirteen new army camps after 2012 (KPSN 2021b), and fighting began intensifying in response to central state-led attempts to force through several road and dam building projects: each time in direct contravention of the terms of the ceasefire. As the diagram below suggests, while conflict was already waning prior to the 2012 bilateral ceasefires, from 2015 armed attacks on civilians began increasing again, intensifying exponentially from 2019.
As I found in northern Karen state, peace in these highlands had become increasingly predatory. Under the guise of the ceasefires, the Tatmadaw made moves to not only entrench their positions but also slowly expand their influence into areas formally held by revolutionary groups. In a now well documented pattern of so-called “ceasefire capitalism” (Woods 2011), the Myanmar military and their proxies began granting land to corporations, conservation groups, and religious organisations to create “legible”, militarised state territory (Woods 2011; 247, drawing on Scott 1998). People I met spoke of this as a “peace trap” or as a new “cool conflict”. The “hot conflict” of bombs, bullets and boots on the ground was gradually being replaced by the “cool” means of dams, pagodas, and bulldozers. What is more, these moves to expand the Tatmadaw’s influence were strengthened by the national constitution, forced through parliament in 2008, that enshrines the centrality of the armed forces at all levels of governance, and a raft of illiberal land and investment laws that favour military actors.
From this perspective we see how, rather than the Tatmadaw being side-lined and their power undermined, during the imagined transition to liberal democracy they simply took a step back from parliamentary politics, continuing to wait in the wings. During this period, they continued entrenching their power and encroaching into new territories, often as its generals reaped the rewards of the resulting easing of sanctions and growing flows of foreign investments. The insidious influence of the military has come to light recently in the repeated frustrated attempts by international actors to enforce targeted sanctions on the coup makers. Their attempts have shown time and time again that military economic interests seem to have bled into just about every sector.
Thus, returning to the viral aerobics video that captured the fateful events of 1st February, we find that it illustrates not only shock and absurdity. This video also seems to point to the dangers of focusing too narrowly on the figures in the foreground frame. While much of the commentary on the current political crisis in Myanmar has concentrated on central Myanmar – Naypyidaw Yangon and Mandalay – and on the figure of the lauded, now imperilled, transition to democracy, the military have remained in the background, biding their time, ready to sweep back to power once more.
By widening our gaze, to include a view of the current crisis from the unruly edges of Southeast Myanmar we also begin to spy alternative, often more radical solutions: solutions that go beyond reactionary calls for a return to an inherently unjust status quo.
From this vantage point it becomes increasingly clear that unless the entrenched power of the Myanmar military is challenged and undermined, no meaningful change can be enacted. As political actors in these highlands have long argued, the feared Tatmadaw must be disbanded and the legal system overhauled and federalised before significant and sustainable peace can be achieved. Encouragingly, there are signs that these views are increasingly being articulated. The government in exile – the National Union Government (NUG) – made up of elected lawmakers ousted in the coup, have begun pushing for the abolition of the 2008 constitution and the drafting of a radically new one, the Federal Democracy Charter. Moreover, the NUG has made overtures to the notion of creating a Federal Army that would unite the armies of the nation’s plethora of revolutionary groups under a single command.
The hope now is that reporting and academic work on the crisis will soon catch up and begin foregrounding and pushing for these wider perspectives, and the resulting more radical solutions, that imagine a Myanmar minus the Tatmadaw.
Campbell, Stephen. 2021. “What can workers expect in post-coup Myanmar?” FocaalBlog, 3 February. http://www.focaalblog.com/2021/02/03/stephen-campbell:-what-can-workers-expect-in-post-coup-myanmar/?/
Gagnon, Terese and Paul, Andrew. “Myanmar has never been a nation. Could it become one now?”. Aljazeera Opinions, 10 April. https://www.aljazeera.com/opinions/2021/4/10/myanmar-has-never-been-a-nation-could-it-become-one-now
KSPN. 2021a. “Situation update of IDPs in Mutraw (Papun) and Kler Lwee Htoo (Nyaunglebin) Districts”. Karen Peace Support Network, 29 January. https://www.karenpeace.org/wp-content/uploads/2021/02/04022021_KPSN_Briefing_FINAL-Situation-update-of-IDPs-in-Mutraw-Papun-and-Kler-Lwee-Htu-Nyaunglebin.pdf
KSPN. 2021b. “Terror from the Skies: Coup regime’s escalated offensives cause mass displacement across Mutraw”. Karen Peace Support Network, 25 May. https://www.karenpeace.org/wp-content/uploads/2021/05/Terror-from-the-Skies_Briefing_KPSN_English.pdf
Scott, James C. 1998. “Seeing Like a State: How Certain Schemes to Improve the Human Condition Have Failed”. The Institution for Social and Policy Studies. New Haven and London: Yale University Press.
Woods, Kevin. 2011. “Ceasefire capitalism: military–private partnerships, resource concessions and military–state building in the Burma–China borderlands”. Journal of Peasant Studies, 38:4, 747-770. https://doi.org/10.1080/03066150.2011.607699