The Myanmar military had never laid down their arms and returned to the barracks. For our colleagues in the country the coup of February 1st 2021 likely came as less of a surprise than to us outside analysts. For they know the military’s undemocratic and authoritarian history. Photocredit: Benjamin Small
Andrew M. Jefferson, Tomas Max Martin, Hannah Russell, Ergun Cakal
Last week’s military coup in Myanmar did not come in the standard image of bloody chaos involving wild-eyed gun-toting soldiers in pick-up trucks rampaging through palaces and exchanging live fire with presidential security forces. In Myanmar, we rather saw black SUVs with tinted windows elegantly and effectively rolling down the empty highways of the capital Nay Pyi Taw, taking control of the country as smoothly as a drifting dark cloud that slowly but surely blocks the sun. In the popular imagination a military coup is dramatic, raw and spectacular. A sitting government or ruler is aggressively overthrown and imprisoned or exiled. This was not like that. It was not initiated by a disaffected, subversive, rebel force seizing their moment. It was more like a well-orchestrated, carefully co-ordinated, well-timed surgical move. The recently elected parliamentarians, within a day of being sworn in, were simply subject to a swift and hostile takeover.
But this smooth coup was not that extraordinary either. It has history. The Myanmar military have a strong perception of themselves as the patriarchal guardians of the nation and a belief in their right to step in and take over if ever they believe the country, their economic interests and their grip on power be under threat. Their already debunked attempt to claim they have, in this instance, a constitutionally ordained and legitimate right to intervene reflects this belief, this sense of duty. Previous coups in 1962 and 1988 resulted in decades of military rule. The current leader, Senior General Min Aung Hlaing, has promised elections during the one-year state of emergency. Not surprisingly, most people are certain that this is a false promise.
Transitions are rarely once and for all. States are always ‘under construction’. Over at least the last ten years Myanmar has become a standout example of a transitional state, a state emerging – albeit slowly – from the shadows cast by almost five decades of international isolation, repression, surveillance and authoritarian rule onto a rocky road towards democracy. The military – known as the Tatmadaw – guided by a Constitution they enacted in 2008 had carefully and deliberately ceded some power to democratically-elected civilian politicians while maintaining 25% of seats in national and regional parliaments, and control of three key ministries responsible for the police, the prisons and the military. Additionally, retired officers have been installed in regional and township level administrative positions. Power had to some extent become shared, but the military had never returned to the barracks. This is one of the reasons the initial takeover was so smooth. If you already have the keys to the palace there is no need to violently break down the door.
In the light of the coup of February 1st many observers in the West are asking ourselves why now? Why did we did not see this coming? What made us think that the military would sit by idly and accept another, even bigger, landslide victory to the party of Aung San Suu Kyi, the woman they infamously held under house arrest for years? One reason for the general surprise about the coup is that many observers agreed that the vested interests of the military, for example, their power to profit from extractive industries and corporate cronyism and kill any chance of them being prosecuted for past crimes, seemed unaffected and perhaps even consolidated by the transition. Another is the degree to which the National League for Democracy and Aung San Suu Kyi in particular has accommodated and even condoned the worst excesses of military might over the last five years, even going so far as to appear in person at the International Court of Justice to defend against a charge of genocide against the Rohingya.
The coup was smooth. But the aftermath of the coup risks being far from smooth. Initial surprise has given way to rising levels of anxiety in the days following the coup about how the population would react and how the military would then respond. After a first weekend of large inspirational popular protests, the ban on public gatherings is ominous. As we write repression intensifies; the coup and its aftermath is turning more bloody and chaotic by the day.
Our research project aims to illuminate the dynamics that inform the changing appearance of the Myanmar state seen through the lens of imprisonment. In short it is about processes of state formation with a specific focus on imprisonment as an entry point to those processes. One of our founding assumptions is that state’s do not develop according to a linear model of progression. Instead they mutate often subtly, sometimes dramatically, informed always by their own histories. Recent events confirm this assumption.
We’ve published reports and research articles and built networks and connections with state actors as well as civil society organisations, universities and academics. Our first thought on waking to news of the coup was for our colleagues in Myanmar, those with whom we have been engaging with over the last four years to understand the realities of life in prison both during the former dictatorship and under the more recent hybrid government. We know that prison life is characterized by fear and the endemic threat of violence, that prisoners are routinely subject to harsh informal disciplinary regimes run by former prisoners on behalf of staff. We have deliberately turned our attention to the plight of ordinary people in prison – the poor, the marginalised, the criminalised – but we know too, through hearing first-hand accounts and from the existing literature, about the brutal ways in which political prisoners, that is people held because of their opposition to the ruling regime, have been treated in the past by military regimes. There are serious grounds for concern at unfolding events.
During the first weekend after the coup our sense of shock turned to a sense of respect and admiration for the demonstrators who took to the streets in cities and towns across the country giving voice to their dissatisfaction. Resistance began with flash protests, fly posting, and a campaign of civil disobedience initiated, it seems, by health workers but soon joined by other professions and occupational groups as well as students. Inspired by techniques borrowed from activists in Hongkong and Thailand this is not ordinary resistance. This is new generation, digitalised resistance. And while the military have intermittently cut internet and communication services there are new possibilities and avenues open compared with last time there were mass protests, in 2007, and before that in 1988.
Water cannons have been used, shots have been fired and arrests have been made. It is too easy to imagine an escalation of protest being met with further emergency measures and a militarized response. A tragedy is potentially just around the corner. The people are already putting themselves in the line of fire.
The people of Myanmar likely experience less shock at the coup than outside observers. They know the undemocratic, violent and authoritarian DNA of the Tatmadaw only too well – in their hearts, in their memories and in their bones. Noted Burmese historian Thant Myint-U once noted that ‘Burma is a warning’. If the lessons of the previous military coups are to be learned and the needs of the people are to be met, voices of our Myanmar brothers, sisters and colleagues must dominate the discourse. It is imperative that we outsiders listen very, very carefully to the voices of Myanmar colleagues and take our cue from them on how to best react and respond. We should also remember that Myanmar is a diverse country and the experiences of and responses to the coup are likely to pan out differently in the ethnically diverse and war torn border regions than in the big cities in the central heartland of the Bamar ethnic majority. Relatedly it is important to be attuned to the radically new conditions of military repression and popular resistance in a digitalized and globalized Myanmar, and at the same time, to acknowledge the hard-won experiences in the face of of military rule in Myanmar’s history. Paradoxically this is a novel turn of events, but the people of Myanmar have been here before.
It is up to us to agitate as we best can, through our networks, through our scholarship, through our ties to potential power-brokers and through diplomatic channels for a just and peaceful resolution of the current crisis. Every pressure that can be brought to bear on the junta that will not damage the people must be brought to bear.
Each day so far the situation has worsened with new forms of repressive tactics being used: more people detained, media censorship enacted, harsher responses to protests, and now a military presence on the streets. Slowly the repression historically associated with the Tatmadaw intensifies. The situation demands the world’s attention. There is no time to lose.
[This is an expanded version of a piece published in Danish in Jyllandsposten on 16 February 2021]