More than two years after Myanmar’s military seized power in a coup, the country is in a state of generalized armed conflict and economic dysfunction. What began as a loosely coordinated protest movement against the military takeover has since hardened into a broad front of resistance groups that seeks not just to reverse the coup, but to remove the military entirely from its position of centrality in Myanmar’s political, economic – even social – life.
How the Myanmar armed forces got there, and have since sustained their control over Myanmar and its people – even during the country’s decade of supposed reform in the 2010s – is the subject of a new book by the British journalist Oliver Slow, who lived and worked as a journalist in Myanmar between 2012 and 2020, several years of which he spent as an editor at Frontier Myanmar. His book “Return of the Junta: Why Myanmar’s Military Must Go Back to the Barracks” is due for release on February 23. Now based in London, he spoke to The Diplomat about the roots of a seemingly senseless coup, the ethnic and structural tensions bequeathed by British rule, and whether the country’s increasingly united resistance movement can manage to overcome them.
When the military seized power on February 1, 2021, many observers struggled to understand why the military leadership had taken such a disastrous step, after a decade in which Myanmar had opened its economic and political system. What in your view motivated the takeover? How would you describe the worldview of those at the upper echelons of the armed forces, and how is such a view inculcated?
The short answer I think is that the military was worried that the “transition to democracy” it had initiated a decade earlier risked spiraling out of its control. This wasn’t a transition towards any sort of genuine democracy, but rather an attempt by the ruling generals to gain the legitimacy they desired – particularly from Western powers – while also holding onto the main levers of power.
The transition/roadmap – whatever you wish to call it – was to be achieved through its own rules, by adhering to the 2008 Constitution, which it had passed in a sham referendum just months after Cyclone Nargis devastated large parts of the country.
There were a couple of shortcomings with this approach. The first was that the people didn’t want to play by these rules. Every chance they’ve had the opportunity to do so, the Myanmar people have said loudly that they don’t want to be ruled by the military – in the elections of 1990, 2015 and 2020, not to mention by-elections in 2012 and 2017.
In all of these votes, the people have overwhelmingly voted for non-military parties, in particular Aung San Suu Kyi’s National League for Democracy (NLD). Now of course she remains hugely popular in the country, but I see this as much more an anti-military vote rather than necessarily a pro-NLD one.
And she didn’t want to play by these rules either, displaying a pretty clear desire to amend the constitution, which I think the generals worried could feasibly happen if the NLD were to rule for another term. The January 2017 assassination of constitutional expert U Ko Ni in broad daylight was a clear message by the military to leave their precious charter alone.
So when the military’s proxy – the Union Solidarity and Development Party – performed even worse in the 2020 election than it had in 2015, I think that was a clear signal to the military rulers that they weren’t going to receive the popular mandate they desired, so they put an end to the experiment in the only way they know how – through violence.
The NLD’s unwillingness to look into these claims of voter fraud was the final straw for them.
In terms of the worldview of the Tatmadaw’s top brass, I think they view themselves as the only ones capable of keeping the country together – something that goes back to the military’s foundation as an anti-colonial fighting force, and through the difficult years after independence when the military did play an important role in keeping the country together.
But the people view the military’s role in the exact opposite way, as responsible for the destruction of the country. I think that’s in large part because of the violence the military has meted out to the people for several decades, but also in the way it has destroyed other aspects of life in Myanmar, including education and the economy.
Based on this worldview, I think the military wants complete control, and essentially for the people to bow down at its feet. Clearly, that’s not happening, and at the other end of the scale, you have most of the population now wanting the military completely removed from power. So, between a military that wants total power, and a resistance that wants the army removed from power, there really is this bottleneck that feels completely immovable at this moment in time.
Your book examines in detail the history of military involvement in Myanmar’s politics from independence in 1948 up to the current iteration of military dictatorship. How is the current phase of military rule, which followed a decade of carefully graduated political and economic opening, different from past eras of direct military rule, and do you see any continuities?
I see a lot of similarities, and a fair few differences.
I think the main similarity is that they all hold onto this belief that the Tatmadaw is the only institution that can hold the country together. As I mentioned, this goes back to its foundations as an anti-colonial fighting force, its efforts to repel the Kuomintang – a foreign occupier – from northern Burma in the mid-20th century, and the important role the military played in keeping the country intact after independence.
You simply don’t get to the top of the Tatmadaw without subscribing to this belief: it’s drilled into you through your education, through your daily life, through your social circle, through everything you do.
The main difference I see in the current leadership – in particular coup leader Min Aung Hlaing, as after all this is a deeply hierarchical institution – is that it’s much more violent, or at least much more willing to resort to violence to hold onto power. Yes, previous juntas were violent, but I don’t think quite on this scale that we’re seeing – although that could be because it feels backed into a corner by the widespread resistance against it.
I don’t want to claim for a second that previous juntas in Myanmar weren’t violent, but I don’t think we’ve ever seen such sustained violence by its forces across the entire country every day. Again, that could be because the resistance has never been as strong as it is now, but I do believe that the military in Myanmar today is a uniquely immoral institution.
Prior to Myanmar’s independence, the country’s territory had never been under the control of a single, unitary state. What role do you think this challenge – the difficulty of consolidating state control in outlying, ethnic minority-dominated areas of the country – has played in justifying and perpetuating military rule? How much is military rule a symptom of Myanmar’s troubles, and to what degree is it a cause?
Not all of Myanmar’s issues today are the fault of the military alone.
Take British colonialism, for example, which had a pretty devastating impact on Burma. In addition to playing these different ethnic groups off against each other in a form of divide-and-conquer – the legacies of which persist today – they also dismantled most of the institutions that existed in the country at the time.
The British also left behind a hugely unequal country in terms of a tiered education system, as well as one scarred by the brutal Burma Campaign of World War II, not to mention the thousands of weapons that were left behind from that fighting and fueled the insecurity of the early years after independence.
The military likes to blame colonial rule for the problems the country is facing. In fact, just this morning I was reading a piece in state-run media to mark Union Day that essentially blamed “capitalist invaders” for the issues the country is facing.
And there is some element of truth to that – a half-truth, if you will – but let’s not forget that it’s been more than 70 years since independence, and the military has had control of the country for the majority of that time. In that time, it has done almost nothing to lift the lives of the people. Instead, it has built up its own capabilities, filled its own pockets and those of its top brass, and done everything it can to hold onto power. Amid all of this, the people have not only been left to fend for themselves, but also subjected to the military’s violence.
Since the coup, many Myanmar people have expressed intense frustration at the outside world’s inaction in the face of the military’s atrocities, right at the time that Western nations are mounting a joint effort to defend Ukraine from Russian aggression. How in your view should foreign governments deal with the growing political and humanitarian crisis in Myanmar?
I think in large part the frustration is completely fair. While some Western governments have placed sanctions against the military’s business interests, there are still massive gaps in terms of what they could target. These gaps need to be closed as quickly as possible to ensure all steps are taken to ensure the military’s finances are cut off. Every day the military can continue making money, and it will continue meting out violence against the people.
But we also need to be realistic and recognize that Myanmar’s future direction will be driven first and foremost by the dynamics inside the country. It will depend on the likes of those involved in the resistance – in those building parallel administrative systems, providing humanitarian assistance, the National Unity Government, and the armed resistance – as well as whether or not the military has the capabilities to cope with the huge resistance against it.
I would say though, it’s clear that something in the world order is not working when a regime as objectionable as this one can cling to power. Of course, these are sovereign countries, and foreign interference in a country’s affairs is a complicated thing, but the “democratic global order” has shown itself to be pretty ineffective.
Some U.N. departments do incredible work, so this isn’t an attack on the U.N. as a whole, but I have some pretty big questions about the role of the U.N. Security Council in its response. It describes itself as having “primary responsibility for the maintenance of international peace and security,” and here we are two years after the military’s coup with one pretty flimsy resolution. Clearly, a drastic reset is needed in its approach, starting with getting rid of the veto for permanent members.
Speaking in pragmatic terms, what I think we need to see from democratic countries is more support for the democratic resistance in Myanmar. There are so many remarkable groups doing important work, and these need to be highlighted and supported. Supporting justice initiatives against the military is also important, as is providing humanitarian assistance
In terms of the resistance, I think it’s important to try and engage with the few governments who are allies of the military – your Chinas, Indias, Thailands, and Japans (for as long as Putin hangs onto power, Russia is a lost cause). The democratic resistance needs to be able to make a positive case to these countries about their ability to rule – I don’t think these countries particularly want to support the military, they just see no other option right now.
One of the things that have historically benefited the military is the lack of unity between Myanmar’s various ethnic armed organizations and rebel groups on the one hand, and a simmering mistrust between these groups and the Bamar-dominated National League for Democracy (NLD) on the other. Are you at all optimistic that things have changed since the coup?
I am. One of the few upsides of what’s been happening in Myanmar since the coup has been this new-found unity among the ethnic groups.
I was in Myanmar in 2017, when much of the population pushed the military’s narrative that it had committed no wrongdoing against the Rohingya, so to see so many people apologize for that, and to admit they had fallen for the military’s propaganda, has been incredibly powerful.
Now that’s not to say that any post-Tatmadaw existence in Myanmar is going to be straightforward, and in fact, I think it would be extremely messy and challenging. A lot of these grievances go back a long way, so a lot of trust-building has to be done to show that the change is genuine.
But those looking to emerge as the future rulers of Myanmar have generally put together a positive case for the country’s future – one where federalism, justice, and respect for all are at its core. This is a much more positive vision for the country than the military has ever shown.