More than two years after Myanmar’s military seized power in a coup, the country’s conflict shows no signs of ending any time soon. The military junta and its opponents are currently locked into a zero-sum struggle for power, underpinned by radically incompatible visions of how the country should be governed, and by whom.
The coup, which wiped out the fruits of a decade of managed political reforms, has also reopened questions about the root causes of Myanmar’s melancholy political trajectory since its independence in 1948.
These questions lie at the heart of a new book by Amitav Acharya, a professor at the School of International Service at the American University in Washington, D.C. “Tragic Nation Burma: Why and How Democracy Failed” seeks to explain both the cause of the February 2021 military coup, and the factors that lie behind the stubborn persistence of conflict and military dictatorship.
Acharya, the author of numerous other books on Southeast Asia, spoke with The Diplomat’s Sebastian Strangio about the state of Myanmar’s conflict, the mindset of the military, and how the outside world can support its democratic struggle.
With this project, you seemingly undertook the daunting task of writing about the current situation in Myanmar without being able to access the country. Describe how you went about gathering information and conducting interviews about the current situation.
You are absolutely right that writing this book was a really challenging task. But don’t forget, I am no stranger to Myanmar. In my writings, such as the book “Constructing a Security Community in Southeast Asia” (3rd edn. 2014) I had paid much attention to ASEAN’s policy toward Myanmar, including its controversial policy of “constructive engagement” in the 1990s. I had visited the country many times, even before it opened up, and taught international relations for short stints at Yangon and Mandalay universities after its opening. In 2011, I organized a workshop for former political prisoners. Later, I led a training program on Myanmar’s role as ASEAN Chair. I maintained contacts with numerous people inside the country and expatriates living in Thailand, the U.S., and other places.
And in the manuscript of my 2021 book, “ASEAN and Regional Order,” completed before the 2020 national elections but whose final proofs were still with me when the coup happened, I had already anticipated the breakdown of democracy in Myanmar. I had no text to revise when I cleared the proofs and sent them back to the publisher.
But I started writing this book after the February 2021 coup, when COVID-19 was raging and the junta was rampaging on the people. So I had to rely on my prior knowledge, whatever reporting one could get from the news media, and above all, through my contacts inside the country. I call it research by stealth. I was able to do a series of interviews and even had a questionnaire completed with Civil Disobedience Movement (CDM) activists who were still inside the country, and interviewed some who had fled the country for the West. This was invaluable. I got a real feel for what was going on. Hence, I decided to keep on writing the book. In fact, one of the main reasons for me to continue with the book project was to give voice to the people whom I was able to contact, directly or indirectly.
These are mostly young and mostly students, who were outraged by the coup and passionately wanted their country to return to democracy. In the book, I coined the term “Thought Warriors” to describe them, because they are non-violent and are resisting the junta with their mind, their courage, and their thoughts, rather than with their weapons. Many of them wanted me to write this book partly because they felt their voices are often ignored by Western media and their political leaders.
To put it bluntly, I wrote this book to give voice to the Thought Warriors. With few exceptions, I have cited them in their own words. After I shared the complete manuscript with some of them, their responses – some of which are reproduced in the book – were quite emotional and overwhelmingly welcoming of the book.
And here is a key message of my book. Many books on Myanmar often miss the voice of these Thought Warriors, who are neither politicians nor armed rebels. Even the well-meaning foreign writers and observers like to focus on interviewing seasoned politicians, leaders like Aung San Suu Kyi (when she was free) or the members of National Unity Government (NUG) after the coup. Instead of the politicians, whose opinions are loud and accessible on the international stage, I chose to focus on the Thought Warriors, whose voices are drowned and silenced.
In the introduction, you write that you had considered writing a book on Myanmar as far back as 2013 – a time, as I recall from my own trips to the country, of considerable optimism. How do you account for the genesis of the political reforms that were taking bloom at that time, and for the military coup that spelt their end?
As I have explained in the book, the military was willing to share power with the civilians and allow a transition from its dictatorship because it felt sure of its role in politics after the 2008 constitution guaranteed it 25 percent of the seats in the legislature and gave it other privileges. Yet there were always lingering mutual suspicions between the military and the National League of Democracy (NLD), even after the latter moved from being the main opposition to the ruling party after the 2015 general elections. The military ranks kept a wary eye on any demands for constitutional change that would take away or dilute their political and economic privileges. These remained in place after the so-called transition to democracy, first under the quasi-military government of ex-General Thein Sein that came to power in 2011 and then after the NLD took over in 2016.
But there were always fears in the military ranks of losing these privileges. Soldiers in Myanmar enjoy too many perks and are controlled by a robust system of surveillance and punishment should they break ranks or support those who wish for a permanent end to the military’s domination of the country. When the November 2020 general election produced a landslide for the NLD and a disastrous outcome for the military-backed Union Solidarity and Development Party (USDP), there emerged a real possibility of constitutional change that might undercut the military’s privileges. The military leadership under Senior General Min Aung Hlaing – himself facing imminent retirement, and a loss of personal power and privileges – was not expecting this and was not prepared for it. So it decided to take over.
Your book dedicates its first few chapters in describing the possible underlying causes of Myanmar’s tragic political trajectory, from its geography and ethnic heterogeneity to the impact of foreign interventions and the country’s history of foreign policy isolationism. How do you balance the impact of structural and historical factors – the legacies of British colonialism and Myanmar’s fissiparous geography and ethnic mix – with the individual agency exercised by Myanmar’s leaders, particularly those wearing military fatigues? Is it more a case of “either/or” or “both/and”?
To get an accurate picture of why the 2021 coup happened, you need to take into account a mix of factors, long and short term, historical and contemporary. But I do not believe history, geography, or ethnic diversity (which is especially important in Myanmar), which are rather unalterable, are destiny. They do not guarantee that a country cannot achieve a modicum of democracy; if not a liberal democracy like in the West, then at least a flawed or limited electoral democracy of which there are many examples in Southeast Asia and other parts of the developing world.
I think the tragedy of Myanmar had to do with regime survival. Once having tasted power in the wake of the 1962 coup by General Ne Win, the military could not, or would not, give up. It is like riding a tiger. It became a prisoner of its own self-perpetuating rhetoric that only itself can ensure the stability of the nation, and that the politicians are corrupt (many of them can be, but so is the military).
People who have met Min Aung Hlaing have told me that he has an almost messianic view of the military as the savior of the nation, and that no other institution in Myanmar can ensure its survival as a nation. In reality, his concern, or that of his comrades, was not a concern for state survival, but regime survival.
How have the tactics of the anti-coup resistance evolved since 2021, and what does this suggest to you about the future trajectory of the crisis?
The anti-coup resistance in Myanmar is a broad umbrella, comprising armed groups known as People’s Defense Forces (PDFs), the non-violent Civil Disobedience Movement activists, as mentioned earlier, the political coalition that makes up the NUG, and ethnic armed organizations (EAOs), some but not all of which are fighting the military.
The political interests and tactics of these various groups do not necessarily converge, and this is a major challenge for the anti-coup cause. As is well known, there are historic suspicions between the ethnic minorities that are the basis of the EAOs and the majority Bamar population, from which the PDFs derive their ranks. And the ethnic groups are themselves a highly divided lot, and are likely to shift alignments and tactics in dealing with the military.
As a result, while the resistance has made some impressive gains, it is far from taking power from the junta without large-scale defections from the ranks of the military. This seems unlikely due to the combination of the fear of losing the perks enjoyed by the ranks, and the fear of military retribution, both of which create what has been described (and discussed in my book) as Myanmar’s “military hostage” system.
Given the generals’ proven ability to withstand long spells of international isolation, are there any ways that sympathetic outside governments can support a return to democratic government? How, in your view, should these governments deal with the growing political and humanitarian crisis in Myanmar?
The so-called international community had failed Myanmar before and is doing so now. There are three reasons for this, to put it bluntly. First, the U.S. and Europeans are too preoccupied with supporting Ukraine against Russia to pay serious attention to Myanmar. Second, China and India, two of Myanmar’s most important neighbors, have been courting the military regime, including carrying out military and diplomatic exchanges. Third, ASEAN, which is somewhat “delegated” by the outside powers to play a crucial role in managing the Myanmar crisis and finding a way out, has been singularly unsuccessful thus far in producing a breakthrough.
ASEAN’s five-point consensus of 2021, which was agreed in the presence of coup-maker General Min Aung Hlaing, proved to have been premature and ill-conceived, undercutting its credibility as a mediator or peacemaker. Since then, ASEAN has been divided on how to approach the junta. This has meant Thailand (under the now ousted Prayut government) resisting pressuring the regime, with Malaysia taking a more hardline stance (with its new Prime Minister Anwar Ibrahim calling even for the temporary suspension of Myanmar from ASEAN) and Indonesia, the current ASEAN chair, standing in the middle and working to find a diplomatic way out, but so far without success.
Any concluding thoughts?
Unlike most of my writings on Southeast Asian and world affairs, “Tragic Nation Burma” is not a conventional academic book, although I believe it does offer insights and analysis that should be useful to those who count themselves as long-term specialists on its history and politics. Since the book was published, I have received much feedback on its argument and style, much of it positive, some disappointed, but none dismissive, from media and academic experts on Myanmar.
The book covers most the Myanmar’s post-independence period to mid-2022, and offers a historically grounded explanation of the events preceding and in the immediate aftermath of the February 2021 coup. It is a long-term perspective on why and how Myanmar’s experiments with democracy failed. Things are rapidly evolving in Myanmar, but the book’s main thesis, presented in early 2022, is being borne out: that the coup will not be immediately reversed (despite the fervent hopes of some Thought Warriors), and that the military would seek to legitimize itself though fake and widely boycotted elections and create a veneer of armed “stability” that would be acceptable to some outside players like China and India. The indifference of the West and the divided response of ASEAN were all too predictable.
But ultimately I wrote the book not to predict, but to take stock of a nation’s tragic political history, and the audience I had in mind were not those in the classrooms or pressrooms, but for those who are braving the killing fields. This is my first such book. It was written for and with the Thought Warriors. It is meant to recognize their voices, and support them and others who want to see a stable, democratic, and prosperous Myanmar.
Myanmar is a “tragic nation” not because it lacks natural resources or human talent, but because, despite having them in abundance, its path to democracy and development has been repeatedly thwarted by a predatory military and an indifferent international community. This must end.