Several Burmese police fled across the border into India. One of them told the Associated Press that they had been ordered to "shoot people and not just the people, we were told to shoot our own family if they are not on the side of the army," known as the Tatmadaw. The disparate group of men and women sharing one room in an apartment in Mizoram, India, can only watch their nation be consumed by chaos and violence.
Burma, also known as Myanmar, long illustrated the limits of even the best-intentioned foreign intervention. For decades the Tatmadaw brooked no opposition, sometimes applying creative labels to brutal military juntas, such as the State Law and Order Restoration Council (SLORC) and State Peace and Development Council (SPDC). These governments differed in personnel, not their willingness to loot, oppress and kill Burma’s people.
Army commander and politician Ne Win initiated military rule with a coup in 1962. A mystical crackpot – once shifting traffic from left to right on the advice of his astrologer – he ruled until 1988. A student uprising that year was brutally suppressed. The generals held elections the following year, which were inconveniently won by the National League for Democracy, headed by Aung San Suu Kyi, daughter of an independence leader. The military refused to yield power, leading to more protests and repression. She won the 1991 Nobel Peace Prize but spent 15 years under house arrest. Widespread protests led by Buddhist monks erupted in 2007; bloody suppression again followed.
Over the years numerous ethnic groups concentrated to the north and east along the Chinese and Thai borders battled for the autonomy that they had been promised by the departing British colonial authorities. The Tatmadaw responded with predictable brutality, murdering families, destroying villages, killing livestock, sowing land mines, and driving tens of thousands of Burmese from their homes. However, the army could not establish permanent control. The result, which I witnessed on several visits to the region over the last two decades, was an entire people living in permanent danger and hardship.
Widely sanctioned by the West, the military regime was forced to rely on China, whose embrace grew steadily tighter. In part out of concern over Beijing’s disproportionate influence, the nationalistic generals began their move toward a hybrid political system in 2011. Wildly overestimating their popularity while underestimating that of Suu Kyi, they held free elections in 2015, which the NLD won with an overwhelming majority.
Suu Kyi governed independently, even imperiously, in the civilian realm. Unfortunately, the Nobel Laureate’s government disappointed her international admirers. She failed to challenge many of the system’s authoritarian features and defended the military’s brutal assault on the Muslim Rohingya, pushing hundreds of thousands of refugees across the border into Bangladesh. Sadly, her commitment to democracy, though genuine, was subordinate to her nationalism.
Last year’s Human Rights Watch assessment was sobering: "The overall human rights situation in Myanmar deteriorated in 2020, including heightened restrictions on freedom of expression and peaceful assembly. Fighting between Myanmar’s military and several ethnic armed groups continued, with government forces committing increased abuses against ethnic Kachin, Karen, Rakhine, Rohingya, and Shan minority populations. Military and police abuses were amplified with arbitrary arrests, detention, torture, and killings in custody."
Freedom House offered a similarly dismal report, rating the country as "not free" and concluding that "Myanmar’s transition from military dictatorship to democracy has stalled." The organization explained that the government "has failed to uphold human rights and to prioritize peace and security in areas affected by armed conflict. The military retains significant influence over politics, and the country faces increased international pressure regarding a 2017 military operation that forced around 740,000 members of the Rohingya minority, a mostly Muslim ethnic group, to seek refuge in Bangladesh, where they remain. Journalists, demonstrators, and ordinary people risk legal charges and detention for voicing dissent."
Suu Kyi’s public backing for the generals gained no favor with them, however. Although the Tatmadaw still maintained control of the security agencies and appointed a blocking quarter of the legislature, it grew tired of sharing power. The army apparently expected a fractured political outcome in November’s election, which would allow the generals to dominate the civilian administration as well. One unnamed military leader explained that the Tatmadaw desired "diversity" rather than "monopoly" in parliament.
The Burmese people had other plans. The NLD won last November’s election by an even larger margin. The regime’s puppet party won just 33 of 476 seats, a devastating popular rebuke. The military cited fraud, but both domestic and foreign observers dismissed the charge. Even if the NLD had lost every contested seat, its margin still would have been massive. The generals evidently decided that they had made a mistake allowing popular participation in government.
Moreover, the army commander-in-chief, Gen. Min Aung Hlaing, slated for military retirement, apparently hoped to be selected as president. However, Suu Kyi and the NLD, stuck with a system already rigged against civilian rule, would never turn the rest of the government over to the dictator-wannabe. So Hlaing seized full power on February 1st. The Tatmadaw arrested Suu Kyi and other top NLD leaders, abrogated parliament, and declared martial law for a year, after which, he said, new elections would be held – presumably with the constitution suitably amended and/or Suu Kyi either imprisoned or disqualified to ensure continued military control.
Apparently, the generals assumed a docile population would meekly accept renewed military rule. However, Burma changed over the last decade. People enjoyed greater freedom. Technology yielded a better organized and more connected society. A younger, better educated generation with broader expectations emerged, unwilling to accept rule by corrupt and dictatorial uniformed apparatchiks. Twenty-nine-year-old Thinzar Shunlei Yi told the Wall Street Journal: "We’re all aware of what we’re dealing with – we could be killed, arrested, jailed. But we know that they can’t kill all of us."
Protests exploded across the country, as hundreds of thousands of people took to the streets. Perhaps even more significant, the Burmese people shut down much of the government and economy. Employees walked out of official ministries, private banks, and ports. Teachers and medical personnel abandoned schools and hospitals. Unions staged general strikes. The public boycotted military-backed companies – for instance, Myanmar Beer disappeared from stores – which had enriched influential members of the Tatmadaw, starting with Hlaing.
The impact has been dramatic. Perhaps 90 percent of civilian government activity even in the closely controlled capital of Naypyidaw ceased. Many private companies closed. Reported the New York Times: "an entire nation has come to a standstill. From hospitals, railways and dockyards to schools, shops and trading houses, much of society has stopped showing up for work in an attempt to stymie the military regime and force it to return authority to a civilian government." A bank officer, Phyu Phyu Cho told the Times: "They are the king now, but we are not their servants. If we all unite, they can’t do anything."
The Tatmadaw faces an increasing cash crunch. The government was expected to run a deficit of eight percent of GDP this year before the crisis. However, the Central Bank, which fired 200 employees who refused to come to work, is closed. Myanmar Economic Holdings Limited, controlled by the army, was the country’s second largest taxpayer, but faces an angry and likely sustained boycott. Orders that private banks transfer accounts of NGOs and agricultural traders to the regime have been ignored.
Relief will not come from abroad. Burmese diplomats, including the deputy UN ambassador, denounced the junta and called for a tough international response. When the regime sought to sell $142 million worth of five-year bonds internationally it received just one offer, for less than one percent of the total, at a higher-than-expected interest rate. Foreign companies are removing expatriate personnel and reassessing investment plans. Western governments imposed economic sanctions. The junta is believed to have just $6.7 billion worth of foreign currency reserves, $1 billion of which has been frozen by the Federal Reserve in New York City.
The generals still enjoy revenue streams, both licit and illicit, but divvying up a smaller pie is likely to get ugly. And facing pervasive yet persistent resistance has made the Tatmadaw increasingly desperate. It shut internet access, cut power, interrupted social media, threatened demonstrators and striker – as well as people who joined in the cacophonous practice of banging pots and pans every evening at 8:00 in protest – and escalated the use of force. The junta imposed martial law, deployed troops, and moved from water cannon and rubber bullets to live ammunition.
The situation is extremely fluid. Possible are economic implosion, increasingly ferocious repression, and more violent resistance. Until now protesters emphasized peaceful means. However, younger, less patient protesters appear increasingly ready to respond aggressively to regime crimes. Protesters’ rhetoric has hardened: some speak of rage, say the fight for democracy is now or never, and call their actions an uprising. Online searches for instructions on making Molotov cocktails reportedly have surged. Much worse could be in store.
Indeed, in recent days several Chinese-owned factories were torched. Beijing, which collaborated with the Tatmadaw in the past, was blamed for backing the coup, probably unfairly. However, China’s attempt to maintain a publicly neutral position earned popular suspicion, especially since individual Chinese-owned companies threatened to punish workers who joined the protests. Moreover, some regime opponents hope to drive Chinese and other foreign firms from Burma to undermine military control. Twenty-six-year-old A Kyi Kyaung joined a crowd that burned down one factory and told the Washington Post: "We are glad to see arson continue in other areas. We will do it again whenever we have the chance."
Hlaing and his cronies have no easy exit but are in too deep to retreat. They claim to be guardians of the nation and might have believed their own rhetoric before the November poll. However, that vote, and the ensuing mass protests even in the face of deadly force, have eliminated any illusion that the military enjoys serious political support. The Tatmadaw can rule only by crushing the people it claims to be protecting.
In doing so the generals have dramatically transformed their country. The modest freedoms allowed since 2011 have been dismantled. NLD leaders have been charged with treason. The military has escalated attempts to discredit Suu Kyi with risible accusations that she illegally imported foreign walkie-talkies for her security detail and even less credible claims of bribery.
Journalists have been arrested. The last independent newspapers and news outlets have been shut. Hundreds of protesters have been killed and thousands of regime opponents have been arrested. Brutal suppression is not limited to the capital of Naypyitaw and largest city of Yangon but has occurred in cities and towns across the country. Yet the generals still have lost what they had most counted on: control of the country.
The resulting savage crackdown raised the bar for everyone, Burmese citizens and foreign governments alike. The status quo ante has disappeared as an option. How could the public leave uniformed murderers in charge? Twenty-year-old Aung Hein Cho said "They came using force and tried to kill us, I will never forget that."
How to halt Burma’s slide toward the political abyss? There may be no better illustration of the dangers of untrammeled military power. Unleashed domestically three decades ago, it never ceased to ravage the country. There could be no more powerful warning even for currently democratic societies: it is vital to prevent militarization before it becomes irreversible. Burma must ultimately strip the Tatmadaw of its claim to sacred status and return the soldiers to their barracks.
Today, however, Burma’s best hope is a breakdown in military discipline. The senior Tatmadaw leadership, whatever its internal differences, likely understands that it will either stand or hang together. However, since democratization a decade ago some younger officers have had contact with foreign and more liberal militaries. Moreover, many if not most common soldiers, typically unhappy conscripts, joined their countrymen in voting for the NLD. Almost all certainly had parents and siblings who did so.
If more police defect, the junta will be forced to deploy more troops. The critical moment will come if they are ordered to direct concentrated fire at massed crowds. Will soldiers be prepared to murder hundreds or thousands of their countrymen? One or more units could break, and if so, set off a broader army collapse. That happened in decades past in Iran and the Philippines when demonstrations swept away authoritarian regimes. This prospect is why in 1989 communist regimes in Eastern Europe folded peacefully: they did not trust their own troops and would not order a deadly crackdown without Soviet support. So far, however, the Tatmadaw’s discipline has held.
Another major uncertainty is the impact of the coup on the mostly frozen ethnic conflicts. Ceasefires have frayed and combat as flared as the peace process bore little fruit; the Tatmadaw promised to continue negotiations with what amounts to a potential armed opposition, but the army, which warred against these groups for years, has little credibility. Renewed insurgencies could stretch the army beyond its limits.
Burma is in truly uncharted waters. The outcome could be catastrophic irrespective of who emerges triumphant. It is risky to bet against the guys with guns – experience suggests that the generals will continue attempting to clear the streets even if doing so causes rivers of blood. If so, however, they will find their victory too dearly bought. The Tatmadaw will have united the population in its hatred of all things military.
Unfortunately, there is little outsiders can do. After the coup Secretary of State Antony Blinken offered a boilerplate response: "The United States stands with the people of Burma in their aspirations for democracy, freedom, peace and development. The military must reverse these actions immediately."
It didn’t, obviously, and Blinken didn’t expect it to do so. Washington’s interest in Burma is primarily humanitarian. Naypyidaw spent most of the last half century minimizing its foreign contacts. Even after a decade of modest reform Burma remains a minor economic and political player. Some observers view the country as a geopolitical battleground with Beijing. However, any Burmese authority will always have to be mindful of its northern neighbor – in fact, Suu Kyi’s government was friendly with Beijing. Necessity might push the junta further toward China, but the relationship would remain fragile. And the Burmese people would long remember who undermined their struggle for democracy.
The U.S. and other Western nations have come to treat sanctions as their policy of choice. They immediately penalized military leaders and family enterprises, a policy supported by the protesters. However, the Tatmadaw always has been insular, with limited foreign ties. Moreover, Hlaing already was under sanctions due to the military’s depredations against the Rohingya, which had no apparent impact on his behavior.
General economic sanctions would do more to hurt the Burmese people than generals. Consider Iraq, North Korea, Venezuela, Iran, and Syria – Washington failed to force political change by impoverishing and even starving their populations. Nor were past iterations of the Burmese dictatorship unduly bothered by US penalties. Aware of the inevitable harm to the population, most Burmese activists apparently oppose reimposing such restrictions.
Less clear is the impact of targeting large military enterprises, as well as jute, lumber, and natural gas exports, which are controlled or dominated by the military. Seeking to deny the Tatmadaw money is a worthy objective but must be balanced against the harm caused the population. In this regard the Burmese people appear more divided.
Finally, even when warranted, Washington should have no illusions that such restrictions would be a panacea. Consider North Korea, which developed an expansive and expensive nuclear arsenal while isolated economically. The earlier junta survived US and European economic penalties. Indeed, a Tatmadaw official told the Guardian: "We are used to sanctions, and we survived. We have to learn to walk with only few friends." Still, before partial liberalization regime backers didn’t know what they were missing. Sacrificing the last decade’s gains will make the price clear.
American efforts to influence Burma’s military are made more difficult by Burma’s neighborhood, in which saving democracy is no one’s priority. Vietnam and Laos remain unashamed communist dictatorships. Cambodia is a seemingly endless dictatorship under a former communist (Khmer Rouge!). Seven years on Thailand is still ruled by a military junta, a militarist/monarchical condominium with a bare civilian façade. China, to the north, is irritated by the Tatmadaw’s nationalism, not repression. Bangladesh and India are democracies but trending authoritarian. Japan is democratic, but with substantial investments in Burma has offered few criticisms of the coup.
Burma’s convulsion illustrates what so many US policymakers ignore, America’s relative impotence, the inability of even the great superpower to enforce its wishes. Which is the reality in Burma. Washington’s capacity to influence, let alone oust, the junta is surprisingly limited. More important will be the American people’s readiness to help after Burma hopefully reemerges from the political abyss toward which that tragic nation appears headed.
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.