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24 February 2021updated 28 Jul 2021 2:41pm

Thant Myint-U: Myanmar’s protests show “widespread hatred of past military rule“

The historian and former UN peacekeeper on why the military seized power and the prospects of a democratic path for the country.

By Ido Vock

On 1 February the military seized power in Myanmar (also known as Burma) from the elected government of the National League for Democracy (NLD) and the state councillor Aung San Suu Kyi. The coup came a decade after the military agreed to share power with civilian authorities following close to 50 years of military rule.

For weeks since, Myanmar has been roiled by protests calling for the military to cede power to the NLD. But the military shows few signs of softening its hard-line stance. Several protesters have been killed by security forces, and Aung Sang Suu Kyi faces spurious charges, including illegally importing walkie-talkies.

Thant Myint-U, the author of The Hidden History of Burma, is one of the most prominent international observers of Burmese politics. Thant Myint-U, the grandson of the former UN secretary-general U Thant, has been a vocal critic of the military in the international media since the coup. The New Statesman spoke to him about his analysis of the background to the coup, the developments since and the role of China in the crisis.

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Few protests on this scale have been seen in Myanmar for years. Does this suggest the military has miscalculated the attachment to democracy formed over the past decade?

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It’s important to understand recent history. A military junta took power in 1988, ending a quarter century of self-imposed isolation and “Burmese socialism” [the ideology of the Burma Socialist Programme Party, which fused Buddhism and socialism]. They also created a new market economy, one which enriched many generals as well as a new class of businesspeople. 

But in 2010, these generals retired, the junta was dissolved and a new political system was set up in its place, one in which a younger cohort of generals would share power with elected politicians.

These younger generals didn’t count on Aung San Suu Kyi’s party winning elections in 2015 yet accepted the results, leading to five years of unhappy cohabitation. When her party won again last November, they quickly latched on to allegations from the main pro-army party of massive electoral fraud. The investigation they demanded into these allegations was rejected by Aung San Suu Kyi, leading ultimately to the coup on 1 February.

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The military wanted a reset, one in which elections could be run again, but only after they had changed the political landscape by placing Aung San Suu Kyi under house arrest and possibly de-registering her party. They almost certainly did not expect the massive protests which followed the coup.

The protests show widespread hatred of past military rule. They also reflect the growth of a new middle class, who over these past ten years have enjoyed a degree of freedom and economic opportunity unknown in the country in over half a century. 

How have minorities, especially the Rohingyas, reacted to the coup? (The Rohingyas are a primarily Muslim ethnic minority in Myanmar who have been subjected to Burmese military violence that is widely considered genocidal since 2016.) 

There have been pro-democracy protests in nearly every part of the country, including in cities in mainly minority areas. In Rangoon, where there are sizeable minority communities, we’ve seen the protests cut across racial and religious lines. 

For the Rohingya who remain in internally displaced peoples’ camps and in villages near Bangladesh, having in charge an army that was responsible for large-scale violence against their community in 2016-17 may seem an ominous turn, but they had already been deprived of practically all their basic rights. 

Parts of Burma, especially the eastern uplands, are home to dozens of ethnic-minority armies and militias. Several have condemned the military takeover. Others have remained quiet or are in active ceasefire discussions with the new regime.

Many minority parties and organisations felt badly mistreated by the last government. At the same time, minority communities have borne the brunt of military brutality over the decades and have no desire to live under Burmese military rule. 

[See also: World Review Podcast – Will democracy be restored in Myanmar?]

The economy seems to be faltering since the coup. Might this weaken the military’s rule?

The economy was in deep crisis long before the coup. Burma is one of the poorest countries in Asia. The capitalist economy that has grown up over the past 30 years, based almost entirely on the export of unskilled labour and primary commodities, has produced extreme inequality. Then came the coronavirus pandemic, which saw a fall in remittances from migrant workers abroad – numbering 4 million in Thailand alone – as well as a severe downturn in economic activity in most sectors.

According to one survey, the percentage of people living below the absolute poverty line of just $1.9 a day had jumped from 16 per cent in January to 63 per cent in October. Over a third of respondents reported zero income for the past three months. Tens of millions of people were already facing ruin and an inability to feed themselves and their families. Now with the coup, the protests and resulting economic disruptions, it is impossible to imagine how the poor and working classes in Burma are going to be able to simply survive the weeks and months ahead.

How determined are protesters to bring down the military?

The protesters have shown extraordinary courage, organisational skill and determination. It’s been an incredible display of collective action that I hope one day, under a civilian government, will be harnessed towards creating a fairer and more equitable society as well. However, it is not clear how the country goes from this situation to anything that actually can end military rule.

The army had been in power for over half a century and had withstood equally massive uprisings as well as armed insurrections, foreign invasions and decades of the toughest international sanctions possible. It’s an army that won’t hesitate to use deadly force if it feels necessary.

Might proposed sanctions by the US and EU force a shift from the army, or is the army on the contrary benefiting from the less concerned reaction from China?

The Burmese military sees China as a strategic threat and as having supported several of the ethnic armed organisations it had been fighting these past years. At the same time, China had fairly good relations with Aung San Suu Kyi and hoped that a second term would bring closer economic ties. China will act pragmatically and in its own interest – but I’m not sure China knows yet exactly what that will be.

On Western sanctions, it is important to remember that the generals have few assets abroad. Burma is everything to them and all their friends and enemies are within the country. It is incredibly important that any sanctions are as targeted as possible and do nothing to worsen the plight of poor and vulnerable communities.

If anything, aid should be increased to protect people from the crisis. We have to be mindful of the real possibility of social collapse in Burma. The present political crisis comes at a time of already acute and rapidly escalating economic distress, in a country already facing multiple internal armed conflicts. If Burma implodes, the impact will be felt right across the region. 

[See also: How will democracy be defined after Myanmar’s military coup?]