How is Myanmar

What's next in Myanmar? : Civil disobedience makes the junta nervous

Felix Heiduk is doing research on Southeast Asia at the Foundation for Science and Politics (SWP).

With the military coup and the disempowerment of Prime Minister Aung San Suu Kyi, the already fragile transition to democracy in Myanmar has come to an abrupt end.

But the mass protests against the military coup continue. Given the complex relationship between the military and civil government, two scenarios for the future are conceivable. The decisive factor will be whether civil disobedience continues to spread and whether it affects factories and administration.

When, of all places, the military junta in Myanmar introduced democratic reforms in 2010, many Western observers were surprised. After all, during the five decades of its dictatorship it brutally crushed all protests - as was the case in 2007 during the “Saffron Revolution”, when thousands of people, led by Buddhist monks, demanded democratic reforms.

With the release of Aung San Suu Kyi at the end of 2010 and her election victory in 2015, Myanmar went from pariah to democratic partner in a relatively short time. Many did not see or wanted to see that the military was never about democracy and human rights.

The military wanted economic opening - nothing more

Rather, the opening of the country should improve its own image internationally. The dependence on China should also be reduced. Due to western sanctions since the 1980s, much to the displeasure of the ultra-nationalist military leaderships, this had increased steadily. In his self-perception, the military has always been the central political actor in the country, a kind of Praetorian, without whom the Union of Myanmar would disintegrate into many small states.

A central mortgage for the National League for Democracy (NLD) led by Aung San Suu Kyi was the constitution passed by the military in 2008. This guaranteed the military not only 25 percent of the parliamentary seats and thus a blocking minority for any constitutional amendment, but also extended other powers, including the leadership of the ministries for border protection, defense and home affairs. The military's many economic ties in the form of conglomerates also saved the generals unscathed into the new “democratic” era.

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At the same time, the NLD government did its best to damage the young democracy: journalists critical of the government were arrested, civil society organizations were hindered in their work, and even within the NLD many criticized the increasingly authoritarian leadership style of Aung San Suu Kyi. The latter also did little to curtail the prerogative of the military.

Even more: the head of government publicly defended the actions of the military against the Rohingya minority, with the UN attesting "genocidal intentions".

However, the relationship between Aung San Suu Kyi and the military leadership deteriorated increasingly from 2019. According to insiders, communication between civilian and military leadership even completely broke off from mid-2020.

Aung San Suu Kyi had previously made demands for a constitutional amendment and the associated demilitarization of the state apparatus into her central election campaign issue. Her party's landslide victory in November 2020 gave this, from the military's point of view, unacceptable demand even more clout. Shortly before the newly elected parliament could meet, the military revived on February 1st.

With the coup, Myanmar's already fragile transition to democracy came to an abrupt end. It is likely that the current NLD leadership will be sentenced to prison terms on the basis of questionable legal proceedings. Aung San Suu Kyi and the other members will then no longer be allowed to hold any government office.

There are two plausible development scenarios

Subsequently, at least two development scenarios appear plausible: In the first scenario, the military reacts to the increasing protests with brutal violence according to a tried and tested pattern. The resulting instability is then used as an excuse to repeatedly postpone the elections promised for 2021, and the country is gradually developing back into a military dictatorship.

In the second scenario, the military does not completely lapse into old patterns of action, but rather, like the leadership of Thailand, exercises a "quieter" form of state repression: Protests are not violently suppressed and opposition parties are not banned per se, but leading opposition and political parties regularly participate fabricated legal proceedings overdone, other government critics "disappear". There will be elections that are relatively free, but by no means fair, and result in a "controlled" or "disciplined" democracy "by the military.

In both cases, relations with Germany would continue to deteriorate. Berlin had already suspended most of the development aid measures in 2020 with reference to Myanmar's dealings with the Rohingya. Further sanctions against the military as a result of the coup are likely. Unfortunately, it is just as likely that increased pressure from Germany and other western countries should not cause the armed forces to change their behavior.

So far, these have shown themselves to be immune to external pressure. On the one hand, because the sanctions in the past rarely targeted the military leadership and their commercial enterprises. On the other hand, because the sanctions have not yet been supported by neighboring countries such as China.

Hence, mass protests and calls for civil obedience could prove to be potentially a far more decisive factor than external sanctions.

The fact that the protests were sparked despite the arrest of the NLD leadership and are also supported by a young generation who organize themselves decentrally and often anonymously via the Internet and new media, is likely to make the military leadership around General Min Aung Hlaing increasingly nervous.

In contrast to previous protests, the activities of the security forces are also broadcast into the world via live stream. The young generation has experienced a partially defective democracy since 2010, but nevertheless enjoyed far more democratic participation and freedoms than previous generations. This, too, distinguishes 2021 from previous protests such as those from 2007.

If the protests continue to grow and are supported by a nationwide movement of civil disobedience with strikes in hospitals, factories and administration, then they could - more than external pressure - put the military under pressure and influence its actions.

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