Simi Mehta, Sunidhi Agarwal, Sakshi Sharda, Ishika Chaudhary, Mahima Kapoor
The military coup in February 2021, with its many atrocities, highlighted the dire situation in Myanmar. To learn about the current developments, what led to the coup, and the resistance movements that are paving a way forward, the Centre for International Relations and Strategic Studies (CIRSS) IMPRI Impact and Policy Research Institute and Counterview organized a special lecture on “Myanmar’s Coup, Rohingya Genocide and Failed Democratization”, an IMPRI #WebPolicyTalk.
The Chair and Moderator for the session, Dr. Niranjan Sahoo, Senior Fellow, Observer Research Foundation (ORF), New Delhi asked Dr. Zarni to explain the present situation in Myanmar, especially over the last 3 months since the coup in February, where thousands of people were killed by the brutal regime of the Burmese military. The massive protests in the country show the resistance of the people and represent an inflection point for Myanmar. He asked what the future was for the democratization of Myanmar as well as for the stateless Rohingyas in Bangladesh and India.
Unchecked Power of the Military
Dr. Muang Zarni, UK—based fellow of the (Genocide) Documentation Centre – Cambodia; CO-founder of FORSEA.co, a Southeast Asian Activist organization; Burmese coordinator of the Free Rohingya Coalition began his lecture by expressing his heartfelt concern for India as it recovered from the second wave of Covid-19 pandemic. He echoed Dr. Sahoo’s comment on Myanmar’s civilizational link to the Indian subcontinent. He said that the present condition in Burma went against any ancient philosophy that preaches community and peace. The kind of behavior displayed by the Burmese military is on par with terrorism. Even the racist Buddhist nationalists have dissociated from the national armed forces due to their actions.
The Aung Sang Suu Kyi-led government has developed a working partnership with the military. Her rhetoric of peace was overcome by her culturally chauvinistic and nationalist beliefs. The terrorism of the national army has grown to shocking levels with teenagers being shot by uniformed military personnel in street corners in broad daylight. The army even employed snipers to shoot protestors and conducted summary executions.
The Strategic Advisory Council, based in Seoul, aimed to give an international platform to the protestors in Burma to ensure their voices are not drowned out. The council labeled the Burmese military an armed gang of terrorists. The Burmese people have spoken about the blanket impunity enjoyed by the police and the military. There were multiple instances of the military barging into homes and shooting civilians, including children. More than four dozen children had been shot. To the Burmese, their country is being occupied by fascists.
Political Background and Motivations
To explain how the situation got so dire, Dr. Zarni pointed at two main triggers- the coup on the first of February with Min Aung Hlaing, the commander-in-chief of the Defence formed the State Administration Council (SAC) and Hlaing’s approaching retirement. Hlaing was to retire in July 2021 as he turned 65, but he extended his term by 5 years by decree to avoid prosecution from the International Criminal Court (ICC), where there are cases of crimes against the Rohingyas enacted by his government.
It is expected that the ICC will issue an arrest warrant against him as the commander-in-chief and other deputies and generals of the Burmese army in the coming years. Dr Zarni compared Hlaing’s situation to that of Sudan’s Omar Al Basheer, who evaded ICC arrest by staying on as his country’s sovereign.
Dr. Sahoo enquired about how the Burmese military compared to the situation in Thailand and the possibility of Aung Sang Suu Kyi taking measures against the military.
Dr. Zarni explained that despite the unpopularity of the Thai King compared to his father, there were still many people in Thailand that support the monarchy. There is a degree of legitimacy to the existence of the government. In Myanmar however, the military is not even supported by the nationalist citizens.
He said that Aung Sang Suu Kyi had attempted to defend the indefensible actions of the Burmese military in Hague. She expressed genuine affection for the military and talked of them as siblings since her father set up the military. This portrayal of the military is ridiculous when it represents a deeply corrupt bureaucracy headed by a commander-in-chief that runs over 90 companies and has clearly chosen his personal economic interests over the future of 54 million Burmese people.
Granting such an organization an altruistic nationalist personality did not make sense. He compared the Burmese military to the militaries of India and the UK and said that they too enjoyed perks and privileges, but their powers were limited and did not allow all military officers to be the richest men in their countries.
Restoration of Democracy in Myanmar
On democracy, Dr. Zarni expressed surprise over the protest movement. This was the third generation living under the military regime since 1962. This time it was not a mere street protest but a total revolution, since it was a social phenomenon that had an ‘open and explicit aim of changing an entire system through violent and/or non-violent methods.’ The limited democratic reforms such as lifting the internet ban have created an internet penetration of 80-90%. This has raised a generation that has access to international information despite the country’s poor educational system.
Doctors and nurses quit government hospitals, transport workers stopped trains, and government employees walked out of their offices. This has disrupted supply chains and affected the economy. The military issued eviction notices to those in government housing to force them to work for the government, but the resistance is so strong that many families have vacated government housing and are living on support from communities.
Even private entrepreneurs have shut down shop, forgoing the profit motive, to join the revolution. Such a level of solidarity was unprecedented by the military. The people have woken up to the reality of the military and its genocide of minorities. The Buddhist Burmese nationalists have realized as well that it is not the Muslims or the Christians that threaten their way of life, but the army. They refuse to reconcile with the army and the objective of the movement is to replace it with a coalition of different armed ethnic minorities.
An inclusive society is emerging with state employees 3 years shy of receiving pensions who have refused to work for the military, and neighborhoods are feeding poor families that have been evicted. Dr. Zarni recalled an image of an Imam holding an umbrella for a monk as they address protestors. This was a testament to the religious solidarities created in the resistance against the inhumane actions of the military.
Role of ASEAN and India
Dr. Simi Mehta, CEO & Editorial Director, IMPRI remarked that the Burmese military had delegitimized itself through its actions and asked whether there was anything that could have been done to prevent the coup in February before it had occurred. She also asked about ASEAN and India’s roles in the conflict, which have been criticized by many.
Dr. Zarni elaborated that the Burmese national army had been portrayed as being stronger than it actually is. There have been 20 different armed ethnic organizations over the past 60-70 years of civil war and the army presently is unable to control large parts of the country. There is a war economy with gold mining and jade mining armies. The time for reform had passed. Aung Sang Suu Kyi’s strategy of slow reform combined with a reconciliation of the military with the people in the last decade at the expense of majority-minority relations has failed.
The Burmese have outgrown the military brainwashing that the military unites them and that the minorities have ethnic aspirations of their own. Instead, the majority is looking at the minorities for the future. He contrasted the situation with that of Yugoslavia’s dissolution and said that in Burma the majority Buddhists did not support the military and knew that majority politics would land them in the same predicament another decade down the line. They have identified the military as the main instrument of repression.
ASEAN had been a complete and total failure at preventing or condemning genocides. In 1995-96, when 30% of Cambodia’s population was killed, ASEAN was lobbying for its seat at the UN-backed by the US and UK. ASEAN attempts to humanitarian-ize the genocide and did not condemn the Burmese military as it should have. This isn’t surprising considering only 2 of the 10 member countries, Indonesia and Malaysia, have a level of a functional democratic process, while others like Brunei, Vietnam, Laos are either absolute monarchies or murderous regimes themselves.
ASEAN hides behind its policy of non-interference in internal matters even though the UN Genocide Convention encourages intervention to prevent genocides. The Security Council too had failed to intervene in the cases of Palestine, Syria, and Tibet.
Myanmar does not expect a pro-democracy stance from China which itself practices genocide. It has been running horrifying reeducation camps where they are sterilizing Muslim women, forcing them to give up Islam, eat pork, etc.
India however, shares deep ties with Burma. Except for the caste system, there are innumerable cultural bonds. Dr. Zarni felt that PM Modi had failed to use the opportunity to build ties with Burma. The Modi government had shown an Islamophobic outlook and has been unable to act on its Look East policy. Mr. Modi had failed his own country by prioritizing votes over lives during a pandemic. He encouraged that India reforms their perspectives as they would be building ties with 54 million Burmese people. Helping Burma is in the direct strategic interest of India.
Question and Answer
Talking about the response of the West, Dr. Zarni took up the lack of any reference to human rights or democratic interests in an issue of Foreign Policy magazine based in the US. There were many western corporations that paid billions to the Burmese military in taxes every year such as US’s Chevron and French oil companies. The US does talk of sanctions but what is needed is that they close these sources of revenue for the Burmese military.
On China changing its approach, he said that the Chinese government did not care for the lives of the Burmese and was looking out for its own economic interests. It has interests in Burmese ports for its shipments. However, China had miscalculated the power of the Burmese military which was at its weakest since its inception.
Majoritarianism is always a possibility, but Dr. Zarni said that he hoped the new generations who have grown up on liberalism will look beyond ethnic conflicts and racist ideologies. He said that he had simplified the conflicts in Burma and that there existed conflicts within minorities too such as the issues in the Shan state where villages had been burnt as ethnic groups took on each other. These are disturbing trends and identity-driven politics always undermined the work towards an inclusive multicultural society. Dr. Zarni stressed that diversity should be seen as a strong foundation on which a federalist democracy could be set up.
Dr. Sahoo added that the current democratic protest is different from previous coups since the new generation of protestors refused to compromise on their freedom. The movement is Burma’s own and not influenced by external forces. He said that it would lead Burma towards an inclusive society built upon secularism, federalism, and shared sovereignty.
Dr. Zarni concluded by pointing out that revolutions weren’t rational plans comprehensible to rational analysts. Their essence was in a passion for freedom and against injustice. There is no rational explanation for teenagers and young people in their 20s risking their lives, forgoing their youth, and giving up opportunities in search of greater shared freedom. One had to either accept this and think like a revolutionary, or expect the analysis to fall.
Acknowledgment: Sonali Pan is a Research Intern at IMPRI.