In its first press conference since taking power two weeks ago, the military today, 16 February, promised to hold elections and to hand over power to the winning party. However, the assurance will do little to ease political tensions. The military’s statements on the path back to elected government have little domestic credibility given the widespread local skepticism of the military’s nominal reason for mounting the coup, which is to investigate opposition allegations of fraud in last year’s elections.
Reports of more political arrests and the filing of a second case against Aung San Suu Kyi, this time for violation of pandemic-related rules after she was charged last week with violating the country’s import-export laws, will further strengthen perceptions that the armed forces’ real reason is political — to weaken her National League for Democracy (NLD) and to strengthen the chances of the military-aligned Union Solidarity and Development Party (USDP). After all, the changes introduced by the junta to the penal code will allow her to be detained indefinitely.
Over the past few days, the junta has attempted to tighten its grip by deploying more soldiers into the cities and cutting off internet access at specific times of the day. The local speculation is that the internet disruptions will also allow the government to install software to monitor or block internet activity. However, the measures have only been partially successful. Crowds have continued to gather even with the heightened military and police presence. And while the police have become more aggressive in using water cannons, tear gas and rubber bullets, they have so far avoided more violent dispersals or mass detentions.
The trigger for the increased response may be the government’s apprehension that the protest actions could escalate from the relatively broad but uncoordinated demonstrations in the streets into a national general strike. It is noticeable compared to 2007, during the Saffron Revolution, that participation in the protests is wider both geographically and across the public and private sectors — a likely result of the political liberalization of the past decade. For instance, it is difficult to determine the extent of their participation, but a significant percentage of workers in the banks, transportation and healthcare sectors have been joining the work stoppages and the pro-democracy demonstrations, thereby disrupting services across a broad spectrum. Covid-19 testing has been reduced from about 20,000 per day before the coup to about one to a few thousand. A further degradation of both public and private sector services is possible, if not likely.
With the generals possibly worried of even more disruptions and protests, the police reaction may intensify in the coming weeks, expanding to more arrests not only of politicians, but also protest leaders in the private and public sectors to head off the emergence of a more coordinated civil disobedience movement. This means the risks outlined in our previous note, which is that of protests possibly escalating and leading to more serious violence as both sides head for a showdown, will continue to persist for the foreseeable future.