March 3, 2021

Asia

MYANMAR: Political crossroads ahead, with the risk of more violence

BY Bob Herrera-Lim

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( 5 mins)
  • The demonstrations are frustrating the junta’s attempts to gain legitimacy.
  • Both sides remain entrenched in their positions, which limits the possibility of a political compromise anytime soon.
  • In several scenarios, the economic fallout would be severe.

The level of violence in the junta’s response to the protests has increased significantly in the past ten days, with the worst having been the 18 fatalities during the weekend (although the number is likely higher). Undeterred, demonstrators have been returning every day to the streets daily, with casualties also being reported.

For the first two to three weeks of February, the junta’s response was relatively tempered. However, it is unclear whether this was the result of the generals being caught off guard by the scale of the protests (and lacking security forces in the key cities) or their hope that the public would resignedly acquiesce to the takeover and thus ease international acceptance of the coup, similar to the experience of the generals in Thailand in 2006 and 2014.

Nonetheless, because of the demonstrations, the dominant perception now is that there is widespread public support not just for Aung San Suu Kyi and the National League for Democracy (NLD) but for the immediate restoration of elected government. By some estimates, around two-thirds of public sector workers do not report for the full workweek, taking turns in joining the demonstrations on the streets. These have in turn largely negated the generals’ attempts at gaining legitimacy for their actions. Four members of ASEAN — Singapore, Malaysia, Indonesia and the Philippines — have asked for the release of Aung San Suu Kyi, but the regional group has fallen short of consensus on the issue.

The junta’s choices

This leaves the generals with three broad choices, all with significant political downside risks. There are no clear signals which of the following options dominate:

  • Negotiate a political compromise with Aung San Suu Kyi.
  • Tolerate the demonstrations in the hope that they run out of momentum.
  • Crack down on the demonstrations, similar to 2007 and 1988.

For the first option, it is unclear what the junta would even be able to negotiate. The nominal reason it gave for the coup — the supposed fraud during the November elections — is hardly credible and an investigation is unlikely to result in major changes to the electoral system. Consequently, a re-run of the November vote would have the same outcome: an overwhelming victory by the NLD and, for the generals, an unacceptable loss of face. This would simply return the country to where it was before the military takeover. Also, the NLD has little incentive to compromise given its popularity and after the recent violence, which is stoking public sentiments even more against the junta. Aung San Suu Kyi is unlikely to agree to a possible demand from the generals that she withdraw from politics as a condition for her release, since this term was expected to be her last.

The second option would appear to be the most attractive to the generals, which is to hope that the demonstrations run their course and lose steam, so that junta’s could be presented as a fait accompli to both the NLD and foreign governments, to be the starting point for political bargaining. It could even include releasing Aung San Suu Kyi as a gamble to reduce international pressure. However, the opposition has the momentum and the protests could continue for weeks or even months. In the meantime, the economic fallout would increase because of the boycotts, delays in combatting the Covid-19 pandemic as the rate of vaccinations suffers, and disruption of private investment and overseas aid flows. Starting Monday, in fact, bank withdrawals have been limited to MMK 2mn (USD 1,400) per week for individuals and MMK 20mn (USD 14,000) for companies.

If the junta prioritizes control, then the second scenario would lead to the third one, or the generals could decide to go straight for it: a heavy-handed security response and a reversion to the political suppression of the past decades. This would be difficult given that there is no central leadership which security forces could target; thus, it would need a violent suppression and widespread arrests. A severe crackdown would isolate Myanmar, both politically and economically, with disastrous effects on the economy. In this case, the government may turn to China, India and Thailand for at least short-term support; but it was fear of being entangled with Beijing that drove the generals to engagement with the west a decade ago. Also, should the military decide to have a political transition afterwards, it would not have the credibility to negotiate an exit similar to 2008 – 2015. It would take years for investors to regain their confidence in the country’s political trajectory. The military apparently still recognizes the need to prevent an economic collapse, as evidenced by its frequent bulletins seeking to assure local businesses and investors that policies and reforms would continue, but the longer the crisis continues, the weaker this message becomes.

Should the generals go down the second and third paths, it would lead to speculation whether the military, the Tatmadaw, could split in the face of intense public pressure. Social media has highlighted how regular civil servants and even some members of the police are showing their support the protest movement, yet even the latter are isolated incidents. There are still no signs of any cracks within the Tatmadaw. A counter coup, if it were to take place, would not emanate from the lower ranks, given how robust the command-and-control structure is within the armed forces. Rather it would have to involve the senior-most ranks disagreeing, which is not impossible, but given the military’s opacity, difficult to anticipate.

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