May 13, 2021

Asia

MYANMAR: Junta pins its strategy on attrition

BY Bob Herrera-Lim

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( 4 mins)

The level of violence on the streets has dropped in recent weeks compared to February and march. Media and internet are severely curtailed, which could be contributing to the decline in reported fatalities, but there are other more significant drivers for this ebb. For one, protesters have avoided amassing outdoors in large numbers, recognizing the risks of openly confronting security forces. There are still protest actions, but they appear to be more of the quick mobilizations that go through neighborhoods and end before the police or military can react.

But another reason may be a more practical one. There is also more noticeable economic activity since the end of Thingyan, the Burmese New Year festival, in mid-April. A large percentage of workers who had taken part in the protests have returned to their jobs, some citing the threat of dismissal from their employers. In several sectors, the military is reportedly ordering companies to report in advance workers who would be taking time off. Many of the self-employed who participated in the civil disobedience movement have also restarted their businesses. And civil servants have been assured that they will not be prosecuted even if they joined the protests as long as they return to their jobs. Noticeably, therefore, most of those who take part in the current flash protests are the youth.

Politically, however the situation remains at a standstill. The opposition, represented by the National Unity Government (NUG), maintains that the junta is illegitimate and refuses negotiation with the generals without major concessions such as the release of political prisoners. On the other side, the junta continues with its efforts to end the current resistance, recently referring to the NUG as a terrorist organization. The military and police suppress any dissent that they encounter on the streets, and random killings still take place; local protest leaders continue to be arrested; and communities that are hotbeds of activism are harassed.

The generals likely see the reduced activity in the streets as a sign that their strategy of intimidation is gradually working, and that the diminution of the public protest movement will eventually allow the junta to present itself to ASEAN — whose five-point agenda they have largely disregarded — and the rest of the world as de facto in control with the claim that people have accepted military rule. This may take several more months, however, given the high level of public animosity against the regime, which for now is only being tempered by practical considerations on the part of the protesters, rather than resignation. And even if the military were to accomplish its domestic political objectives, its political and economic isolation with the West will likely continue.

There continues to be speculation that the situation could worsen in different ways, such as the rise of an armed organized resistance, or of the military, the Tatmadaw, fracturing with officers supporting the NUG. Recently, there have been videos of anti-junta protesters joining rebels to obtain military training, as well as the random report of a mid-level military officer defecting. Some insurgent groups are sniping at the edges and taking over military outposts on the fringes. However, these for now seem to be more limited occurrences, and are no signs that they are happening at a scale that would be a threat to the junta’s forces in the short term. The ethnic rebel movements, which could be the most serious threat if they could unite, are not signaling any intention of doing so. There may be other triggers that could lead to large-scale and more persistent protests restarting, such as a more severe economic contraction, but for now the generals’ strategy of attrition appears to be gaining the upper hand.

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