In the face of international outrage over this week’s military coup in Burma, the country’s generals no doubt see a moral advantage they didn’t have in 1990 when they refused to hand over power to the National League for Democracy after losing that year’s elections by a similar landslide: it’s hard to take Western calls for due process seriously when the world’s biggest superpower can’t even keep its own democratic house in order and recently saw its own Capitol building ransacked by violent mobs.
Since giving up power to quasi-civilian rule in 2011, generals of the Tatmadaw, or national army, have been biding their time, waiting for the right moment to take it back. The decision to launch another coup was determined by internal factors that have been building over the years. But the generals, who always keep an eye on their critics and are well versed in the art of fake news, couldn’t help but have been emboldened by Donald Trump’s two-month campaign to overturn the U.S. election results by citing “irregularities” and “voter fraud”. (The national elections in Burma, held five days after the U.S. elections, resulted in the NLD winning 83 percent of the vote. Despite the generals’ claims, the Election Commission and international observers found no evidence of wrongdoing.)
More than anything though, Senior General Min Aung Hlaing—who now assumes control of the country after being cited for genocide and crimes against humanity involving atrocities against Rohingya Muslims—has been emboldened by increasingly enfeebled Western opposition. The U.S. has called for the release of State Counsellor Aung San Suu Kyi, President U Win Myint, and all other politicians and activists arrested and detained on the eve of the opening session of the new Parliament, demanding that the generals “reverse these actions immediately”. Australia released a similar statement, calling on the Burmese military to “respect the rule of law”. One can imagine the generals’ response: sanction away all you want—we know China and Russia will have our back.
By no coincidence, a statement attributed to United Nations Secretary-General António Guterres was notable for its understatement. The UN’s top official, commenting on the transfer of all legislative, executive, and judicial powers to the military and a state of emergency being declared for one year, said that “these developments represent a serious blow to democratic reforms in Myanmar.” You think? (After years of receiving emailed UN press releases about Burma, I find it hard to imagine a more toothless form of official indignation. The human rights gridlock created by Russia’s and China’s veto power on the Security Council, which prevents any serious action from ever being taken against Tatmadaw generals, means the UN can do little more than repeat the most mealy-mouthed of diplomatic clichés whenever referring to Burma. The November elections “reflect the clear will of the people,” differences must be resolved through “peaceful dialogue,” et cetera.)
Friends in Rangoon I’ve heard back from after a brief shutdown of the Internet express deep frustration that the Tatmadaw has, once again, pulled the rug out from under them. This week’s coup was especially reckless and stupid, they say, because the generals had gained a great deal from democratic reforms that still allowed them to run much of the country’s affairs from behind the scenes.
Decades of economic sanctions before 2011 did little to curb Tatmadaw atrocities. On the contrary, as historian and author Thant Myint-U has long argued, sanctions only further impoverished the Burmese people while stiffening the generals’ resolve against all enemies.
Speaking to the BBC on Sunday, Thant expressed the fears of many about what this coup really means in a country overstocked with weapons and deeply divided across ethnic and religious lines while so many of its citizens suffer from desperate poverty.
“The doors just opened to a very different future,” said Thant. “I have a sinking feeling that no one will really be able to control what comes next.”
I’m afraid he’s right: in today’s world, permanent military rule might very well have become the sorriest fact of life for the people of Burma.