Mark Adams (pseudonym) considers new pathways for a united front in Myanmar’s future.
The Tatmadaw, Myanmar’s military, has long maintained that there exist three sacrosanct causes guiding the country: “non-disintegration of the Union, non-disintegration of National solidarity, and perpetuation of sovereignty.” In its self-defined role of upholding these national causes, the Tatmadaw sees itself as the embodiment of Myanmar and central to the nation’s very existence.
Upon staging its coup on February 1st, the Tatmadaw reverted to form, justifying its actions as necessary to protect the country from a corrupted election and hence protect the three national causes necessary for it to hold the country together. The Tatmadaw’s leadership seemed surprised at the scale and persistence of the nationwide revolt against their unconstitutional power grab. The senior generals are immensely frustrated by the public’s utter rejection of their lame attempts to frame their coup as legal and the NLD as corrupt. In the weeks since the coup, the country has increasingly descended into widespread public protests, mass desertions of the civil service, and the collapse of the economy. In response the junta has instructed security forces, the police and military, to steadily respond through beatings, terrorization, and outright murder. As the violence escalated, Singapore’s foreign minister, Vivian Balakrishnan, aptly declared the junta’s actions against peaceful protesters a “national disgrace.”
Despite the Tatmadaw’s barbarity, opposition to its rule has solidified as people innovate new forms of resistance. Elected Members of Parliament from the 2020 general election have formed an interim government known as the Committee Representing the Pyidaungsu Hluttaw (CRPH). The protests, boycotts, and labor walkouts have coalesced as the Civil Disobedience Movement (CDM). Ethnic Armed Organizations have expressed public support for resistance to the coup and some even started attacks on Tatmadaw forces. Lastly, the bravery of street protesters has been incredible, led as they are by Generation Z activists.
Myanmar’s National Disgrace
The truth is ever more evident: the Tatmadaw is and has been Myanmar’s national disgrace for almost sixty years. The military long justified its role in Myanmar’s politics, economics and society because of the ‘disunity’ and prospects for ‘disintegration’ amongst its peoples. This self-fulfilling prophecy has been sustained more by the Tatmadaw than any other actor. Many ethnically and religiously diverse countries are developed and stable.
The Tatmadaw deserves responsibility for country’s decades of ethnic divides, civil war, political repression, and impoverishment. For decades the Tatmadaw has applied barbaric counter-insurgency methods that target civilian populations with violence and deprivation. It used extreme violence to crush the 1988 uprising and the 2007 ‘Saffron Revolution.’ The Tatmadaw capped off its decrepit history of division and violence by the genocide of Rohingya in 2017 and is now savagely trying to repress a country near universally erupting against it in revolt.
As Myanmar’s people brace for what comes next, the only national cause for Myanmar is overcoming its tortured history of military dictatorship. Independence was done in unfortunate haste and was ultimately incomplete due to the assassination of Myanmar’s founding father, Aung San. The unfinished nature of Myanmar national independence left hard-won compromises ensuring an equal and equitable federal system forever denied. Ever since 1948, Myanmar has had a fractured political settlement exacerbated by the Tatmadaw’s continuous digressions away from federalism that had underlaid the earliest negotiations of independence from the British. The bane of the nation’s existence is a military that has long designated itself the country’s keeper, manipulating its politics and diversity for its own benefit. The unfolding resistance to Min Aung Hlaing’s junta is an opportunity to rectify the mistakes made at the moment of independence and perpetuated in the decades since.
The current circumstances necessitate that Myanmar’s people unite to fight for a future freed from the political tyranny of the Tatmadaw. In important ways, the current period is potentially more significant to nation- and state-building than the coups of 1962 and 1988 or even independence. It is a historic opportunity to redo things for the better. Myanmar’s people suffered under military rule for over five decades. The last decade was a heavily conditioned attempt at power sharing between the military and an elected civilian government. In the end, the military could not abide by the rules of the game that they themselves established in writing the country’s 2008 Constitution. Myanmar’s people deserve to be free of tyrannical military rule once and for all.
Only Myanmar Can Secure a Better Future for Itself
The simple question facing the country is how the junta can be defeated. It’s necessary, though painful, to note that pleas for international assistance are unlikely to be answered in any meaningful way. There will be no response to directly prevent violence by the junta’s security forces. There will be no UN peacekeepers or US air raids targeting the Tatmadaw. The only countries that will undertake significant measures — the support of weaponry, financing, and political cover — are those willing to benefit the junta. Russia and China’s support for the junta is evident, whatever meaningless sensitivities they declare at the Security Council.
Even then, one must also remember the limited rhetoric of the West. Foreign policies premised on democracy and freedom are prone to exceptions, for instance the USA’s long embrace of Saudi Arabia. The USA barely hesitated to recognize Thailand’s junta governments following coups in 2006 and 2014. Major Western companies like Chevron and Total have happily been doing business in Myanmar for decades, since the country was in the darkest years of military dictatorship. And, given their inability and disinterest in working to prevent human rights abuses in the past, the UN and ASEAN will remain largely irrelevant to anything significant happening in Myanmar, good or bad.
Many international human rights actors now protesting violence spent much of the last three years trying to turn Myanmar into a pariah state by making the absurd argument of moral equivalence between Aung San Suu Kyi and Min Aung Hlaing. There was a depressing willingness to disregard the obvious reality that the whole construct of government had been designed to ensure the Tatmadaw remained paramount. If elected civilian governments pushed too hard, the Tatmadaw always held a proverbial knife to their throats. A coup was always a very real possibility.
The hard truth is that should the junta succeed in suppressing the resistance, the world will simply re-engage with whatever government the junta forms. The world has done little to nothing to hold governments accountable for violence against protestors. Think of Venezuela in 2019 or Thailand in 2010. It is telling that Thailand’s junta leader from its 2014 coup, General Prayut, eventually sauntered all the way to the White House under the shameless guise of democratic legitimacy for a meeting with the US president.
Myanmar’s resistance actors––CRPH, the CDM movement, street protesters, and some of the ethnic armed organizations––need to reframe the situation based on a realistic assessment of their options. This is not to say that international support is meaningless or useless, but rather, that it is Myanmar’s people themselves who have the primary agency needed for success. International support is distinctly secondary and should be accounted for as such. Many foreign organizations and countries do want the junta to fail and want to see Myanmar emerge as a real democracy, but these parties are not that important to what ultimately happens. International support will not determine success or failure, nor will it prevent the junta from inflicting ever more violence on Myanmar’s people. International support does have a role to play in terms of moral solidarity, humanitarian support, economic pressure against the junta, and providing haven for refugees. It is critical that the international community recognize the legitimacy of Myanmar’s leaders, starting with the CRPH.
The important point is that Myanmar’s people don’t need international saviors for the junta to fail. It has become increasingly clear since February 1st that Myanmar’s people have the heart and bravery to defeat the coup themselves. The movement is now building to a historic opportunity to rectify the mistakes of the past through solidarity and commitment to a shared future free of the military. The country’s political settlement can be rebuilt on sincere notions of equality and equity manifest in the form of a democratic federal union. For the country to finally rectify the sins and mistakes of its earliest years people must unite in the common cause of deposing the curse that is Myanmar’s national disgrace of a military once and for all.
Towards this the Bamar heartland needs to recognize what many ethnic minorities long have: the Myanmar they yearn for, freed of tyranny, and based on equity and equality, won’t be given to them without a fight. It is only through perseverance and shared sacrifice, including through armed resistance as and if Myanmar’s resistance decides that is needed, that solidarity can be built and sustained to overwhelm the junta. At this point, armed resistance can only be termed self-defense given the egregious violence of the junta, as the CRPH has rightly stated. The Civil Disobedience Movement (CDM) is succeeding. The junta cannot govern if it cannot raise revenues and control basic administration. The economy is collapsing because of the junta’s actions and CDM pressure. Banks are shut, ATMs empty, stores closed, and factories still. The junta cannot survive if it cannot control and revive the economy.
Essential to Myanmar’s future is the ability of a critical mass of key resistance stakeholders to build and maintain a united front seeking a new political settlement founded upon a federal democratic union. The internal cohesion and sustained collective effort of such a united front is definitive to success or failure. It is key that stakeholders intermesh into a wider and more explicitly political front. This front needs to strengthen the growing consensus across Myanmar society for a post-Tatmadaw country. CRPH is legitimate as an interim representative body of government based on the 2020 general elections. It is good that it no longer accepts the 2008 Constitution, but CRPH cannot win on its own. It must accept and assure compromises with other key actors, especially Ethnic Armed Organizations and ethnic political parties. That means the basis for everything must be the goal of a federal democratic union. This means collectively securing a genuine form of federalism, namely one which is untethered from the autocratic ‘protection’ of a self-serving military and that assures real power and autonomy to subnational governments.
A Better Future is Possible
Myanmar’s future will ultimately be determined by domestic actions, not international ones. There will be no foreign military intervention. This op-ed is not a call to widespread armed resistance. That is for Myanmar’s people to decide. Rather, it is encouragement for Myanmar’s people to together imagine a peaceful, shared future in their own country. In staging its coup, the Tatmadaw proved that it could not abide by the rules of the game that they themselves established in writing the country’s 2008 constitution. The Tatmadaw’s three causes only ever served to justify repression, division, violence, and theft. Myanmar’s people deserve to be free of tyrannical military rule once and for all. Only Myanmar’s people can decide the appropriate means necessary to achieve it.
Expecting international support will only distract and divide the rightful resistance to the coup across Myanmar’s people. If disillusionment sets in, some groups will simply stop protesting, others will retreat into their mountainous citadels, while others will be left in the junta’s prisons. Unity must come from the solidarity of persevering against a common national enemy, the Tatmadaw, and fundamentally relying on nobody else in what is a fight for a future worth having. This is the one national cause for Myanmar’s people to take. Nobody else can give it to them.
Mark Adams (pseudonym) is a researcher based in Myanmar and Thailand.