Lian Bawi Thang argues that engagement will not change the corruption and power abuse deeply embedded in the SAC’s bureaucratic and political institutions.
Following its violent takeover of power from the elected civilian government on February 1, 2021, the coup regime in Myanmar, formally known as the State Administration Council (SAC), has encountered significant challenges in preventing public servants and security personnel from joining anti-coup movements, particularly the Civil Disobedience Movement (CDM). Initiated by medical doctors in Mandalay, the CDM has grown into a powerful, inclusive, nationwide nonviolent movement in which security forces and civil servants refuse to report to work until political prisoners are released, and power is returned to the democratically elected National League for Democracy (NLD) government. Anti-coup leader Min Ko Naing, who was instrumental in events before the National Unity Government’s (NUG) formation, frequently emphasized the crucial role the CDM would play in the success of the Spring Revolution. Even when armed resistance became more prevalent than nonviolent resistance, the CDM continued to play a significant role. This is in part due to a variety of financial incentives pro-democracy groups provide to security personnel for joining the CDM.
Nay Pyi Taw sees the growing popularity of the CDM as a major inside threat, both in terms of depleting experienced officials, and leaking sensitive information to opposition parties, the NUG and ethnic armed organizations. To prevent the regime from falling apart, the SAC’s plan has been to reward public officials and security personnel with impunity for corrupt behavior as long as they stay in their positions. The regime’s approach, this essay argues, has resulted in increased market price volatility and human rights violations. Moreover, since the SAC regime’s strategy requires tolerating power corruption, any international engagement with them will give legitimacy to the regime rather than benefit the local communities.
Since the coup, Myanmar’s economy has been in freefall. The average growth rate significantly dropped from 6%, when the NLD was in power, to -18%. As of April 2022, the country’s inflation rate was already among the five highest in the world, and it is anticipated to worsen in the months ahead. Meanwhile, the coup d’état has widened the on-going civil war, extending it from ethnic states to the Burman heartland areas. Myanmar’s current political climate is best characterized as a semi-failed state, with the regime maintaining control over urban centers. In the country’s northwestern regions, particularly in Sagaing, where conflict is intensifying, neither the SAC nor the NUG appears to have full territorial control. The Special Advisory Council for Myanmar (SAC-M), an independent group of international experts working on Myanmar issues, echoed the NUG’s early claim that the NUG and resistance groups control 53% of the country. The Irrawaddy independently reported that the junta has lost nearly 90 military bases in ethnic states, including 20 bases in Kachin State, 3 in Chin State, 19 in Kayah State, 12 in Karen State, and 36 in Rakhine State since the coup.
While the coup regime is losing territory due to armed conflict, they are also suffering defection, desertion, and recruiting problems. Given the dwindling of foot soldiers, the military has had to summon all veterans for one more tour of duty. An anonymous veteran said they are not allowed to refuse the call to duty except on health grounds. According to Captain Lin Htet Aung, who defected the military and joined the resistance movement, nearly 10,000 security forces—roughly 8000 soldiers and 2,000 policemen—have defected since the coup. According to the NUG, the number of CDM members was over 360,000 in the months after the coup. Approximately 200,000 members are thought to have persisted today. Such decline of the military and civil servants is expected to undermine the regime’s public administration across the country. Therefore, Nay Pyi Taw has rapidly shifted its attention to how to best manage the damage inflicted by the CDM to the regime.
The Regime’s Carrot-And-Stick Approach
The military’s initial response to the CDM was a harsh act. First, it issued arrest warrants to public servants who joined the CDM, charging them with violating Section 505 (A) of the Penal Code, which prohibits “causing fear, spreading false news and agitating crimes against a government employee”. Violators could be punished with up to three years of imprisonment. Celebrities and the general public who support the CDM campaigns are charged under the same articles because their action is intended to undermine the government’s bureaucratic mechanisms by inciting government employees to join the CDM. According to the Assistance Association for Political Prisoners (AAPP) database, between February 1, 2021 and September 16, 2022, the majority of the 15,546 political prisoners were charged under section 505 (A) of the Penal Code. In addition to legal punishment, the regime has fired over 140,000 civil servants, mostly from the education sector, for refusing to return to their workplaces.
However, the legal threats have been ineffective, and the regime has had a hard time replacing the striking civil servants. Recruitment challenges have been evident in the armed forces. Different sources suggest that before the coup, senior officials received significant bribes for recruitment, promotion, and transfer, because there was a high demand for employment in the government. The bribes ranged from USD 1,000 to 2,500, depending on the job title and the region. This phenomenon stands in stark contrast to the post-coup situation when the regime had to lower the bar for entry into civil service and security forces. In the past, the acceptance rate of Myanmar’s three military schools —the Defense Service Academy, the Defense Science, and Technology Academy, and the Defense Service Medical Academy—had been around 10%. These schools also received a high volume of applications—approximately 12,000 annually. After the coup, they received around 100 applications in 2021, primarily from military families. As a result, the schools extended the deadline hoping to receive more applications. The entry requirements were also relaxed in an attempt to rebuild the medical community. On June 9, 2022, the regime’s Ministry of Health issued a statement encouraging students who passed the matriculation exam but did not meet the criteria for admission to medical universities to apply anyway.
Given these challenges, the regime’s strategy shifted to a carrot approach. It promised to pardon the CDM civil servants from legal action on the condition that they return to work. On the front pages of the regime-run newspaper, Global New Light of Myanmar, the CDM civil servants were invited to return to their jobs without legal repercussions. On the back pages of the newspaper, however, the regime continued to list the names of the high-ranking civil servants charged under Section 505 (A) of the Penal Code.
The Regime Revitalized the Strategy
As the carrot-and-stick approach focused on the return of both civil servants and security forces to work, another strategy was urgently required to prevent the remaining civil servants from joining the CDM. The regime was aware of its inability to ideologically convince the civil servants to remain in their positions. Therefore, the regime began providing impunity incentives to both public officials and security personnel who continued to work for the coup regime, prolonging its survival.
The regime’s approach has resulted in widespread corruption, inflation, and exploitation, as well as making impoverished people’s lives more difficult. Currently, different sources have reported widespread experiences of corruption while interacting with public officials and security personnel. Officials have openly extorted money from foreign returnees at Yangon International Airport’s immigration checkpoints, focusing on unskilled labor and long-term travelers with unnecessary questions. According to anonymous sources, passengers would carry roughly 50,000 Kyats (USD 20) in their pockets in case of emergency, as “fighting with officials produces nothing but troubles.”
One month earlier, an anonymous source told me that immigration officers in Yangon demanded payment for issuing a new passport. Another anonymous source said that an immigration officer extorted Ks 600,000 (about USD 250 at the time) from him for issuance of a passport because he was suspected of donating money to NUG and PDF while he was abroad. People also shared their experiences involving traffic police who frequently stopped private vehicles for alleged violation of driving regulations in order to extort money.
Perhaps the most grotesque strategy is the coup regime providing legal protection to its soldiers, many of whom have committed sexual abuses, stolen civilian properties, and killed innocent civilians. This is not a recent phenomenon but providing additional safeguards will inevitably lead to more and more serious violations. “Regime soldiers took any valuable goods and burned houses in villages on the way from Sagaing to Hakha, Chin State,” said Mang Hre Lian of the Chin Human Rights Organization in an interview. In November 2021, three soldiers raped a woman in Tedim, Chin State, while forcing her husband to watch the incident at gunpoint.
While the coup regime is losing administrative control in certain places, due to anti-coup resistance forces, the ongoing CDM poses an additional threat to its control and survival. The movement significantly contributes toward the regime’s collapse by reducing the number of civil servants and security forces at its disposal and by leaking sensitive information from the coup regime to the NUG, and other opposition parties.
The coup regime’s carrot-and-stick strategy has a narrow scope as it only encourages the return of public officials and security personnel to their stations. The regime still needed an additional strategy to prevent remaining civil servants from joining the CDM. In this article, I have argued that the regime, to prolong its survival, has offered lucrative power to both public officials and security personnel.
Currently, there are civil servants and security forces who see the current period as a golden opportunity for personal gain, ignoring how the coup has resulted in the deaths of over 2,281 innocent civilians, the displacement of nearly a million IDPs, and the influx of nearly 70,000 refugees into neighboring countries. However, to what end the regime’s survival strategy will work is yet to be seen.
Regime soldiers and public officials are ruthless and gravely corrupted. The international community needs to understand that they are incentivized by the regime to be ruthless and gravely corrupted. This strategy appears to be the only strategy the regime sees in order to maintain power. The international community must awaken from the dream of the ASEAN’s five-point consensus and realize that the engagement approach will only serve to legitimize the regime’s actions.
Lian Bawi Thang is a PhD student in political science at the University of Hawaii, Manoa, and an East-West Center degree fellow. He has an MA in international politics from SOAS, University of London and previously worked in Myanmar as a political analyst and human rights activist.