Authoritarianism and Resistance in Myanmar
Delphine Schrank, The Rebel of Rangoon, (Nation Books, 2016)
Since it staged a coup d’etat in February, Myanmar’s military has waged war against the country’s democracy and its own people. It has killed nearly 1,000 civilians and has bombed civilian populations in border areas. It has arrested nearly 8,000 people, including children and family members of dissidents it cannot find. And it has already put Aung San Suu Kyi and the other aging leaders of the National League for Democracy, which routed the army’s party for a second straight election in November 2020, on trial. A poet who wrote that the “revolution dwells in the heart” was arrested and tortured to death. His body returned to his family without his heart.
Some in Myanmar are fighting back. Various armed ethnic insurgencies have stepped up their attacks on government forces. Though it has over 350,000 men under arms, the military, known as the Tatmadaw, is spread thin across multiple fronts. A nationwide civil disobedience movement has confronted the military, bringing the economy, health, and education systems to the brink of collapse. The World Bank is expecting at least an 18 percent contraction of Myanmar’s gross domestic product in 2021.
Myanmar is on the verge of becoming a failed state. The Tatmadaw is digging in for the long haul, extracting enough rents from oil, gas, gems, timber, and hydroelectricity sales to China and Thailand to enrich itself. And it gets its cut of the surging trade in illicit narcotics from the Golden Triangle region, now among the largest centers of synthetic drug production in the world.
And all of this matters for the United States. While its economy is small, Myanmar is strategically located between India and China. Political unrest is making it a safe haven for drug trafficking, money laundering, and transnational crime. With an underfunded health system on the verge of collapse, Myanmar is now a COVID-19 hotspot. Developments in Myanmar are of immense interest to the geopolitics of Southeast Asia and to policymakers in Beijing and New Delhi.
The Military in Myanmar’s History
Myanmar’s military began to dominate the country’s politics soon after it gained independence from Britain in 1948. Gen. Ne Win staged a coup d’etat in 1962 and implemented the “Burmese Way to Socialism.” The government nationalized foreign assets; revalued the currency in 45- and 90-kyat notes because Win thought nine was a lucky number, which wiped out savings; and closed off the country to trade and investment. The country was hermetically sealed, leaving the egregious human rights situation largely unreported. In the late 1980s, Win’s own generals sidelined him and allowed a brief liberalization. This culminated in the 1990 election that the newly established National League for Democracy won and that the Tatmadaw annulled.
The military junta, officially the State Law and Order Restoration Council, known by its Orwellian acronym SLORC, ran the country into the ground in its own way. Christina Fink’s brilliant work, Living Silence: Burma Under Military Rule, covered just how totalitarian a society Myanmar under the Tatmadaw was.
But under the State Law and Order Restoration Council, there were two distinct changes: The country jettisoned autarky, and the military grew larger. First, in place of the “Burmese Way to Socialism,” the government embraced crony capitalism. Under this model, the military dominated the country’s natural resources, emerging as the largest economic player as a result.
Second, the council increased the size of the military from 200,000 to over 350,000 personnel. And despite intermittent ceasefires, the State Law and Order Restoration Council was almost always at war with several of the dozens of armed organizations along the country’s periphery. The Tatmadaw waged campaigns, known as the “four cuts,” a brutal counter-insurgency doctrine that included the targeting of civilians, torture, gang rapes, conscription of civilians as porters, and looting. This was no population-centric strategy; it was a scorched-earth effort to terrorize the population into submission.
At war constantly since 1948, the Tatmadaw cannot claim to have ever defeated an enemy. At best it negotiated ceasefires while setting its sights on the next ethnic group. This perpetual insecurity was exactly what the armed forces wanted. It allowed them to uphold their argument that the country was constantly at threat of breaking apart and that only they could hold it together. This pervasive anxiety allowed them to plunder the natural resources in the restive border regions.
While most international media coverage of Myanmar has always focused on Suu Kyi, the daughter of the country’s founder, she was in some ways an accidental democracy leader. She founded the National League for Democracy while home from the United Kingdom to take care of her ailing mother. Western leaders and journalists all too often personalize these relationships, awed by the tenacity and grace of the woman who was still able to lead her party to elections in 1990 despite being under house arrest. In all she was under house arrest for 17 years, winning the Nobel Peace Prize in 1991. To be sure, she has a steely determination and a conviction that she is fulfilling her father’s legacy.
Tepid Efforts to Liberalize
The military eventually made efforts to liberalize the country but always made sure its power was secure. In 2008, it issued a new constitution, which created a pathway to restore civilian governance. But the military’s domination of politics was clear: The constitution had dozens of articles that enshrined its political powers. It awarded the military 25 percent of the seats in parliament and required more than 75 percent of the vote to make any constitutional amendments.
And yet there were some reforms. Elections were held in 2010, although the National League for Democracy boycotted them because of a highly controversial election law that constrained opposition candidates. Reforms still progressed, and in 2015, the National League for Democracy was swept to power in what were deemed free and fair elections. The military ceded some influence, confident that its interests would be protected through block representation in parliament, control of key ministries, immunity from civilian purview of budgets or promotions, a business empire, and ongoing wars.
Once in government, the National League for Democracy proved equally inattentive to human rights concerns as the military. It acquiesced in the military’s genocide of the Rohingya, attacked the free press, and refused to implement the recommendations of independent U.N. and international commissions to provide legal protections and stop the assaults on the unarmed Rohingya community. Suu Kyi defended the Tatmadaw against charges of genocide in a suit brought by Gambia in the Hague.
Despite Suu Kyi’s help, the military still considered her a threat. In 2019 and 2020, she called for votes to amend the constitution to strip the military of its political power despite the near impossibility of getting it passed. In the November 2020 elections, in an even greater rout than in 2015, the National League for Democracy and allies inched dangerously close to securing 75 percent of seats, which would allow it to amend the constitution. The military declared, without evidence, the results to be fraudulent, and when the league didn’t back down, it staged a coup on Feb. 1, 2021.
It is in this context that it is worth reading Delphine Schrank’s The Rebel of Rangoon. The former Washington Post correspondent based her work, originally published in 2016, on clandestine interviews conducted from 2009 to 2012. The country was still quite closed and xenophobic, and Schrank could operate only on a tourist visa with no protections. She interviewed journalists and activists such as U Win Tin, a political prisoner for 19 years who spanned two distinct generations: The “88 generation,” which fled to the jungles or lived in exile after the military annulled the election in 1990, and the 2007 Saffron Revolution generation, which emerged from the State Law and Order Restoration Council’s economic incompetence.
By 2007, Myanmar was one of the least developed countries in the world. Botched currency and other reforms led to the collapse of the kyat. Though disastrous for ordinary people, the crisis was no worry for the military, whose rents and ill-gotten gains were all in foreign exchange. Inflation soared, and the price of staples went up, in some cases by 400 percent. People first took to the streets, but the Buddhist monks then took the lead. The saffron-robed monks had every reason to think that security forces would attack civilians, but were confident that the generals would not risk their own karma by ordering troops to open fire on the clergy, their path to attaining merit. Some 30 were gunned down, others were defrocked and arrested, and temples were occupied.
But during the entire Saffron Revolution, the National League for Democracy — which at that point was beleaguered and harassed but still a legal entity — was absent. This was a popular uprising against a totalitarian regime that the venerable opposition leaders never saw coming and never controlled. Indeed, Suu Kyi, aware of the military’s propensity for force, counseled against popular uprisings.
Schrank’s book goes into rich detail about how the National League for Democracy is organized, covers debates over timing and tactics, and reveals its inner workings. It covers the critical period after the Saffron Revolution through the decision to boycott the 2010 election and the decision to contest by-elections in 2012. Her work chronicles the incredibly hard work and danger of knitting together disparate groups, generations and factions such as student groups to trade unions into a nationwide party that ultimately defeated the military and gave the country so much hope in 2015 and in 2020.
It reminds the reader that the media pay far too much attention to leaders like Suu Kyi when the real work of politics is done by a coalition of activists working in great danger behind the scenes. Though Suu Kyi is omnipresent in the book, she is referred to as “Auntie,” a background figure whom the coalition of activists could unify behind.
While the generals factored in a small backlash and anticipated diplomatic opprobrium to their latest coup, they truly underestimated the resilience, courage, and determination of the population that has sustained nearly seven months of opposition to the military. The people benefitted from a decade’s worth of consistent economic growth, global integration, a freer press, and the proliferation of the internet and social media. They are not giving up 10 years of hard-won economic, civil, legal, and political progress without a fight.
What Happens Next
Rebel of Rangoon says a lot about what we should expect moving forward as the military seeks to entrench itself. Suu Kyi (76) is under arrest and could likely be in custody for the rest of her life. The average age of the majority of the nearly 30 detained senior political leaders is well over 70. The Tatmadaw thinks it can wait out the National League for Democracy’s leadership to quite literally die out. And it has reason to think that the strategy could work: The league was always a vehicle for Suu Kyi, not a broad-based party. Indeed, it has done a notoriously bad job at cultivating the next generation of leaders. Schrank is very frank about its failing in this regard. And with COVID-19 raging throughout the country and prison system while the military hoards supplies, the Tatmadaw seems to see the pandemic as an opportunity: Several National League for Democracy leaders have died from the virus while incarcerated.
As with the 2007 Saffron Revolution that Schrank chronicles, the current civil disobedience movement is largely leaderless at the national level. A new generation of leaders is being cultivated at the local level. The league is largely decapitated and/or absent. Indeed, Suu Kyi’s defense of the military for genocide so badly tarnished her that the international community is barely taking note of her arrest and show trial.
The new heroes, if they emerge, will be names that the outside world has never heard of. And given the pervasiveness and resources of the security forces, that is exactly what needs to happen. The National League for Democracy’s leadership is arrested and simply too stubborn to seek a negotiated offramp. The protests of 2021 have only diminished because of a raging pandemic that has brought the healthcare system to the brink of collapse. And the protestors did so against horrible odds — against a regime that has made no secret its willingness to torture detainees to death, engage in collective punishment, raze villages, and gun down unarmed citizens.
More, the collapse of the economy, including the near shutdown of the financial system, the collapse of imports and exports, the mass strikes and walk-offs, and already 20 percent decline of the values of the kyat will continue to fuel the ongoing unrest. With an 18 percent contraction of gross domestic product so far in 2021, the country’s 55 million people are hurtling into poverty.
Many of the leaders of the 88 Generation, the Saffron Revolution, and the founders of the league were activist-journalists. And much of Schrank’s work focuses on their information campaign, the use of exile media organizations such as the Voice of Democratic Burma, the Irrawaddy, and Radio Free Asia. Schrank chronicles the Tatmadaw’s military intelligence and Special Branch assaults on the press and the contested space of a new import to the country: cell phones.
Though Myanmar’s cyber capabilities are significant, there is already evidence that the sheer volume of data that the military intercepts on a daily basis is overwhelming. Encrypted platforms have made the civil disobedience movement possible.
What Schrank’s book does not address is the complex dynamics of Myanmar’s various ethnic armed organizations, apart from the degree to which they trained the urban youth of the 88 and Saffron generations. Here, Rebel of Rangoon is less of a guide for a complex landscape today. In the period Schrank covers, the democracy activists are non-violent. That is no longer the case.
An opposition National Unity Government has been established and is operating clandestinely on the ground as the junta fails to provide basic human services. It includes ousted government ministers, but it is more broad-based than the former government. The National Unity Government established the “people’s defense forces.” With few arms and resources, it has to rely on an alliance of armed ethnic groups, particularly the Karen National Army and the Kachin Independence Army. Schrank rightly notes that the State Law and Order Restoration Council-era military largely kept the armed groups apart from the non-violent democracy activists. Today, the National Unity Government is trying to coordinate the activities of both, with mixed results. They are clearly no match for the Tatmadaw in terms of manpower, training, and resources.
The National Unity government faces headwinds. The Tatmadaw has a 70-year history of divide and conquer, peeling off one opponent after another with promises of autonomy and control over natural resources. As a result, there has never been a strong alliance or any semblance of coordinated operations among the ethnic militias.
Several groups, including two of the best armed and equipped, the Kachin Independence Army and the Karen National Liberation Army, have pledged allegiance to the National Unity Government and stepped up attacks against the Tatmadaw. Other groups, such as the United Wa State Army, see utility in working with a diplomatically isolated and financially desperate military regime. The Wa control the majority of Myanmar’s illegal methamphetamines and heroin operations, both of which are becoming rapidly more productive, according to the U.N. Office of Drugs and Crime.
Still other organizations, such as the Arakan Army, are in flux. They neither condemned the coup nor ended their December 2020 ceasefire. But they have launched a few attacks to send a message that another front would not be in the Tatmadaw’s interests.
But what is new is that the fight is starting to be taken to the cities itself, with or without the approval of the National Unity Government. There has been a string of urban bombings targeting Tatmadaw forces and facilities near its party headquarters. A dozen pro-junta officials have been assassinated. And yet, the degree to which the National Unity Government has any command and control over this remains unknown. Either way, this campaign of urban violence is clearly one that the Tatmadaw did not anticipate.
Another unknown is the degree of unity among the Tatmadaw leadership. Was the decision to stage the coup broad-based among the senior officer corps? Or was it the decision of just the senior generals, the last gasp of the generation who came of age under military rule, and seek the spoils of that system?
The Tatmadaw’s officer corps has never split before. Its members live in cantonments, have their own school and university system, their own corporations that employ family members and provide sinecure for retired officers, and their own banks and media. The military works to keep its troops physically separated from the civilian population across all spheres of life.
But is this time different? The economic contraction will hurt the mid-tier officers very hard. Even some of the senior officers are not immune from the collapse of the economy, diminished job prospects for their children, and limited opportunities (if international sanctions start to bite) to travel abroad. Their children are as addicted to their smart phones as everyone else and are likely angered by the regular internet shutdowns.
In short, is the military’s wealth being shared widely enough to maintain unity in the armed forces? If it’s being concentrated in the hands of a few senior leaders, internal struggles could emerge. The Tatmadaw does have a history of putting some greedy and economically incompetent leaders out to pasture. If that’s the case, who is today’s Thein Sein searching for an off ramp?
After the coup in February, the Tatmadaw pledged to restore “democracy” in a year’s time. It then postponed that to August 2023. The armed forces appear to be adopting the Thai military playbook to cling to power, including the legal dissolution of the National League for Democracy; the arrest, harassment, exile or cooptation of members; the banning of politicians who have criminal records; the use of opaque national security laws; a shift to proportional representation; military appointed commissions; and capture of the judiciary.
Any military-backed government will not placate the population. There are years of underground organizing, party and coalition building ahead, all under very repressive conditions. That will require there to be armies of Rebels of Rangoon.
Zachary Abuza is a professor at the National War College and an adjunct professor in Georgetown University’s Security Studies Program. The views expressed here are his own and do not reflect the opinions of the National War College or Department of Defense.