On 27th March, Myanmar’s powerful military (commonly known as the Tatmadaw), killed over 100 civilians protesting its 1st February overthrow of Aung San Suu Kyi’s democratically elected government. The Tatmadaw has reacted forcefully against demonstrators since the start of the protests, and this was not the first time it had killed civilians. However, the crackdown was unprecedented in its brutality. Despite the bloodshed, protestors defied the military by returning to the streets the very next day, and over a month later the protests show no sign of fading away.
The foundations of the chaos in Burma run deep. During colonial rule, the British governed the minority dominated periphery regions as self-governing frontier areas, separate from Burma proper. This divide and rule strategy saw ethnic minorities heavily recruited into the colonial army while the Bamar majority was excluded. The legacy of ethnic division was compounded by the founding of the modern Burmese state, which was largely built around the Bamar dominated army of the Burmese nationalists. The Rohingya crisis of 2015, which saw Suu Kyi, the symbol of Myanmar’s democracy, taking a nationalist line in defence of the Tatmadaw’s campaign of ethnic cleansing, emphasises just how deep ethnic divisions lie in Myanmar. Successive military regimes have exploited this ethnic dimension to remain in power, casting themselves as the defenders of the Bamar majority and promoting ethnic nationalism. Following decades of military rule, the military generals came to see themselves as the only ones who knew what was good for the country. However, the question remains, what prompted the Tatmadaw to seize power this time, and given the widespread public opposition to the coup, has it overplayed its hand?
Why did Myanmar’s military believe a coup was necessary?
The military has denied it carried out a coup and has instead claimed that it acted in defence of democracy, citing fraud and discrepancies in the 2020 general election, although the extent to which it genuinely believes this is debateable. Consequently, there are other theories as to why the Tatmadaw seized power. Its support for the democratic transition has always been contingent upon its ability to retain a high degree of influence in the country’s political system, Myanmar’s constitution reserves 25% of seats in parliament for the military and has a threshold of 75% for any constitutional changes. However, the landslide 2020 election result for Aung San Suu Kyi’s National League for Democracy was seen as providing a mandate for constitutional reform and increased the pressure on the military not to stand in the way. It is no coincidence that the coup occurred the day the new parliament was due to be sworn in. It has also been suggested that powerful military chief General Min Aung Hlaing was acting to protect his personal interests. The General was due to retire in 2021 and, faced with the potential threat of international prosecution for genocide against the Rohingya, may well have acted to extend his immunity.
Why has the coup faced such resistance?
Myanmar has changed since being put on the path back to civilian rule. Reform has been slow, but Myanmar’s large young population has experienced greater personal freedoms and better access to education, information, and the rest of the world. After experiencing these freedoms, this new generation has little desire to live under the restrictive military rule of previous decades. This attitude can be seen in the prominence of the three-finger salute in images of the protests. The symbolic gesture has been widely used by young activists across South East Asia as a sign of defiance against authoritarianism. Believing it can reimpose military rule as if nothing has changed represents a significant gamble by the Tatmadaw. It is an even greater gamble to do so having just removed a popular democratic government. Aung San Suu Kyi holds a revered status in Myanmar, and further endeared herself to the people by risking her international reputation to defend Myanmar (and by extension the Tatmadaw) against accusations of genocide at the International Court of Justice. This despite her previous long imprisonment at their hands. Suu Kyi’s landslide election victory not only demonstrated her and the NLD’s enduring popularity amongst the people, but also highlighted Myanmar’s growing rejection of the Tatmadaw. The military’s proxy party won only 33 of 476 seats. Even those activists who turned away from the NLD as a result of their inaction over the Rohingya crisis have proven willing to stand alongside them in opposition to the coup.
What does this mean for Myanmar?
In the short term, the Tatmadaw is under increasing pressure from both inside and out. The regime’s initial support from Russia and China, who blocked condemnation of the coup at the UN, has waned as the crackdown has grown increasingly bloody. On 10th March both countries backed a unanimous statement from the UN Security Council denouncing the Tatmadaw’s violent response to protests. ASEAN, the regional group of Myanmar’s neighbours, is divided over the issue. However, Malaysia and Indonesia have been heavily critical, and the group has pressed Min Aung Hlaing to commit to an end to the violence. With the regime increasingly isolated internationally, Western powers have been ratcheting up the pressure. In the days before the recent crackdown, the US and UK imposed economic sanctions on Myanmar’s two vast military conglomerates. These sanctions will hurt, but it is domestically where the military faces a greater reckoning. The coup and the brutal crackdown that followed has tarnished the Tatmadaw’s image. If anger towards the military continues to rise then a growing number of people in Myanmar may begin to aspire to a future without it. Nevertheless, the Tatmadaw is unlikely to change course. For all the pressure it faces, the military has shown itself ready to use force to put down protests, and likely knows that China, although displeased, will not go as far as to abandon it internationally. Therefore, there is a good chance the military can ride out the protests and succeed in its initial objectives. Min Aung Hlaing could delay his retirement and the Tatmadaw avoid the prospect of major constitutional reform which curtails its power.
However, the generals do not appear to have considered the long-term consequences of their actions. For one, by gambling on a coup to improve its position the military has thrown away a political situation which remained immensely favourable to it, and once it reaches its self-imposed deadline for new elections in 2022, it is difficult to envisage a scenario in which it benefits. If it holds a free election, it will almost certainly lose, and face an NLD or unity government which will be empowered and unlikely to compromise following the events of the coup. On the other hand, if it attempts to retain power, it will erode what little respect and legitimacy it has left.
More significantly, by choosing to overthrow Suu Kyi’s popular and increasingly nationalistic government, the Tatmadaw has set itself at odds with its core constituency, Myanmar’s Bamar majority. For an institution which derives a large degree of legitimacy from its role as the protector of the Bamar ethnicity, the brutal suppression of the predominantly Bamar protestors makes such a mantra ring increasingly hollow. The chaos of the protests and widespread disaffection with the military unleashed by the coup has also emboldened and reenergised the country’s various ethnic militias, several of whom have stepped up their offensives, with increasing success. This is not the only way in which the Tatmadaw’s grip on power has been weakened by the effects of the coup. The military takeover and accompanying crackdown have revealed to many Bamar the true extent of the Tatmadaw’s brutality, which has had the effect of facilitating a growing understanding of the plight faced by Myanmar’s minorities. The consequence has been tentative cooperation between the Bamar dominated anti-coup movement and several of the ethnic groups fighting the military. Any reconciliation, even if limited for now, will serve to diminish the Tatmadaw’s ability to divide and rule.
In short, the February coup may well have preserved the Tatmadaw’s immediate political interests, but it has also had several major consequences for the military’s long-term prospects of retaining its entrenched position within Myanmar’s state and society. In fact, by prioritising short-term gain over long-term strategy, the coup has significantly undermined several of the key aspects which make up the Tatmadaw’s claim to legitimacy, and as a result could end up costing it far more than it stood to lose in the first place.
Charlie Lovett is an MA student in International Conflict Studies at King's College London. His main interests are humanitarian intervention, human security, and the liberal world order. Currently he is focusing on researching topics in International Relations which look set to dominate the forthcoming decades, one of which is the conflict between democracy and authoritarianism in the Indo-Pacific region.