On February 1st 2021 a coup d’état ended Myanmar’s decade-long experiment with democracy, ushering back in the ruthless military rule of the Tatmadaw. Since then, the “lady of Myanmar,” Aung San Suu Kyi, who became an icon for democracy after spending 15 years under house arrest, has been detained in an unknown location. She now faces various charges, including the possession of illegal walkie-talkies – an obvious pretext intended to keep her away from Myanmar’s political scene. Meanwhile, under the blazing sun of Myanmar, the Tatmadaw has re-established its reign of terror. Security forces have killed hundreds of opponents and injured thousands more. Authorities have also suspended most television programs and blocked access to Facebook and other social media sites.
Myanmar’s coup d’état has significant domestic and regional implications. Internally, historical ethnic divisions have seemingly softened, and formerly divided actors are now uniting against a common foe – the Tatmadaw. Regionally, the coup is sowing uncertainty throughout Myanmar’s neighboring countries, with serious consequences in two particular domains: first, the ASEAN bloc; second, China’s Belt and Road Initiative.
Ethnic minorities and the Bamar majority
Squeezed between India and China, Myanmar is a melting pot of cultures that counts more than 135 ethnic groups within its territory, with Buddhism being the dominant religion.
Since 1962, Myanmar’s ethnic division was cleverly exploited by Tatmadaw military forces as a tool to legitimize their rule. According to their distorted narrative, a military regime is necessary to defend Myanmar from the enemies of the nation, which consist of a cabal of ethnic minorities claiming autonomy and undermining national unity. Thus, in the Tatmadaw’s words, the military forces are the real guardians of the Buddhist nation of Myanmar.
The reality is quite different. The military rule has merely instrumentalized Myanmar’s ethnic diversity in order to cling to power. The mastermind of the February coup, Senior General Min Aung Hlaing, is widely known for commanding the extermination of entire villages belonging to various ethnic minority groups such as the Shan and the Kokang, and for authorizing the ethnic cleansing of Rohingya Muslims. In such a fragmented reality, the Tatmadaw has always feared an alliance between the Bamar majority, which mainly inhabits the country’s heartlands, and ethnic minority groups, who largely inhabit border areas. Such an alliance could in fact lead the civilian population to unite against the military, undermining their rule.
Today, in the mountainous periphery of Myanmar, the Tatmadaw’s worst nightmare is coming true.
In the frontier regions, groups of armed ethnic minorities have been fighting for autonomy for decades, for them, the military brutality that Bamar anti-coup protesters have experienced since February is nothing but a continuation of the same oppression they have been enduring for decades. In this sense, ethnic minorities provide important insights on the best tactics to fight against the Tatmadaw. Thus, since February, anti-coup protesters, namely members of the Civil Disobedience Movement (CDM), have fled to the mountainous periphery of Myanmar to collaborate with ethnic armed groups. Thousands of activists are now learning from these resistance groups how to load a rifle, throw hand grenades, and assemble firebombs, de facto transforming into a guerrilla force.
People like Nerdah Bo Mya, a member of the Karen National Union (KNU) – the oldest rebel group which protects the Karen ethnic minority – are showing their solidarity to Bamar anti-coup protesters. “We have heart for these kind of people, because we have gone through this ourselves and we know what kind of pain, what kind of suffering… what kind of atrocities they’re going through, so we can put ourselves in their shoes”, said Nerdah. Similarly, many among the Bamar population are now apologizing on social media for not acknowledging the minorities’ experience of repression over the past years. The military coup has now clearly revealed to the Bamar population the real extent of Tatmadaw’s brutality, leading Myanmar’s majority to soul-search and change their perspective towards ethnic minorities.
Thus, for now, the Bamar population and ethnic minorities are united against the military regime, with both parties applying the principle of “the enemy of my enemy is my friend,” leaving aside old tensions to fight against a common foe. However, looking to the future, doubts arise. Although this newly-emerged unity represents a great leap forward in Myanmar’s fractured social reality, the Bamar majority and the ethnic minorities seemingly have different plans for Myanmar’s future. Anti-coup protestors want democracy under Suu Kyi, while minorities want self-determination and autonomy, thereby leaving many questions unanswered.
The ASEAN bloc
At a regional level, the reaction to the military coup appears slow and limited. Like never before, Myanmar’s crisis has exposed an uncomfortable truth about ASEAN: the bloc is unable to reach a cohesive response to any common problem.
On one side, Indonesia, Malaysia, and Singapore have criticized the use of violence against Myanmar’s civil society. On the other side, Thailand, Laos, and Vietnam have remained largely silent, which does not come as a surprise, considering that Thailand’s prime minister himself gained power after a coup in 2014. Even worse, ASEAN recently invited the mastermind of the coup itself, Senior General Min Aung Hlaing, to their official summit in Jakarta. Thus, not only did ASEAN not show any effective response, such as suspending Myanmar’s membership, but it also indirectly legitimized Myanmar’s brutal generals. In addition, after Western states applied several sanctions on trade to punish the military regime, ASEAN members undermined these efforts by continuing to trade with Myanmar. Injecting billions of dollars of investment into Tatmadaw’s business empire, they are helping to cement a de facto military-oligarchic ruling class. Paralyzed in a permanent state of indecision, ASEAN is now facing the prospect of a civil war in one of its member countries, with the potential of a disastrous regional spillover effect. And on top of this, its coordinating power is inevitably losing credibility in front of the international community.
China’s Belt and Road Initiative
The military coup has also posed serious threats to China’s Belt and Road Initiative. Before, Beijing had closely collaborated with Aung San Suu Kyi’s democratic parliament, signing various contracts for future projects in Myanmar. In 2017, the two governments agreed to the China-Myanmar Economic Corridor agreement (CMED), which included various infrastructure projects that were intended to revitalize Myanmar’s economy, while providing China with a land route to the Indian Ocean via Myanmar. This would diminish Beijing’s over-reliance on the Strait of Malacca for oil and gas imports. Now, some analysts believe that these projects will be delayed due to Myanmar’s instability.
Only time will tell what the future holds for Myanmar. But there is no doubt that the military coup has unleashed a sequence of effects that will have impacts not only inside the country but also across the region. On one side, the coup offers opportunities for domestic social cohesion. On the other side, it represents a testing time for the ASEAN bloc and significant instability for China’s Belt and Road Initiative.
Carlotta is a MA candidate in International Affairs at the Defence Studies Department, King’s College London.