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Military continues to tighten its grip on Myanmar

Since seizing power on February 1, Myanmar’s military has been gradually increasing the level of oppression with the country now frequently without the internet.  Due to speedy changes, laws guaranteeing freedom of assembly and protecting the sanctity of people’s homes and their communications have been cancelled.  Protests have been met with a heavy-handed response – and defacto leader State Counsellor Aung San Suu Kyi has had her detention extended.  Other senior members of the ruling National League for Democracy have also been arrested, with no sign of imminent release.

The coup occurred one day before Parliament was scheduled to meet for the first time after the NLD clearly won the election of November 8 with a comfortable majority, which was seen as something of a referendum on the rule of Aung San Suu Kyi.  However, the opposition Union Solidarity and Development Party (USDP) said it did not recognise the results and called for the election to be run again – but without offering any evidence to back up their claims.  The NLD victory was quickly recognised by regional powers such as India, Japan and Singapore.

Nevertheless, the election had elements of controversy because simmering ethnic conflicts meant that security was used as an excuse to prevent many Rohingya – the brutally-persecuted Muslim minority – from casting a ballot.  Voting was also cancelled in parts of Rakhine state for security reasons, as well as in Shan and Kachin.  Out of a total estimated 37 million eligible voters, it is thought that as many as two million were disenfranchised as a consequence of security concerns – either real or imagined.

U.S. Marines and sailors aboard the amphibious assault ship USS Essex fill 16-liter water bladders to prepare to deliver humanitarian aid to the Burmese victims of Cyclone Nargis, May 16, 2008. (USN photo)

While Aung San Suu Kyi is hardly popular with these various minority groups – particular amongst the Rohingya, many of whose candidates were barred from standing – it seems unlikely that these people would vote for the military-backed USDP.  While the elections were far from perfect, they did seem a firm indication that the NLD had been convincingly returned for another term.

Even though Myanmar returned to a condition of partial democracy in 2011 – a move reinforced by the first truly representative election of 2015 – the military has always been in a strong position.  Of the 1,171 seats in Parliament, the generals are guaranteed 25% of them.  If that isn’t good enough, under the same coercive agreement negotiated in 2008 with the then opposition they also receive three key ministries: Defence; Home Affairs; and Border Affairs.

The significance of these portfolios goes way beyond their already considerable formal importance and allows the military to continue making money through various criminal activities such as drug smuggling; the gem trade and illegal logging.  The 2,000km border with China has been particularly porous – and therefore lucrative – though it should be noted that Beijing is now in the process of building a 600km barrier along part of it to try and eliminate the worst of the problems.

One of the large mysteries of the coup is: why have the military even bothered?  It’s not as if their role was being questioned, or their ability to make money and influence politics threatened – at least not in any obvious way. Aung San Suu Kyi gave them a free hand in the persecution of the Rohingya – and lost a huge amount of international goodwill by choosing to support the generals rather than the people of Myanmar.

As it happens, Myanmar’s military are particularly paranoid – which is saying a lot when compared with other regional powers such as Thailand and Vietnam.  They are comparable to North Korea – or Indonesia under Suharto – often seeing threats and conspiracies where none exist.  One of the most disgraceful examples of this was in 2008 when the Irrawaddy River delta was completely devastated by Cyclone Nargis, which killed between 150,000 and 200,000 people, making it probably the worst natural calamity to befall the country.

The military regime was initially opposed to any foreign aid – and was especially suspicious of a USN Task Group led by the helicopter carrier USS Essex, which sat off the coast and was denied access to the country because of the patently absurd belief that it was all a cover for an Iraq-style invasion. The USS Essex and other ships in the group were ready to airlift in thousands of tonnes of desperately needed relief aid.  They waited for a fortnight for permission that never came – leading to thousands, or even tens of thousands, of unnecessary deaths entirely due to Myanmar’s government.

Another early example of military paranoia was the unnecessary creation of the new capital city Naypyidaw built over a decade on a greenfield site with construction starting in 2002, apparently for “security reasons.”  What these could be, no one was able to say – but it led to the desperately poor country spending a fortune on a completely useless project just to satisfy the whims of the military.  The previous capital of Yangon – formerly Rangoon – remains the country’s largest city and commercial hub.

The question now is what can be done, and as usual the answer is targeted economic sanctions – especially if they can be directed at the military. Singapore is currently the largest investor in Myanmar and that might give it some leverage.  China and Japan are also not without influence, but the position of Beijing – not a natural friend of democracies – is ambivalent, though to be fair it has called for a restoration of normality.

As usual, it will be the long-suffering people of Myanmar who will once again have to put up with the tyranny of the military.  In the background, it is possible that Indonesia might also have some influence.  There are well-founded reports that in the early 2000s some influential members of the Indonesian military were able to persuade their colleagues in Myanmar that a return to democracy was not such a bad thing – after all, they had survived the downfall of Suharto in 1999 without experiencing much retribution.  Let’s hope that they can do something similar behind the scenes again.

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