Endgame in Myanmar to reset political landscape

History is a good guide.

Despite widespread media coverage and vocal support given to the protesters against the coup, it is speculated that the endgame will be in favor of the junta.  By Lee Kok Leong, executive editor, Maritime Fairtrade 

Myanmar has been besieged by protests and strikes, with casualties on both sides, since the army detained the NLD civilian government on 1 February and installed a new loyalist government.  

The army stepped in to oust the government, saying that it had repeatedly ignored complaints of fraud in an 8 November general election, which was won overwhelmingly by NLD.  

This claim may be true, but at its heart, the unraveling of the army-civilian partnership boils down to the competing political ambition of two key players.  Both NLD’s Aung San Suu Kyi and military chief Senior General Min Aung Hlaing want to be president.

With constant news that the pro-NLD factions are holding strikes and paralyzing the new government to force a reversal of the coup, and the much-touted vocal condemnation and sanctions imposed by western countries, it seems that the junta is losing ground.  

As the political machination is not open and transparent, and the military’s inner workings are notoriously opaque, assessing the situation and determining the outcome is difficult.  However, analyzing important factors and using recent regional history as a guide, it is probable that in the end, the junta will emerge with the upper hand and hold on to power.

Guns and money

Min Aung Hlaing, as head of the armed forces and two huge conglomerates, is in control of both the guns and money, crucial bargaining chips that tip the balance of power in his favor.  

Countries that are major trading partners and foreign investors will not be abandoning the junta anytime soon.  Their relationship with Myanmar is not dependent on who formed the government of the day but rather who is holding power.  With this distinction, these countries have effectively given implicit support to the coup.

China is Myanmar’s largest trading partner and second biggest foreign investor while Singapore is the biggest foreign investor.  China has so far blocked significant UN action on Myanmar and emphasized that other countries should not interfere in Myanmar’s internal affairs.  Singapore’s foreign minister and prime minister said they do not support widespread sanctions as these can hurt ordinary citizens.

Min Aung Hlaing has threatened to crack down on any media outlets if they continue to use the word ‘coup’ to describe what his armed forces have done.  He is right, coup does not accurately describe the situation as the junta has not given up any power since 1962 when it began to rule the country.

Although in 2011, the junta began to loosen its stranglehold on politics and implement elections and other reforms, the source of real power still lies with the military.  This is because of two important factors.  Legally, their power is guaranteed under the Constitution but more importantly, the armed forces do not report to the civilian government but to Min Aung Hlaing instead.  

On the economic front, the two billion-dollar conglomerates, Myanmar Economic Corporation and Myanmar Economic Holdings Public Company Limited, have controlling stakes in a large swathe of the economy, including mining, manufacturing, banking, real estate, tourism, transport, pharmaceutical, insurance and telecommunications.  

They work with international partners, including government agencies and private companies, from China, Singapore, Japan, South Korea, and Thailand, among others, which so far have not shown any signs of siding with the western countries led by the US, UK and Canada.  

Not the west’s priority

Another important factor to consider is the current global affairs, which work against the pro-NLD factions.  Realistically, Myanmar is not the west’s priority as the coup does not threaten any national or financial interests.  

Additionally, the west is in the midst of dealing with a global pandemic and vaccine shortage and moreover, the US is also confronting a serious fallout from the recent insurrection and assault on democracy from a former president.  

It does not help that Aung San Suu Kyi has fallen out with western countries and tarnished her own pro-democracy reputation by siding with the junta regarding the persecution of Rohingya, a Muslim ethnic minority group.

In 2019, Suu Kyi represented the country at a trial in the International Court of Justice, in which she robustly defended against accusations of ethnic cleansing by the military.  She is now being seen as a pariah by many western countries and institutions.

Therefore, the west is not going to divert attention, resources and efforts and call up favors to help Myanmar when there is no benefit.

History as a mirror to the future

There are numerous successful coups, counter-protests and crackdowns of dissidents in the recent history of Asia.  As a guide to the probable endgame in Myanmar, two case studies are relevant: the 2019-2020 Hong Kong protests and 2014 military coup in Thailand.  The Chinese communists and Thai junta have largely written the playbook for their counterpart.

So, with the west not going all in to help NLD and major Asian countries giving tacit support to the junta, it is likely that, based on the outcomes of the above examples, there will be an increase in crackdowns before the protests fizzle out and the situation returns back to busines as usual.

The protests, now increasingly violent, will jeopardize the economy and livelihoods and the junta is likely to turn the tables on the protesters by blaming them of spreading chaos and fear, causing damage to the economy and thus harming the general public not involved in the protests.

Thereafter, the junta can use legal means, for example, through enacting a new constitution and security law, and also the coercive powers of the state, to harass and weaken their opponents and to conduct mass arrests and hand down heavy prison sentences.

When the protests dwindled, they will continue to tighten control through law enforcement, censorship and the courts.  Social media and the internet will also be heavily policed and closely monitored.  Eventually, when elections are held, the authority can also manipulate, in a legal way, the outcome.  

So, what will be the likely outcome in Myanmar?  After the dust has settled, it is probable that Min Aung Hlaing will retire from active military service, join a military-backed political party, put his name up for election and eventually be elected as president of Myanmar.  

Image credit: Robert Bociaga Olk Bon / Shutterstock.com

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Lee Kok Leong

Lee Kok Leong

Kok Leong, executive editor, has overall editorial responsibility for the direction and focus of Maritime Fairtrade. He has two decades of working experiences, including holding senior regional roles in business-to-business (B2B) print and online publications. He enjoys his work as a journalist, and regards it as a calling.

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