World·Analysis

How Myanmar's generals kept their options open even as voters believed power was theirs

Even as civilian politicians passed laws and Myanmar was held up as an imperfect but inspiring example of peaceful transition to democracy, its military generals never gave up power.

Myanmar’s military generals kept a hold on the country despite its claim to democracy, experts say

Myanmar citizens hold up a picture of leader Aung San Suu Kyi after the military seized power in a coup in Myanmar, outside a United Nations venue in Bangkok on Tuesday. (Jorge Silva/Reuters)

Myanmar's democracy has been widely celebrated but never certain. It was a hope, of its people and of the Western world, a desire that may have been just a fragile fantasy. 

Yes, five years ago the outgoing military government seemed content to hand over much of its power. That was when Aung San Suu Kyi's party, the National League for Democracy (NLD), won a landslide victory in the country's first popular elections.

Indeed, at the time, the old government's newspaper called for "genuine national reconciliation" and even pointed out the dangers of rule by generals. "Military might alone cannot unite people, and may even lead to war and bloodshed," it proclaimed.

Nobody in a Myanmar military uniform is saying that now — not as soldiers round up de facto leader Suu Kyi and members of her civilian government, rejecting the results of an even bigger election victory for the NLD over the generals' proxy parties and staging a military coup. Their justification is an allegation of "election fraud" that's been dismissed by Myanmar's election commission.

After declaring a state of emergency, Commander-in-Chief Senior General Min Aung Hlaing and a platoon of senior officers will run the country undemocratically for the next year, just as previous military leaders ran Myanmar for 50 years before its first democratic government was elected in 2015.

But the fact is, even as civilian politicians passed laws and Suu Kyi represented the country at glittering state visits to Beijing, London and Washington, even as Myanmar was held up as an imperfect but inspiring example of peaceful transition to democracy, the generals never gave up power.

Myanmar national and military flags are waved by supporters onboard a vehicle Tuesday in Yangon, Myanmar. Hundreds of members of Myanmar's Parliament remained confined inside their government housing a day after the military staged a coup and detained senior politicians including Nobel laureate and de facto leader Aung San Suu Kyi. (Thein Zaw/The Associated Press)

The coup was their answer, says Yun Sun, a senior fellow at the Stimson Center, a non-partisan think-tank based in Washington, D.C. 

"It's an unsettled contest," Sun, who specializes in East Asia, said via Skype. "Although we may have seen the democratic process progressing slowly, the core issue of civilian-military relations in Myanmar has never been definitively answered." 

Back in 2008, the generals drafted a constitution that "carved out the protections they wanted for their political privileges," she said.

WATCH | Myanmar coup sparks international condemnation:

Myanmar coup sparks international condemnation, concern for Rohingya

The National

3 months ago
1:58
The military has seized power in Myanmar and detained Aung San Suu Kyi as well as other elected officials, sparking international concern for the Rohingya minority, many of whom fled past military crackdowns. 1:58

It guarantees them a quarter of the seats in parliament, the right to name key ministers of defence and of the interior, and to the ability to declare a state of emergency that effectively unravels the democratic gains — as they have now done.

Their roadmap was to what they called a "discipline-flourishing democracy," one that dangled the carrot of a multi-party civilian system, with generals holding the stick of "discipline" if they didn't like the results. 

If they felt the "chill" of the people's rejection, as Sun put it, and the threat that a popular government would take away their constitutional powers.

'If there's any group of people on the planet that needs this less, it's the people of Myanmar'

That was the minefield Suu Kyi tried to navigate for the past five years, striving to satisfy her supporters' desire for freedom — and the belief they had finally won it —  while holding off the military threat. Living up to her image as an international icon of the democratic struggle, the honours of a Nobel Peace Prize and other accolades was an extra, super-human challenge.

In the end, she failed at all of this, likely tainting her role as flag-bearer for Myanmar's democracy movement.

"The people of Myanmar have been through so much," said Tom Andrews, the UN's special rapporteur on Myanmar, told CBC News in a phone interview. "They've lived under brutal military regimes for some time. They're gripped with this pandemic. They are battling an economy that has them on their heels. If there's any group of people on the planet that needs this less, it's the people of Myanmar."

WATCH | Bob Rae calls for internationally co-ordinated response to Myanmar coup:

Bob Rae calls for internationally coordinated response to Myanmar coup

Power and Politics

3 months ago
3:47
Bob Rae, Canada's Ambassador to the UN, weighs in on the coup in Myanmar and calls for an internationally coordinated response: "If you have individual countries going off and doing different things, it doesn't have any impact." 3:47

Suu Kyi tried to reassure the generals of their influence, involving them in government decisions and justifying their actions in a scorched-earth military campaign to kill or drive the Rohingya minority out of Myanmar. 

"She clearly was not happy with being put in the public position of having to defend the army around the world," said Bob Rae, Canada's UN ambassador and Ottawa's former special envoy on Myanmar. "And at the same time, not have the ability to basically control them."

"This really is the nub of the issue between her and the military," Rae said on the CBC's The Current

International community may have played a role

She reportedly hasn't had direct contact with Hliang in more than a year.

Suu Kyi's Myanmar also disappointed North American and European leaders, who might have hoped for a Western-oriented transformation.

Betrayed by her unwillingness to defend the Rohingya and uphold human rights, they ostracised Myanmar and imposed sanctions on its military leaders.

But in so doing, the Western world seems to have driven Myanmar back into the arms of China, which was ready to finance huge infrastructure projects for dams and deep sea ports, pipelines and energy ventures. 

Rohingya refugees from Myanmar living in camps in Bangladesh, shown on Tuesday, are condemning the military coup in their homeland and saying it makes them more fearful to return. (Shafiqur Rahman/The Associated Press)

Suu Kyi may have been suspicious of Beijing's motives, says Sun. "She was not willing to do everything the Chinese wanted her to do," she said. 

Myanmar's leader was trying to balance "how to benefit [Myanmar's] economy without sacrificing the country's security," she said.

China may offer a lifeline

In the end, though, Myanmar had no choice in signing big deals with China and may have even fewer options now.

Despite this, China hasn't signalled its support for the coup — simply "noting" the events and hoping that "all sides … can appropriately handle their differences."

Beijing's relations with Myanmar's generals haven't been entirely smooth and a years-old dispute over Chinese meddling in ethnic insurgencies near the border between the countries has left suspicion on both sides.

Still, with the United States and the West threatening increased sanctions against the new military government, China may well gain influence and financial leverage over Myanmar by default — an irresistible financial lifeline. 

The generals may have taken power in Myanmar, their efforts to guarantee control may have been successful for now. But it's not clear if that victory will last.

WATCH | Protest against the coup in Yangon:

People in Myanmar honk horns, bang on pots to protest coup

World

3 months ago
0:33
The sound of banging pots and car horns reverberated through Yangon, Myanmar's biggest city, in the first widespread protest against the military coup. 0:33

With the Western world's hopes and efforts at democracy-building dashed, it is lining up against them.

And Myanmar itself isn't the same country it was before this tentative transition to people power. No longer cut off from the rest of the world as it was a decade ago, citizens have watched, witnessed and absorbed democratic trends through their leaders and smart phones.

More than ever, they see themselves as voters, political participants and even activists who aren't willing to accept the generals' "disciplined democracy."

At least, not without making noise, as they were in the city of Yangon last night —  with videos showing them clanging pots and blaring horns expressing their anger. 

ABOUT THE AUTHOR

Saša Petricic

Senior Correspondent

Saša Petricic is a Senior Correspondent for CBC News, specializing in international coverage. He has spent the past decade reporting from abroad, most recently in Beijing as CBC's Asia Correspondent, focusing on China, Hong Kong, and North and South Korea. Before that, he covered the Middle East from Jerusalem through the Arab Spring and wars in Syria, Gaza and Libya. Over more than 30 years, he has filed stories from every continent.

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