by Cecilia Brighi. General Secretary of Italy-Burma Together
To explain the origins of the February 1 military coup, a brief introduction needs to be made. The last 5 years of Aung San Suu Kyi’s government (1 April 2016 – 1 February 2021) marked a series of positive socioeconomic results for Burma, but at the same time highlighted the limits of a difficult and poorly-tolerated coexistence between military and civil power.
This struggle has produced fundamental steps forward, such as the shift in control of the entire public administration from the general directors of the ministries, to the administrators of the last township; from the hands of the military, to those of the Burmese leader’s cabinet. Or the implementation of a series of fundamental investments, such as those in energy networks: electricity use throughout the country has increased from 33% to 50% in four years. Another clear move forward has been the construction of roads and bridges, where previously there were only paths that connected villages. The school sector has seen a dramatic increase in invested resources: from 251 million in 2102, to 1.2 billion US dollars in 2016. The same goes for investments in the health sector, which has grown from 20.2 million US dollars in 2012 to 840 million in 2017/18.
But the thorny tripartite dialogues for peace between the army, civil government, and ethnic representatives have unfolded in fits and starts. The distances have not shortened, especially in the face of increased violence in the Kachin and Rakhine states—and no longer only with attacks by the national army against the Rohingya populations, but also against the Rakhine Buddhist ones.
Even the main goal of the transition to democracy, represented by the reform of the constitution imposed by the military, is still there. But it now seems unattainable. The military has never had any intention of downsizing its political and, above all, economic role.
This difficult and forced coexistence has not been very often well-understood by the international media, which have sometimes painted the relationship between Aung San Suu Kyi and the military as idyllic, or collaborative, to the detriment of ethnic nationalities. In 2017 violence against the Rohingya people broke out, once again. This violence comes from far away.
THE STAGES OF AN ESCALATION
On this point, some dates are fundamental to explain how the Councilor of State—also referred to as the Lady—did not remain immobile, as is believed, in the face of the Rohingya crisis and the condition of extreme poverty in the Rakhine State. This poverty has contributed to unleashing a struggle between the poor.
Here are the dates:
April 1, 2016: The government of the National League for Democracy (NLD) takes office.
September 16, 2016: Just 5 months after the start of the legislative mandate, with the total opposition of the military, the government forms a Commission chaired by Kofi Annan. The objective is to identify solutions to the repeated attacks and violence against the Rohingya, but also against the other ethnic minorities of the Rakhine State. Over the past few years, the campaign against Muslims—launched by a group of nationalist Buddhist monks, flanked by the military and their party of reference—attacked the NLD, accusing the Lady’s government of risking transforming the country from Buddhist to Muslim. The coalition of military, monks and the nationalist right-wing party mounts a climate of mistrust towards the Rohingya, who are portrayed as illegal immigrants without culture, polygamous, with many children who are ready to invade the country at the expense of Buddhists. So the government approves four laws to protect race and religion.
August 24, 2017: Aung San Suu Kyi and Kofi Annan present the Concluding Recommendations, a 60-page report from the Commission communicating fundamental guidelines for building peace and socioeconomic change in the state. This important work plan proposes the rewriting of the law on citizenship, the freedom of movement of the Rohingya, the closure of internal refugee camps, the promotion of decent work and productive investments, gender equality, and a series of measures to overcome ethnic and religious discrimination. Obviously, Min Aung Hlaing, head of the armed forces and of the military party, speaks outwardly against these measures throughout the Commission’s working period, because normalization of the fundamental guidelines would have meant a reduction in the military’s role.
August 15, 2017: The day after the presentation of the Annan Commission, the Arakan Rohingya Salvation Army terrorist group attacks 30 border police posts in Rakhine, killing the soldiers and also 90 Hindus from a nearby village. The army and the Rakhine militias react with the violence seen by many in the international media. Result: 700,000 people fleeing to Bangladesh.
October 1, 2017: The Councilor of State sets up a strategy for the reconstruction of villages and the reintegration of the Rohingya through a fundraiser among Myanmar businesses. Subsequently, she appoints a Commission for the identification of responsibilities in indiscriminate violence. But nobody will come forward to talk about the attacks. Subsequently, the army tries to force the Lady to convene the National Security Commission (made up of a military majority) which, by Constitution, can suspend the Government and Parliament, as happened with the coup last February. Aung San Suu Kyi rejects these attempts. But her image is now blurred on the international level. The European Parliament takes away her Sakharov Prize and other institutions soon follow suit.
THE “LADY” IN DEFENSE OF MYANMAR
By now Aung San Suu Kyi is a figure weakened internationally but increasingly loved in the country. This is because she decides not to jeopardize the path for democratic transition and she takes a position which is certainly not very empathetic towards the Rohingya, who are portrayed as a foreign body in the country, and as sacrificial victims of the military.
The defense of her country that the Lady presents at the International Court of Justice helps to further strengthen the esteem of the Burmese towards her and to weaken her position internationally. The electoral results of November 8, 2020 assign her an overwhelming victory. The NLD gets 83% of the seats available (25% of the seats are assigned to the military), while the Solidarity and Development Union Party (USDP), the puppet party of the military, gets only 7%. The result is too little for the commander-in-chief of the armed forces, Min Aung Hlaing, to be elected President of the Republic. This position is fundamental for him, as it would protect him from convictions for war crimes and genocide that could come from the International Criminal Court and the International Court of Justice.
Thus on January 29, unsuccessfully and in a turbulent encounter, the deputy of Min Aung Hlaing tries to impose Hlaing’s leadership upon Aung San Suu Kyi. Thus we arrive at the coup, which did not arise out of nothing. The overwhelming electoral victory of the NLD surely jeopardized the enormous economic interests of the army. The chief of the Burmese armed forces and a small group of generals control the country’s most profitable sectors (mining, gas, oil, precious stones, industry, etc.) through the two large holding companies—the Union of Myanmar Economic Holdings Limited (Umeh) and the Myanmar Economic Corporation (Mec)—which have 120 companies and subsidiaries under them. Not to mention, the illegal economy: Burma is the first producer of methamphetamines in the world, and the second of opium, all under the control of militias linked to the military.
Revenues from methamphetamine production reached US $ 71 billion in 2019. The sale of jade reached 31 billion in 2014, 56 million for the sale of rubies, and so on. The newly elected NLD government would have approved new rules on the transparent governance of companies, especially extractive ones, on the obligations to assess the social and environmental impact of large infrastructure projects planned with China, and above all, a new law to seriously combat the production of opium and amphetamines. So there would have been a drastic cut in the astonishing profits—which never arrived in the state’s coffers, but rather in those of the foreign military accounts, which the International Monetary Fund has estimated to be 6.7 billion US dollars.
A NECESSARY COUP D’ETAT
Thus the coup d’etat is necessary, and certainly involves China and Russia. On January 21, the Chinese foreign minister arrives in Burma and meets the commander-in-chief of the armed forces. On January 26, the Russian Defense Minister arrives with a large delegation of military personnel—merely five days prior to the coup. Is it more realistic that the Burmese military would have embraced the program from the past two governments?—or their friends? Indeed, over the past 20 years, over 10,000 Burmese military troops have been trained in Russian academies.
China is the primary exporter of arms to Burma (50%), while Russia is the secondary (17%). It is quite unlikely that in the January meetings the military kept silent about their coup program. But even if they had the support of China and Russia, they certainly fared poorly with their own country. Their own country seems not to have grasped that the military was effectively a state within a state. Military actors thought that the arrest of politicians, the promise to hold new elections after a year, and the attempt to continue to govern in a climate of normality and freedom could be enough to stem the criticism. Instead, they found themselves against the whole country. Presently, all productive sectors have stopped. No one in the public offices had any intention of returning to work under the control of the military. So every day that has passed, a ministry, a bank, the factories of the industrial areas, the railway stations, the airports, the ports—all have closed.
The country has done what the European Union did not want to do. It sanctioned the Burmese military economy by not working anymore, thus bringing about an extraordinary political change. Women, always considered as subordinates and “weak,” have taken the helm of important pieces of the newborn Civil Disobedience Movement (CDM). They coordinate the unions through industrial zone strikes. Young people have invaded the streets creatively and hacked into ministry systems, stealing valuable information for the opposition. The young parliamentarians elected in November formed the Committee Representing Pyidaungsu Hluttaw (CRPH)—the committee that represents the parliament—and they formed an alternative government.
But the most unexpected success of the coup for the country is the alliance between the democratic opposition, and ethnic nationalities, including their own small armies. The CRPH welcomes the alliance with the ethnic groups, stresses the need to build a federal and democratic union with all ethnic groups, and has begun to draft a democratic and federal constitution, replacing the one imposed by the military.
The exponential increase in indiscriminate killings that have bloodied the streets of the country every day, the use of weapons of war, the aerial bombardments on Karen villages—even on the day of the shameful celebration of the armed forces, in the presence of the Russian deputy defense minister and of other friendly diplomats (China, Thailand, Laos, Cambodia, Vietnam, Pakistan, India and Bangladesh)—produced another unimaginable result two months ago: the idea of building a federal and democratic army. The near future will certainly be dramatic. The repression of the coup military will continue to increase. They are exhausted and must strike and suffocate the peaceful revolt.
Certainly, the alliance between all the ethnic armies and their coordinated intervention will undoubtedly raise the level of confrontation. The confrontation, if it happens, will be between an army of 500,000 well-equipped soldiers plus a police force of over 100,000 units with very modern armaments, against the ethnic armies that together number 100,000 soldiers—and they will certainly not even be as polished as the soldiers in the March 27 parade.