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CWA # 429, 21 February 2021

Conflict Reader
Civilian protests vs military: Three factors will decide the outcome in Myanmar

  Aparupa Bhattacherjee

History has proven that the protests alone are not enough; Tatmadaw's economic stakes and the Chinese support will determine the success of civilian resistance.

The coup has brought the people to the streets against the military, demanding the restoration of democracy and the release of the leaders. What started as a civil disobedience movement by the doctors has now expanded to large scale organised street protests. After the initial hesitation in applying pressure against the protestors, the military now has started using force. The second week has already witnessed a few casualties. Will the protests succeed in restoring democracy? Three factors will play a crucial role in enabling the protests leading towards the restoration of democracy. 

Protests are not unique to Myanmar
The present protest is numerically stronger and organised. There is participation from different sectors - civilians, activists, artists, medical staffs, trade unions, pregnant mothers and the LGBTQ community. The zeal and enthusiasm are on full scale and people seems to be determined to take back their democracy. However, the following three factors will play a larger role between the civilian protests and the military response.

First, history proves the protests needs the support of other factors
Since 1962, the first coup under the leadership of General Ne Win, the country has been under an authoritarian government. This government came to an end in 1997 which paved a way for the same nature of governance under a new name of State Peace and Development Council (SPDC). SPDC under the leadership of General Than Shwe ended with 2010 elections when USDP came to power. Hence, the protest for change and democracy was a common event during this period. 

The two most prominent protests which have been revered by the Myanmarese and in international history are the protests of 1988 and 2007. 1988 referred to as 8888 Uprising (commonly referred to due to the dates of the first mass protest) though remembered to be students protest the trigger was different. The protest was an outcome of the demonetisation policy introduced by General Ne Win’s government that year. In 2007, the closed and nationalised economy of the country was crippled adding to this was international sanctions and lack of jobs. So, similar to 1988, these economic causes triggered the second significant protest in the same year. But this is only remembered to be a protest where the Buddhist monks took the led and opposed a political body. Thus, this protest is referred to as the Saffron Revolution, and not remembered for its larger economic reason. 

Both the protests may seem political were actually supported by other factors especially the economy. This is not the case with the current 2021 protests, which is politically instigated. Even during the previous protests, the changes did not happen immediately. In 2010, when the Tatmadaw agreed to the road to democracy, the factors such as international pressure, sanctions and a stagnant economy had a larger role rather than the 1988 and 2007 protests.

Second, the military has a larger stake in holding the power
When Tatmadaw came to power in 1962, they were mostly welcomed due to the failure of the democratic government under the leadership of U NU. However the citizens never foresaw the continuation of power and Tatmadaw’s disinterest to let go of power even in the future. The Tatmadaw strongly believes that they are the best to run the country. Years of control has also enabled the military to accumulate political and economic power. In a closed nationalised economic structure, the businesses, industries and mines are all owned by the Generals and their extended family. 

The above is a common phenomenon in all military authoritarian government. Similarly in Pakistan, as explained by Ayesha Siddiqa in her book ‘Military Inc.: Inside Pakistan’s Military Economy’, the military capital is being used for personal benefit. In the case of Myanmar, the situation is no different. During the military and USDP tenure, all the national capital was military capital; all were being used for personal benefit. This is one of the primary motivations for the military to retain power. The 2008 Constitution became the tool for the military to retain power through the 25 per cent reservation in both the Houses. 2020 election results have threatened this arrangement as the USDP failed to get the minimum number required for sustaining this arrangement. The coup in this scenario became a necessity and this will also be the reason for them to resist public protest in order to hold on to their political and economic power.

Third, China's support is one of the biggest strength for Tatmadaw
Tatmadaw’s old ally China has shown continued support even after the coup. Both China and Russia hindered the United Nation Security Council (UNSC) and United Nation High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR) to release a joint statement. China has continuously maintained its stand that the coup is Myanmar’s internal issue. Chinese support for Tatmadaw is not a new phenomenon, it’s veto had deterred the UNSC in 2019 from charging Myanmar on human rights violation against the Rohingya. China was the only country that had supported Myanmar economically even when the country was declared a ‘Pariah State’, by the international community. Significant investments, business, mines in Myanmar is owned as a collaboration between a Chinese company and a company owned by military personnel. Also, most of the larger Chinese investments are in conflict-ridden provinces. These internal conflicts are between the Tatmadaw and ethnic armed groups; hence supporting Tatmadaw also benefits China in their larger economic investments and endeavours.
Given these reasons, it becomes important to note that in spite of the sheer numbers and the zeal of the protesters, it will not be enough for the Tatmadaw to step down. General Hlaing had promised to transfer power to a democratically elected government.

But as witnessed in the past, it will be naïve to believe in his words. Democracy is indeed a farfetched dream and similar to Hong Kong and Thailand, this protests might also slowly fizzle out. 

The above commentary is also published on our exclusive IPRI portal, a platform with a special focus on peace and conflict issues.


About the author

Aparupa Bhattacherjee is a PhD Scholar at the National Institute of Advanced Studies. She works on politics and conflicts in Southeast Asia.

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