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After 50 days in power, Myanmar's junta is flailing desperately

Old tactics of coercion and control are not working

| Myanmar
Protesters give first aid to Phay Thein Kyaw, a coup protester shot during a crackdown in the Yangon township of Hlaing on March 17.   © Reuters

Philipp Annawitt served as an adviser to Myanmar's parliaments and government from 2015 to 2021. Moe Hteet is a political activist based in Myanmar. She writes here under a pen name.

Myanmar's coup was a big mistake.

The country's ruling junta -- an oligarchy comprising senior army officers and their cronies -- seized power to defend its political and economic interests against the pro-market and anti-corruption reforms being implemented by the elected National League of Democracy government.

Over a decade ago, the military modeled Myanmar's governance system on Indonesia's transition from military rule, guaranteeing both an economic and a political role for itself. Now, threatened by an uncompromising NLD government, they hit the reset button: a lightning coup to oust Aung San Suu Kyi's government, and rule with an iron fist. Then -- if really necessary -- herald a new "democratic transition" without the NLD.

In a message unprecedented in Southeast Asian diplomacy, the chief of Indonesia's military condemned the coup, pointedly offering the junta advice on "building professional armed forces in a democratic context." Unlike their Indonesian counterparts, Myanmar's generals seem unable to see that Myanmar has changed, and are proving incapable of adapting to the new reality.

Look at their suppression tactics. After decades of fighting Myanmar's multiple ethnic minority insurgencies, the military has honed a specific way of operating: stoking inter-ethnic hatred, terrorizing civilians and living off ethnic land. They rely on loyal crack troops, moving them to where the killing needs doing.

Surprised at the strength of the resistance to the coup, the junta has resorted to these same suppression tactics, failing to grasp the disastrous optics of firing at peaceful protesters in broad daylight while thousands record the violence on their smartphones. Very public atrocities such as these are prompting even neighboring China and Russia to express concern over the escalating violence.

The junta's public communication is woeful. Myanmar's biggest government-run newspaper publishes readouts of junta cabinet meetings where Senior Gen. Min Aung Hlaing speaks freely on policy, publicly displaying the poverty of the junta's policy-making: When the economic impact of the crisis was becoming clear, Min Aung Hlaing suggested responding to hydrocarbon shortages by building electric cars. To appreciate how absurd this is, recall that Myanmar is a poor, largely agricultural economy with no capacity for such advanced manufacturing.

When it comes to managing the economy, finance is a serious concern, with banks refusing services for fear of a bank run. The Central Bank of Myanmar is panicking and making things worse. First, they threatened to seize funds from commercial banks, including the deposits of local and international NGOs, now they are arresting bank managers -- you might as well chase foreign investors out with a stick. Investor flight will have ripple effects through the economy, crippling for instance, the country's power generation capacity, a vital prerequisite for long-term economic growth.

The financial chaos, national strikes and the regime's violent suppression tactics have all disrupted trade and production. Fuel and essential staples are becoming scarce, and prices are rising. While the United Nations is preparing for a humanitarian emergency, the junta's response has been one-dimensional: threats of violence against striking workers to force them to return to work.

On the political side, despite a few early successes, the junta is losing the race to woo ethnic minorities, with many moving to support the Committee Representing the National Parliament (CRPH) -- comprising mostly former NLD MPs who were elected in November -- which is acting as a kind of interim government.

Coup protesters take cover behind a barricade during clashes with security forces on Bayint Naung Bridge in Yangon earlier this month.   © Reuters

This is significant, as minority ethnics are estimated to make up a third of the population, with many ethnic armed groups based in the borderlands fighting the central government for decades. The CRPH has renounced the hated centralist 2008 constitution and vowed to build a genuine federal democracy with far-reaching autonomy for Myanmar's ethnic states.

The CRPH is also challenging the junta when it comes to administration. In the civilian ministries, a significant number of civil servants have followed the CRPH's calls to down tools. Some bureaucracies are entirely immobilized. The CRPH has also formed local councils in about two-thirds of all townships around the country.

These councils, headed up by local MPs and civil servants loyal to the CRPH, are trying to maintain township services and provide support to protesters and strikers. In Yangon and Mandalay, Myanmar's two biggest cities, where the military crackdown is fiercest, they are struggling to have an impact. But in areas where the military presence is lighter, they are succeeding in taking over administration.

As one administrator loyal to the CRPH in rural Magway Region told us: "We are forging a stronger bond with our community than we ever had. We rely on them to sustain us, we provide services for them, and together we fight to restore our democratic government."

The junta's increasingly violent crackdown is forcing the CRPH leadership to relocate to safe territory near the Thai border and to transition to armed resistance. One of the CRPH's international envoys recently announced plans to draft a new federal constitution within the next six months and build a federal army that would include Myanmar's ethnic armed organizations.

Violent clashes will no doubt erupt between these two sides in the coming months. The numbers are on the junta's side but the morale of their forces has not been tested, and they could well crumble under pressure. A democratic unity government recognized by the international community will ultimately have the upper hand, though, against a junta that has no legitimacy and is governing so woefully.

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