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Opinion

Myanmar's junta is in a much weaker position than many realize

Split the generals from the troops, and the coup will fall apart

| Myanmar
People hold placards depicting Aung San Suu Kyi during a rally to demand her release in Yangon on Feb. 8: the dynamic is shifting away from the junta.   © Reuters

Philipp Annawitt worked as an adviser to Myanmar's Parliaments for the UN Development Program from 2015-2020. He now lives in Tunisia and continues to advise the Ministry of Planning, Finance and Industry.

The curiously "soft" coup in Myanmar is reaching a tipping point, with resistance forming in the civil service and, perhaps, in the security forces. The international community must move quickly to split the junta from the troops and support the civil disobedience movement.

On Feb. 1, the military arrested the top leadership of the ruling National League for Democracy, as well as MPs to be sworn in the next day, allegedly over electoral fraud in the November 2020 elections that were universally recognized as free and fair.

The most important thing to understand about the coup leaders is that they are a clique of generals who control, through straw men, Myanmar's biggest corporations, as well as the lucrative trade in jade and other precious stones, narcotics and timber.

The coup is a nakedly desperate attempt by this clique of almost-has-beens to turn back the tide after the democratically-elected NLD government implemented an aggressively pro-market reform agenda that included mobilizing Western and East Asian investment into regular channels, improving public financial management and taking on corruption, which put the squeeze on the military's shadow empire.

But the junta has so far applied a soft touch to the coup. The chief ministers of Myanmar's 14 states and regions were transferred to their homes. The new MPs who had not yet been sworn in were told to go home. The independent media are still up. The internet is still working on and off, despite the weekend order that local telecom operators stop providing mobile and fixed-line data services.

The junta knows that, in all likelihood, they are driving Myanmar right into the arms of China. They also know this would be deeply unpopular. Their hope is that maybe they can have their cake and eat it in the style of the nonaligned authoritarian capitalism being pursued in neighboring Thailand. Hence, they are trying to woo the international community with promises of continued cooperation on Myanmar's transition -- well, at least the economic bit. They are also trying to co-opt business leaders and politicians -- and some are biting.

But the junta is actually in a weak position. They do not have the people or the civil service on their side. They do not even represent the police or the Tatmadaw -- as the armed forces are known -- and they know it. As a source close to the NLD government told me: "These all voted for the NLD, for God's sake."

The junta is rattled by the expanding civil disobedience movement which started with doctors and nurses and has grown to six civilian ministries, where civil servants have downed tools in protest, and are advertising their resistance on social media. On the weekend, more people were coming out on the streets in protest. Crucially, the junta is struggling to impose discipline in their own ranks.

An escalation on the streets might not at all go well for them. The situation remains volatile, but right now, the dynamic is shifting away from the junta. So, what should the international community do about the coup?

Support the organizing and mobilizing of the peaceful, decentralized civil disobedience movement that depends critically on virtual communication through social media. Presumably, virtual private network, or VPN, services can help circumvent the bans on social media the junta is progressively imposing. If internet shutdowns become regular, the offline app Bridgefy needs to be made widely available.

All these services need to be free of charge. The NLD has been reeling from the action against its leadership, but is now coming out in support of the protests. The party needs to push itself to find new leaders in this fluid situation. Waiting for letters from Aung San Suu Kyi to be smuggled out of her house arrest is not going to cut it.

Impose sanction only the top military leaders and their cronies, and not the rank and file. Appeal to the patriotism and political loyalties of the troops. Make this about the naked self-interest of a bunch of rich, exploitative old generals that are holding back their country. Tell them that if this coup is successful, all they will have is China. Use existing working-level channels for your messaging. Use aid agencies, non-governmental organizations and United Nations agencies to reach out to their counterparts among the police.

Myanmar state television broadcast shows Senior Gen. Min Aung Hlaing speaking during a meeting: tell him that if this coup is successful, all he will have is China.   © MRTV/Reuters

Do not give in to the junta's charm offensive. Japan, India, South Korea, Australia and other Western countries are being pulled in different directions by geopolitical considerations. They need to close ranks and keep up the threat to pull out investment and aid if a return to the democratic government does not soon follow.

Finally, give the junta an out. The commander in chief, Senior Gen. Min Aung Hlaing and other senior generals in charge must go. He is anyway about to reach retirement age. But amnesty must be offered to the other coup leaders, and the NLD must be urged not to retaliate.

A failed coup sends a powerful enough signal for the military leaders to watch themselves going forward. An elegant way to end this would be if the junta were to instruct the courts to look favorably at the complaint submitted by the NLD. The constitution would stay in place, and in the short run, the continued influence of the military in the future would be secure.

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