Blog: Beyond the Myanmar Coup
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July 21, 2021
Posted by Chris Sidoti
(Editor’s Note: This article is part of a Just Security series on the Feb. 1, 2021 coup in Myanmar. The series brings together expert local and international voices on the coup and its broader context. The series is a collaboration between Just Security and the International Human Rights Clinic at Harvard Law School.This post first appeared on Just Security on July 14, 2021.)
The Tatmadaw, the Myanmar military that tried to seize outright power in an illegal coup in February, has to be one of the world’s most incompetent armed forces. Since its first coup in the early 1960s, it has turned one of the richest countries in Asia – with a GDP several times higher than some of its neighbours – into what is fast becoming a failed state.
The military has spent decades ruining Myanmar’s institutions and economy, while committing atrocities at will (in conflicts it is mostly losing), including leading genocidal persecution of the Rohingya minority. The army leadership is known to operate by its own baffling internal logic, where numerology and soothsayers are often key to decision making.
We have watched in anguish as security forces killed more than 900 civilians in under six months since the coup began. How can you convince a junta that is as ruthless as it is utterly irrational to abandon its murderous, disastrous policies? Appeals and ultimatums from leaders around the world have had no impact so far. There is, however, something even the Tatmadaw understands: money.
The Myanmar military is a multibillion-dollar enterprise. It has placed itself at the center of the country’s economy through a complex web of commercial interests, which include military-linked businesses and subsidiaries and private crony companies in everything from beer to precious stones. And now, since the coup, it has got its hands on state-owned enterprises too.
Two conglomerates – the Myanmar Economic Holding Limited (MEHL) and Myanmar Economic Corporation (MEC) – are at the heart of much of this activity. MEHL and MEC, which were both established explicitly to support the military, own over 100 businesses and are affiliated to another 27 companies through corporate structures. The revenue they generate has not only sustained the Tatmadaw’s grip on power. It has also shielded it from scrutiny as it commits atrocity crimes with impunity. In 2019, a U.N. investigation – which I co-led – found that any foreign government or business with commercial links to these companies is at best morally complicit in the Tatmadaw’s crimes, and in some cases even legally so.Continue Reading…
June 17, 2021
Posted by Soe San
(Editor’s Note: This article is part of a Just Security series on the Feb. 1, 2021 coup in Myanmar. The series brings together expert local and international voices on the coup and its broader context. The series is a collaboration between Just Security and the International Human Rights Clinic at Harvard Law School. This post first appeared on Just Security on June 16, 2021).
Just over a year ago, the National League for Democracy (NLD) government in Myanmar was in the midst of instituting fundamental changes to a previously lifeless education system. It foreshadowed a new era for students in Myanmar. In the preceding decades, military rule had undermined any innovation in schooling. Military leaders’ fear of student-led uprisings repeatedly resulted in draconian policies, including the closing or relocation of universities outside the cities, strict control of curricula, and the shortening of the academic year. Part of the NLD’s plan to continue to revamp education also offered a move away from an antiquated system of rote learning. The reforms were encouraging schools and universities to instead adopt student-centered teaching models and focus on elevating critical and independent thinking.
Echoing experiences felt across the globe, the COVID pandemic brought abrupt and unforeseen challenges to the NLD government’s education agenda, however. And like so many others, the NLD adapted—for example, as large class sizes prevented the full reopening of schools, the government laid the foundation for virtual learning around the country. Alongside high hopes for the vaccine rollout in Myanmar, the school bell was waiting to welcome back students and teachers for the 2021 school year and usher in the reforms that the government had been planning.
This cautious optimism came to a grinding halt when Min Aung Hlaing, Commander-in-Chief of the Myanmar military, staged a coup d’état on Feb. 1, 2021. The coup has had an undeniable impact on every part of society in Myanmar. The education arena has been no different. For students and teachers, it has meant grave interruptions to what was an already a difficult year for schooling. From contested reopening plans to internet outages and the reemergence of ethnic violence, the fear of backtracking to an educational system that hampered Myanmar’s students for decades affects all involved in education. The chaos of the ongoing struggle for power threatens learning outcomes for a whole generation of Myanmar’s youth, while also undermining the careers of thousands of teachers and professors. To ensure the welfare of our students and teachers, we must not lose sight of the important developments undertaken by the NLD government and continue both foreign and domestic investment in education. We must not let the light of hope that comes with education be extinguished.Continue Reading…
June 11, 2021
Posted by Jessica Olney and Shabbir Ahmad
Editor’s Note: This article is part of a Just Security series on the Feb. 1, 2021 coup in Myanmar. The series brings together expert local and international voices on the coup and its broader context. The series is a collaboration between Just Security and the International Human Rights Clinic at Harvard Law School. This article was first posted to Just Security on June 10, 2021).
This installment reflects conversations with Rohingya residents of refugee camps in Bangladesh about the coup in Myanmar. Camp residents’ views were collected by Shabbir Ahmad and other members of a team of Rohingya researchers during a recent community feedback collection project. The opinions expressed here are the views of the authors and camp residents, not those of any institution with which the authors are affiliated.
The Rohingya community of Myanmar has been isolated and persecuted for decades, leading to waves of mass displacement, isolation, and resistance. The situation of the Rohingya deteriorated further into crisis after the National League for Democracy (NLD) took power in 2015, starting with a 2016 crackdown and culminating in the massive 2017 violence that displaced over 700,000 people.
Refugees in Bangladesh believe the situation could worsen even further under the current junta, creating new risks for the Rohingya who remain in Myanmar and indefinitely delaying any prospect of a safe repatriation for those displaced. According to one camp resident: “The democratic government didn’t do well for us Rohingya. However, the current conditions will be even worse for us, and maybe for everyone in Myanmar.” According to another, “We Rohingya people don’t expect anything positive to come from the military coup. We know very well that the Myanmar Army is merciless and doesn’t feel afraid of committing injustice.” The greatest fear for many camp residents is that repatriation at a large scale will be impossible as long as Myanmar remains under the control of the Myanmar military, the Tatmadaw. In recent comments, junta leader Min Aung Hlaing affirmed these concerns, reiterating once again that the Tatmadaw does not recognize the identity of the Rohingya people or their right to return home. As long as the junta remains in place, there is little possibility of forging solutions to the outstanding political, legal, and justice questions surrounding the Rohingya crisis.
But there is another dimension of the coup in which an unanticipated, positive change has emerged: There has been a wave of social and political reconciliation between Rohingya and other Myanmar people. Though the situation remains formidable both for Rohingya in Myanmar and for those who seek to return from Bangladesh, certain social and political fault lines that have been present throughout Myanmar’s recent history seem to be shifting.Continue Reading…
June 7, 2021
Posted by Saw Kapi
(Editor’s Note: This article is part of a Just Security series on the Feb. 1, 2021 coup in Myanmar. The series brings together expert local and international voices on the coup and its broader context. The series is a collaboration between Just Security and the International Human Rights Clinic at Harvard Law School. This article was first published on June 3, 2021.)
From the terrible situation that has followed the Myanmar military’s attempt to seize power on Feb. 1 has arisen a new politics – one that the country has never seen before and one that has emerged thanks to the younger generation, Generation Z. In fact, the military’s attempt to take over power and the subsequent atrocities committed by the Tatmadaw soldiers have changed not only Myanmar’s political landscape but fundamentally transformed its political psyche.
Young people and their drive have moved the country beyond the conventional framework articulated by many in the generation before them. Gen Z has shown a willingness to seek solutions during this historic moment that not only resist the Tatmadaw (the official name of Myanmar’s military) but articulate an inclusive political vision for the country. With this generation’s leadership, there has been an unprecedented level of political awareness inside the country on two fronts: why the different ethnic nationalities have been struggling for decades for a more democratic society in a federal political framework – accompanied simultaneously by the collective acceptance among the various political forces that Myanmar’s military is the chief barrier to peace and stability in the country. These developments represent a seismic shift in political views across society.
The country and the international community have recognized the leadership Gen Z has given to the movement, and this should continue. Given that the youth, rather than the politicians, were the ones who organized themselves and the early days of protests, any political leadership in this movement should include Gen Z and the new political thinking of these young people. And any support for the movement, either from the international community or domestic sources, should invest in further developing Gen Z’s leadership aptitude.Continue Reading…
May 28, 2021
Posted by Ambassador Kelley Currie
(Editor’s Note: This article is part of a Just Security series on the Feb. 1, 2021 coup in Myanmar. The series brings together expert local and international voices on the coup and its broader context. The series is a collaboration between Just Security and the International Human Rights Clinic at Harvard Law School. This article was first posted to Just Security on May 27, 2021).
When Myanmar’s ambassador to the United Nations Kyaw Moe Tun took the floor of the General Assembly on Feb. 26 to condemn the weeks-old military coup and announce his loyalty to the elected government, he not only shocked all those tuning in who expected a pro forma defense of the Tatmadaw’s power grab and denunciation of U.N. interference. He also provided Myanmar’s democratic movement a potentially powerful new tool, both to help secure their legitimacy, and to shift the historic dynamics of U.N. failure in Myanmar. To make the most of this tool, the nascent National Unity Government (NUG) must quickly learn how to work with the U.N. system and leverage it for its intrinsic utility as well as to build out their footprint internationally. To date, the results have been mixed, but there are signs that the NUG is learning. Whether these efforts ultimately will be effective also depends on whether the U.N. system can learn from its own failures in Myanmar and make the necessary course corrections at this pivotal moment.
The U.N.’s history with Myanmar has been a multi-decade case study in the moral hazards that international organizations face when dealing with regimes that do not care about either the welfare of their own people or the opinions of outsiders. After being one of the first of the newly independent post-colonial countries to join the U.N., Myanmar enthusiastically participated in U.N. activities during the parliamentary democracy period. It even requested the U.N.’s help in dealing with spillover from the Chinese civil war, when both Kuomintang (KMT) and Communist troops breached Myanmar’s border.
After Ne Win’s 1962 coup, however, successive military regimes rigorously limited their engagement with international organizations out of an almost fanatical devotion to neutrality. Like other autarkic dictatorships, the Ne Win regime deeply distrusted the U.N. and particularly eschewed involvement with its field-based activities, even though his countryman U Thant served as U.N. Secretary General during much of the first decade of Burmese Socialist Program Party (BSPP) rule. It was not just the U.N. that drew Ne Win’s suspicions: nearly all foreign organizations were kicked out of Myanmar during the 1960s and diplomats based in the country were heavily restricted. The BSPP’s fetishization of neutrality was such that Ne Win withdrew Myanmar from the Non-aligned Movement in 1978 because he was concerned it had become too partisan toward the Soviet Union. Given the role of Southeast Asia as a major theater of Cold War contestation, and China’s mercurial role in these geostrategic games, one can hardly blame Myanmar for wanting to remain aloof from it all. But Ne Win’s autarky also ensured that Myanmar essentially was suspended in amber for more than a decade.
Faced with a ruinous economic situation, however, the post 1974-BSPP and its successors in the State Law and Order Restoration Council (SLORC), while no less xenophobic, recognized that the U.N.’s rapidly expanding aid agencies could be useful as they attempted to address the country’s disastrous economic situation. The Tatmadaw generals seemed to innately grasp that these various humanitarian and development agencies cared more about their agency’s particular development and humanitarian mission set than about the quality of Myanmar’s governance and these agencies were competing for “clients” in the developing world. Having been locked out of Myanmar at the height of the BSPP’s autarky, these agencies were desperate to experiment on its broken economy and what they viewed as a tabula rasa society ripe for their modernization efforts. This gave the BSPP the ability to arbitrage aid agencies’ ambitions and silos, strictly limiting their staffing and physical access and insisting on a high degree of control over their activities in the country. Even after Ne Win resigned as BSPP chairman in 1988, the SLORC and SPDC continued to use humanitarian access as a bargaining chip to ensure that agency operations were compliant. In the most striking—but far from the only– example of its extreme suspicion toward the U.N., the Burmese regime initially rejected U.N.-led humanitarian assistance in the wake of 2008’s devastating Cyclone Nargis, which killed tens of thousands of people, wiped out the critical Irrawaddy Delta rice production zone, and left millions homeless.Continue Reading…
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