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  • Writer's pictureRichard Murff

An Exorcism in Myanmar

Every night for the last week - the nights have been clear - they come out at precisely 8:00 o’clock to bang the pots and pans, the traditional method for driving out evil spirits. Less traditionally, young women are parading in the streets of Yangon in Disney princess dresses. There are too many, too spread out, and disperse too quickly for the army to do much about it. They hear the noise, though, and the subtext is as unmistakable. In this exorcism, they are the devils.

Why should we care about a coup d’état in Myanmar? A country most Americans have never heard of because it used to be Burma – a country we’ve all have heard of, but can’t remember why. In a world familiarity breeds a cheap expertise in everything, this is a place where the fabled mystery of the orient still clings to the palm leaves. Even its neighbors aren’t entirely sure what to make of it.

Whatever name the country is going by, on 1 February, Myanmar’s civilian leader, pro-democracy hero turned human rights hobgoblin, Aung San Suu Kyi was detained along with many of Myanmar’s governing party – the National League of Democracy (NLD) just as parliament was being seated. The NLD, which swept some 80% of the vote in November’s general election, spooked the country’s military, colorfully known as the Tatmadaw. It’s chief, General Min Aung Hlaing called the landslide results fraudulent and threatened a coup if the election wasn’t re-run. The government refused, so General Hlaing declared a year-long state of emergency, with the Tatmadaw is running the show until democratic elections can be held next year. It is of note, that the last time the military said that Burma had to wait 53 years.

HAVING HANDED OFF a manuscript for a book on holy war, US foreign policy and what’s so funny about both – it was suggested that my next non-fiction outing be an ill-advised history of the coup d’état. As topics go, it’s less heady that jihad. Despite our tax-dollars sponsored more than a few coups during the Cold War, the concept was fairly abstract until a mob stormed the US Capital on 6 January. Honestly, it still is.

Let’s clarify our terms: While one often follows in the other’s footsteps, there is a difference between an insurrection, a revolution and the coup d’état. A revolution is generally so complicated as to be gelatinous. It’s very hard to tell where a protest, once it turns violent, morphs from a mob with intent and then into an uprising or insurrection, or when that boils over into revolution. Unlike revolutions – broad based, involving howling throngs, and a generally very bloody on a national scale – the coup d’état comes from within the existing power structure. It’s a struggle between elites.

The term itself is one of those French phrases that is too good to not leech into English – it means a “stroke against the state,” or more literally means “blow to state.” And for the outgoing chief executive it really does blow. They are as often as not bloodless, or at any rate spill just enough blood to make the plotter’s point. Among the wonks who study this sort of thing there is an actual marker for determining whether or not a coup is successful: It stays in power for an entire week. Which seems to be a pretty low bar.

Operationally, they are fairly cheap and triggering one in a foreign country isn’t all that involved. Tricky, yes, and the chances of it going tits up are astronomical, to be sure. Provided you are operating in a country where this sort of thing has happened before, however, it really isn’t all that complicated if you know what you are doing.

IN THE COUNTRY formerly known as Burma this has all happened before. When it gained independence in the post-World War II colonial fire sale of 1948, the British left behind a fragile democracy. Flawed, but Burma was the one of the wealthiest countries in the region until a military junta overthrew the civilian government in 1962. The Tatmadaw ruled absolute until 2011, and by that time Myanmar was one of the poorest countries in the world.

In the late eighties, Ms. Aung San Suu Kyi gained worldwide attention as the popular voice of the pro-democracy protests. This was always a hairier prospect that protest in the US: Most of the world’s governments don’t give their citizens quite so much rope or benefit of the doubt. In 2007 the security forces publicly opened fire on protesting Buddhist monks. Ms. Suu Kyi spent some 15+ years between 1989 – 2010 in detention. For her sins, in 1990, she was awarded the Nobel Peace Prize.

Then the junta shocked the world by announcing a return to civilian democracy. Up to a point. In the new constitution the military enshrined most of its power and privilege. One gem was reserving a quarter of the seats in parliament for serving military officers, and any amendment to the constitution requires a three quarters majority – virtually ensuring that no major change can happen without the okay of the Tatmadaw’s approval.

Myanmar’s first open election, in 2015, was an overwhelming victory for Ms. Suu Kyi’s NLD party. However, her Nobel Prize winning reputation was tarnished by her (admittedly not all-powerful) government’s treatment of Rohingya minority – a Muslim minority in a mostly Buddhist country. Still, the country had bounced back economically with the one of the highest growth rates in the world.

Unlike Washington, D.C. – the only thing that Myanmar’s capital Naypyidaw is in the middle of is nowhere. Built 15 years ago to house the legislative capital and the army is completely isolated from the rest of the country. Very few people actually live there: legislators stay in lux hotels while in session, and the military in their walled barracks, but not much else. While the Tatmadaw never fully explained itself, the move does makes arresting the entire government fairly easy. Cabinet members were sacked and replaced with Tatmadaw appointees, but most of the NLD members of parliament were released by the end of the week. Not Ms. Suu Kyi, who remains under house arrest for illegal import and possession of walkie-talkies. That sort of isolation cuts both ways and the take-over wasn’t the fait accompli General Hlaing envisioned.

Staff at dozens of hospitals and medical centers have walked out in protest, and by the end of the week, teachers and students took to the streets in Yangon. By 8 February Hlaing hit the airwaves to assure the people that his was an interim government in defense of democracy and wouldn’t be the oppressive junta of the old days. Still, as he banging of the pots has grown each night, the police are getting more aggressive – firing tear gas, water cannon and rubber bullets. With the sun each morning, the feared intelligence services are knocking on doors.

Still, the ranks of the protest are only swelling to include mass resignations in the civil service and even some police units (under army control) defecting. The metaphysics of pot-banging aside, that’s the real problem for the new government isn’t exorcism, but a collapsing bureaucracy.

Internationally, the movement is getting limited help from US in the form of sanctions, but it must be assumed that the Tatmadaw factored this into their calculations. Neighbors, including Cambodia, Thailand & the Philippines have all referred the late unpleasantness as an “internal matter.”

Elliot Prasse-Freeman, of the National University of Singapore, said “They certainly enjoy Chinese protections and South East markets.” This is true, and for their part, China doesn’t appear remotely concerned – referring to the events of 1 February as a “Cabinet reshuffle.”

All of which makes for a grim prognosis for Myanmar’s democracy. If the Tatmadaw follows the tried coup d’etat playbook, they are going to need to escalate the crisis. Unfortunately for the Burmese, this is the devil they know too well.


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