Myanmar: The Phantom Menace of a Back to the Past
For Myanmar the world has always been far away. Historically, it was an inward-looking, “hermit country” (with a short interval during colonialism, which even increased this tendency afterwards). Inside, Tatmadaw is the least world-interested institution. The nationalist generals don’t care about the world. Their sources of income are local (extracting various natural resources and selling these out), their ideology reflects siege mentality and justifies their domestic elite status. What Ne Win told once Lyndon Johnston - “all we want is to be left alone” - still holds true for the Tatmadaw generals.
But it doesn’t mean they do not follow international events. They certainly noticed post-electoral upheaval in the USA. America’s turmoil provided them some important lessons. If such things - blatant rejection of electoral results without a proof - are possible in the most important global democracy, then elsewhere anything goes. But while Trump proved to be a weaker actor and American institutions defended itself, in Myanmar the situation was reversed. It was the generals who enjoyed the unquestioned ana, or physical power. In short, they had tanks and they used them. To paraphrase a 20th century bon mot, the Trumpian virus proved to be an influenza for America and a tuberculosis for Myanmar.
Marx once said that history repeats itself, first as tragedy, then as farce. Myanmar now risks both at once. The farce, because - compared to previous coups - this was the least justified one (from a perspective of political interests of the Tatmadaw). The generals - or maybe, the general Min Aung Hlaing - overreacted: by staging a coup switched the comfortable back seat position of partial power, economic influence and socio-legal unaccountability for a rough terrain of ruling without domestic legitimacy. The tragedy, because the coup nullifies the achievements of Myanmar’s best decade since 1950s. And it sets off a dangerous dynamic, the one well known before early 2010s. Back then the West sanctioned Myanmar, having South Africa in mind. But Myanmar was not RSA, the neighbours, particularly China, did not join the sanctions. Thus, instead of asphyxiating the generals the international pressure impoverished Myanmar further, empowered the xenophobic forces inside the country and hurt intelligentsia and other open-minded parts of the society. Now, if the international community repeats the same mistakes and introduces full scale sanctions, the people of Myanmar, not the generals, will pay the price. To use a social media comparison, only the likes of Ashin Wirathu will “like” such outcome.
Thus, an intelligent approach is urgently needed to be found. A one that acknowledges the political reality of the political dominance of the Tatmadaw (to paraphrase Mirabeau: while many countries have an army, the Myanmar army has a state) while not taking away the democratic dreams of the society. A calibrated approach, a combination of carrot and stick tactics, anything that could convince the generals to restore the “disciplined democracy”. If it will be more disciplined than the one in 2010s, let it be. A disciplined democracy is better than none.
- Michał Lubina is Associate Professor of Political Science at Jagiellonian University, Poland. He is the author of eight books, including The Political Biography of Aung San Suu Kyi (Routledge, London-New York 2020), The Moral Democracy: The Political Thought of Aung San Suu Kyi (2019, translated into Burmese and published in Myanmar in 2020), and Russia and China: A Political Marriage of Convenience - Stable and Successful (2017).