Myanmar: 'Military coup triggers shift in national consciousness'
People see military existential threat, regret past attitude towards Rohingya, expert tells Anadolu Agency
Even as the Myanmar military continues crackdown on protesters, a positive development emerging is that lately people are reaching out to the hapless Rohingya ethnic population and regretting violence that was perpetrated against them.
So far 224 people have been killed in Myanmar after the deposition of a civilian government led by Aung San Suu Kyi.
In an exclusive interview with Anadolu Agency, Maung Zarni, London-based academic and expert on Myanmar affairs, noted that since Feb. 1 when the military seized power, a blessing in disguise has come in the form of a large number of people taking to social media and apologizing to Rohingya.
“In terms of popular acceptance, one of the greatest positive developments is a large majority of social media comments and a large majority of protesters on the streets in Yangon now popularly apologize to the Rohingya people and say that ‘we have been lied to by the military and we are sorry’,” he said in an interview through a video link.
He said that Rohingya persecuted over the years are feeling safe in Yangon these days. He also mentioned that people protesting against the military takeover were seen holding signs that they are Rohingya.
“This was unthinkable, two months ago. So, this paves the way for Rohingya repatriation down the road. Earlier it was met with strong popular opposition. So, the greatest obstacle for Rohingya coming back to their own country has largely been removed,” he said.
Zarni said Myanmar is witnessing a complete transformation during the ongoing anti-coup protests as the entire civil society commonly view the military junta as the existential threat to the country.
He blamed the Tatmadaw – the official name of the Myanmar military – for murder, violence and destruction of public and private properties.
The military launched pre-dawn raids on Feb. 1 and arrested the ruling National League for Democracy (NLD) leadership, including State Counselor Aung Suu Kyi, her party colleagues, and civil society members.
According to Zarni, the tripping point in the relations between the military and Aung Suu Kyi came because her government began curtailing the control and influence of the Tatmadaw over many non-security sector government departments and reviewing joint venture projects worth billions of dollars from the previous military-controlled regime of President Thein Sein.
Myanmar’s prominent human rights defender and the inter-faith promoter said the ongoing movement against the military coup look to the Committee Representing Pyidaungsu Hluttaw (CRPH), mandated by the MP-elects from the NLD, for policy directions.
They have designated the Myanmar armed forces as a “terrorist group, a move commonly supported by the public. The CRPH has also announced the legalization of all Ethnic Armed Organizations and openly urged the public at large to exercise its right to self-defense.
He said protests against the military coup have been remarkably peaceful and all the destruction has been done by the military – as evidenced by numerous videoclips and Facebook Live sessions in the Burmese social media.
“The Burmese protesters are extremely conscious of the fact that the minute they express their anger through vandalism and loot, they will give the military a pretext to get nastier. So they have largely refrained from vandalism and violence,” he said, adding that for weeks, the protesters “even cleaned up the streets after they held protests.”
[Dr Muang Zarni, Burmese academic and human rights defender]
Factors leading to military take over
Anadolu Agency (AA): The situation in Myanmar took an unexpected and dramatic turn. Was there any prior build-up and what was the tipping point that deteriorated relations between the military and the Suu Kyi government? As we analyze Aung San Suu Kyi’s rule, it looks like it was no way different from military rule and she had kept close contact with the military and even defended them at the International Court of Justice?
Muang Zarni (MZ): The big picture domestically is that there is no single factor that explains the coup. We have to look at several factors that converge together and create the trigger. In the last 30 years since 1990, the military held three general elections.
Except for one election in 2010 which the NLD and Aung Suu Kyi boycotted, in every single election, the NLD and Aung Suu Kyi beat the military in a landslide. In the last election in November 2020, it was not simply a landslide, it was a crushing victory against the military’s political proxy Union Solidarity and Development Party.
Out of the 460 or so total parliamentary seats that were contested, NLD won 380 plus. The military has always contested in these elections using their political proxies, and ex-generals. The military uses electoral politics to keep itself in the national policymaking and staying in power. Therefore, the big picture is that the military decided NLD is the opponent, whom they cannot defeat as long as Aung Suu Kyi is there, and the NLD party remains a cohesive mass party.
The second factor is that although the NLD had been in power for only five years, even within the confines of the military’s 2008 constitution, it has been enabled by its decisive super-majority in the parliament to curtail the influences of the military in non-security ministries.
Secondly, that said, the military’s constitution goes against the essence of constitutionalism or constitutional rule, because all constitutions are, in theory at least, created with the single purpose of making sure no organization or no individual leader will have the monopoly over the power of state institutions. Constitutions create a system of checks and balances. But in the Myanmar military’s 2008 constitution, the military is the judge, the jury, and the prosecutor. And secondly, the military gives itself constitutionally 25% of seats -- either in national parliament or in the provincial parliament.
Suu Kyi’s attempts to curtail military’s influences
All constitutions are living documents. They are open to changes. This constitution created by the military in 2008 is amendment-proof. So, no fundamental changes can be made at all. The way the military prevents a constitution from being amended is through the bloc of 25% military MPs. The 120 or so parliamentary seats that are allocated to the military officers as “MPs” act like a brigade, an unbreakable voting bloc, led by a brigadier at the top, majors and captains, at the bottom and every other ranks in-between. So that pyramid of military command within the constitution prevents any motion that is designed to change the constitution from ever succeeding. Amendments require more than 70% of the parliamentary votes.
The winning party controls ministries from finance to foreign affairs to everything like health, education, rural development, labor, immigration, religious affairs.
However, the entire security apparatus is made up of three interlocking ministries; home, border affairs, and defense. They are in the hands of the generals and Aung San Suu Kyi as the de facto head of state had no say.
And then what happened in the last five years, Aung Suu Kyi was able to remove the control of the most important administrative organ called the General Administration Department or GAD from the Home Ministry and placed it under civilian control.
The GAD controls the entire civilian population, from big cities to tiny villages. And then her government started to address some of the repressive laws and sought to undertake legal reforms, which had been stalled because of the military’s opposition.
Another aspect is since the government controls the finance and planning ministry, the military now had to submit its budgets to them, an unprecedented and unwelcome “restraint” on the military which has for more than half-century sought to avoid such budgetary oversight.
As Foreign Minister and State Counselor Aung Suu Kyi was able to develop ties with important powers across Asia and the Pacific, particularly China and Japan. She launched the review of previous multibillion dollar deals with China and other countries that the previous ex-military government had made with China particularly, and she negotiated with foreign business partners such as China some of the deals that are unfair to the public, but it was beneficial to the military.
So, those are the reasons, the military felt, in addition to having been dealt a crushing defeat, electorally in 2020 elections, to act against her. The military’s proxy party had won just 33 seats out of 467 seats.
Shift in popular consciousness
AA: This time, people in Myanmar have come out against military rule and there are protests almost every day, this was not the case previously. What has changed? Did you expect the reaction against the ongoing coup in the country? Is there any significant leadership leading the protests?
MZ: Burmese probably have almost 60 years history of staging street protests against the military rule since 1962. And the largest protests were held in 1988 when the entire country came out.
What is different this time is the shift in the collective consciousness of the Burmese people. In the past, the protests aimed at changing the top leadership of the military and their dictatorial political system.
This time, this shift in popular consciousness sees the entire national armed forces as the existential threat to the country and the people's desire for a democratic system of government. Specifically, the public now sees the entire armed forces as terrorists that terrorize entire society, using all weapons they have, to crush the democratic expression.
This was captured at the UN on Feb. 26, when the permanent representative of Myanmar to the UN said he joined the protest movement while calling on the world and UN to oppose the coup. In his official capacity, he then went on to describe the military junta as the existential threat to the country. That is extraordinary and politically significant.
The most significant thing is the society has disowned its national armed forces which have turned their guns against the people that they are sworn to protect. The complete and popular rejection of the military as the defense force is unprecedented in Burmese history.
This force was founded as a national liberation resistance organization along with other organizations. The Tatmadaw was considered a backbone of the Burmese independence movement in the final phase during the second World War. This is very, very important.
The second thing is the radical reversal in popular consciousness about Muslim Rohingya, from genocidal rejection to re-embrace of the victim community. The Burmese society was very much anti-Islam. The genocide took place against the Rohingya because they were Muslims.
Not simply because they were a community next to another country; we had communities next to China, India, Thailand, Laos, and none of those communities suffers genocide, only Rohingya did. And their religious identity, if not the only factor, is a very major factor behind the genocide.
Leaders of movement
AA: Who are the faces and leadership of the anti-coup movement?
MZ: There are two levels of leadership. One is the collective and organic leadership coming from different communities that are united by this shift in consciousness, that as long as the military continue to exist as this terrorist force, the society will have no future.
They now believe that they are not fighting simply against yet another military coup. But rather they are fighting against what they believe to be the prospect of no future, the prospect of no freedom, this prospect of no democracy, as long as this military remains in power.
That creates the horizontal, organic form of communal leadership without a central coordinating body that's at one level.
But at the level of policies, there is a group of people, largely made up of elected members of the parliament from last year's election.
As I mentioned earlier, this body is known as CRPH, the committee representing the national parliament (Pyidaungsu Hluttaw). That body has appointed the external or special envoy or representative to speak to the UN. And that body works with the Burmese ambassador at the UN, who also draws his legitimacy from this body CRPH.
This CRPH issues very consequential policy statements. For instance, this committee designated the armed forces as a terrorist group. And this body enjoys widespread public support in Myanmar because it draws on the mandate of the election that was held last year. It is gaining recognition internationally.
AA: How has been the international response to calls of return to civilian rule in Myanmar?
MZ: The response of the international community is not as strong as the Burmese protesters would like it to be. Essentially, the Burmese protesters believe that this is the case where the UN's principle of Responsibility to Protect (RtoP) should be applied.
But that did not happen and will not happen because of the near-certain Chinese and Russian vetoes. R2P is a UN principle that emerged out as the failure of the UN to prevent and intervene genocides in Rwanda and Bosnia.
R2P would have required the UN Security Council to impose extremely punitive sanctions and possibly authorize the use of military force to end the state-sponsored violence and murder against civilian protesters.
However, the 15-member Security Council established a unified position that, importantly, strongly condemned the use of violence against civilians by the Myanmar military, called for the release of all the detainees, including Aung Suu Kyi, and the president and called for reversing the coup. This Security Council position in the form of Council President’s Statement was endorsed even by Russia and China, as well.
It's not binding but it is still diplomatically and politically important. It can be used as a basis for international campaigns to deny the coup regime any international legitimacy and diplomatic representation. And secondly, the UN has not been bad. I say this as a very staunch critic of the organization.
The UN continues to recognize U Kyaw Moe Tun as the Burmese permanent representative. There have been only a few cases like Haiti or South Africa where the seat was occupied by or made vacant because of the political conflict in that country. The military tried to send their men to the UN, but a person refused to accept the military's offer of ambassadorship.
Role of neighbors
AA: Can we say on this question India and China have a convergence of interests because these two neighboring countries are also the members of a Security Council currently?
MZ: Yes. At the moment, yes. But the divergence comes that China is the number one, most important protector and enabler of the Burmese military.
India is not. India is not defending the military, but China is. Although they agree on this issue of the need for the reversal of the coup, call for the release of Suu Kyi and all that, India is with the US, Japan, and Australia. China is considered by society and by the people the Evil Neighbor.
In the last 60 years, the bilateral relations between China and Burma have not served the interest of the Burmese people. Quite the contrary, China almost always sided with the oppressor of the people, the Burmese military.
So, this is a situation where the Burmese people view India as a friendlier, more civilized, and more culturally influential neighbor. We are sandwiched between two giant Asian neighbors. Burmese people are favorably exposed to India through Buddhism and other cultural influences coming from India
But we Myanmar view China – not Chinese as a people - as the evil neighbor, politically, strategically, demographically, economically, and militarily. This is something that needs to come out very clearly. You have 53 million Burmese people who consider one of the two giant neighbors just simply evil.
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