This week, Aung San Suu Kyi, the imprisoned leader of Myanmar’s opposition National League for Democracy, appeared in court to face political charges levied by a military regime bent on ending her career. Suu Kyi defiantly proclaimed through her lawyer that “the party was formed for the people, so it will exist as long as the people exist”. The military junta, or State Administration Council (SAC), which seized power in a coup on February 1, appears set to dissolve her party on fabricated grounds of election fraud, dating back to the country’s election last November, which the army’s proxy, the Union Solidarity and Development Party (USDP), disputed.
But Myanmar’s military isn’t interested in playing politics. It is trying to end electoral democracy for good. The military sees democracy as an unstable system of power-sharing by civilian leaders. It learned this lesson in the 1950s before staking its claim to power in a coup in 1962 that toppled Prime Minister U Nu’s civilian government and paved the way for nearly half a century of direct military rule.
The growing divide
Both sides have dug in, leaving the prospects for a negotiated political compromise extremely remote. Commander-in-Chief Min Aung Hlaing has insisted that he will not allow an envoy from the Association of Southeast Asian Nations (ASEAN) until stability is restored on the military’s terms. The regional grouping (of which Myanmar is a member) held a special summit in Jakarta at the end of April but has failed to nominate a special envoy as proposed in the Five Point Consensus it issued.
It is unlikely that the United States will arm various factions to topple the military — nor should it, as doing so would only add more fuel to an already raging fire.
The civilian National Unity Government (NUG) for its part has rejected the possibility of negotiations with the military as long as it continues to detain elected leaders including Suu Kyi. Meanwhile, the NUG has given its approval to the formation of a nationwide People’s Defense Force (PDF), which is now training citizens to fight against the military.
The significance of the PDF is not in its likelihood of defeating Myanmar’s armed forces, which number close to 350,000. Rather, the PDF in combination with Myanmar’s numerous ethnic armed groups is more likely to force the military to the negotiating table by stretching it thin on battlefields across the country.
Myanmar’s military has waged brutal counterinsurgency operations against various ethnic militias for more than seven decades since the nation’s independence in 1948. However, it has never had to fight all of them simultaneously. Instead, it has opted to pick various groups off with offers of ceasefires and economic incentives in order to concentrate its efforts on certain groups one at a time. Its fear now is the distinct possibility of igniting multiple conflicts at once. That scenario could be enough to force the military to make some concessions.
Envisioning a democratic future
A negotiated settlement wouldn’t necessarily spell a return to the status quo. The debate within Myanmar has moved too far and too quickly since February’s coup. The NUG, mostly comprising leaders from Suu Kyi’s National League for Democracy, has reached out to representatives of ethnic armed groups and political parties in an attempt to form a more inclusive federal government that represents the nation’s diversity. Until now, that diversity has prevented the Burman majority that has held power from working with the various ethnic minorities. But it could be an asset for the NUG in its efforts to appeal to the junta’s many opponents.
It now appears increasingly unlikely that the military will hold elections any time soon, as it promised following the coup. If it does, those elections will be heavily manufactured to remove any credible opposition.
Given the sweeping nature of these ongoing discussions, it is essential that regime opponents push for a reduced — not greater — military role in politics. Min Aung Hlaing seems content to rule over a failed state as long as his own political interests are protected. The junta recently lifted the mandatory retirement age of 65 (Min Aung Hlaing will turn 65 in July), indicating the likelihood that his own personal ambitions motivated the coup.
It now appears increasingly unlikely that the military will hold elections any time soon, as it promised following the coup. If it does, those elections will be heavily manufactured to remove any credible opposition and will favor the military’s preferred party, the USDP.
Myanmar needs support from the international community
The prospects of a stalemate leading to a protracted political crisis in Myanmar have left the opposition with little choice but to endorse the armed resistance that many citizens, outraged by the military’s coup and resultant crackdown, have taken up.
The international community must do what it can to support the rightfully elected government by ensuring that humanitarian aid and assistance flow to civil society organizations in Myanmar. It is unlikely that the United States will arm various factions to topple the military — nor should it, as doing so would only add more fuel to an already raging fire. Only by helping the elected government deliver basic governance to the people who elected it can the country hope for a future in which the military steps aside and allows the restoration of democracy.
Editors’ Note: A version of this piece originally appeared on 9DashLine and has been republished with permission from the editors.
Image 1: UN Geneva via Flickr
Image 2: AFP via Getty Images