Q&A

Myanmar vs. Its Generals

Thant Myint-U on the future of the protests, what Beijing wants, and what Washington can do to help.

Protesters hold up signs against the military coup in Naypyidaw, Myanmar, on Feb. 18.
Protesters hold up signs against the military coup in Naypyidaw, Myanmar, on Feb. 18. STR/AFP/Getty Images

On Feb. 1, Myanmar’s military staged a coup, overturning the results of the November 2020 elections and throwing the country’s top civilian leaders in jail on spurious charges. Since then, protests and government violence have escalated. To get a sense of what lies ahead, the dynamics driving the conflict, and what outsiders can do to defend Myanmar’s democracy, on Wednesday Foreign Policy’s Jonathan Tepperman interviewed Thant Myint-U—historian, former United Nations peacekeeper, former member of Myanmar’s National Economic and Social Advisory Council, and author, most recently, of The Hidden History of Burma—by email. Their conversation has been edited for length and clarity.

Jonathan Tepperman: Where do you expect the protests to go from here? Will the government crack down harder—so far, the number of arrests and injuries have been fairly low—and will the protests die down if it does?

Thant Myint-U: The protests show clearly the strength of public opinion against military rule. They’ve been extraordinarily successful at demonstrating to the world the feelings of millions of ordinary people. The strikes by public sector workers have paralyzed the government. The military authorities seem to have been taken aback, not just by the scale of the protests but by the ways in which they have been organized—not by Aung San Suu Kyi’s National League for Democracy (NLD), but by networks of often anonymous younger activists using new technologies like Bridgefy, a messaging app that uses Bluetooth instead of the internet

The army, which has tried to portray its takeover as both constitutional and temporary, may be keen to avoid a violent crackdown but may not know how else to deal with what’s being called the Civil Disobedience Movement (CDM). On the CDM side, any retreat at this point will be a tactical one. It will be difficult for the new administration to consolidate its authority anytime soon

JT: What’s the Tatmadaw’s strategy? Will the generals take advantage of ethnic divisions to try to peel support away from Aung San Suu Kyi and the NLD?

TM: I’d be surprised if there was a clear strategy. I don’t think the coup was inevitable or was something that came after months of planning. There was a fair amount of unhappiness with Aung San Suu Kyi and the NLD on the part of the generals, but Gen. Min Aung Hlaing, the commander in chief, thought that the elections last November might go his way. The pro-army Union Solidarity and Development Party (USDP) needed to win just over 25 percent of the elected seats, since the army automatically gets 25 percent of the seats under the present constitution. But this didn’t happen. So in mid-December, he latched on to USDP allegations of massive electoral fraud. An investigation was demanded, and when the NLD summarily rejected the idea, tensions steadily rose, leading to an ultimatum, a failed attempt to negotiate, and then the coup.

Going forward, in addition to dealing with the protests, the generals may focus on three things: broadening their allegations against the NLD beyond election fraud to include high-level corruption and foreign collusion; immediate measures to boost the economy, including through a multibillion-dollar stimulus package; and new cease-fire deals with at least some of the nonstate armed organizations. There might be an attempt to win over ethnic minority communities, but it’s hard to see how this could be successful. Easier to imagine would be an attempt to mobilize ultranationalist sentiment within the Burmese-speaking Buddhist majority. It’s hard to say, though, if this would work: Burmese society is incredibly conservative, and ultranationalist views certainly carry some clout, but the military’s standing is not high even among the ultranationalists, some of whom, for example, blame corrupt army leaders of the past for not protecting “the natives” against illegal immigration by Muslims and Chinese.

JT: Protests tend to succeed only when soldiers and police switch sides and join the protesters. Could that happen here? If not, why not?

TM: There is nothing in the modern history of Myanmar that suggests that the army will break ranks in any significant way. This is an army that has fought nonstop for over 75 years, in some of the most brutal counterinsurgency operations anywhere in the world. It’s an army that hasn’t hesitated to use lethal force again civilian protesters before, including Buddhist monks. Its troops have been told from age 17 that the army is the only true guardian of the nation. The military has faced internal dissension on occasion, but not once has that led to open division. Some police might switch sides, but the army have made sure the police don’t matter very much.

JT: Does the coup show that Myanmar’s experiment with democracy has failed? Or will democracy be harder to suppress now that the country has experienced it

TM: In 2010, a generation of Myanmar generals retired. They decided as part of their retirement plan to leave behind a hybrid system of government, in which the army shared power with elected politicians. This wasn’t something they thought up overnight; it was something that they had been working toward for nearly 20 years. The Thein Sein government, which ruled from 2011 to 2015, then pushed through unprecedented political liberalization, which in turn led to the rolling back of Western sanctions. Starting in 2016, Aung San Suu Kyi shared power with a new generation of generals, and there were tensions from the start. It wasn’t a democracy. It was, however, a new political setup, which together with significant economic growth, was beginning to reshape Myanmar society. Whether this fast-evolving society can now resist rule by autocrats, only time will tell.

JT: Are today’s protesters different from earlier generations? Are they only fighting for a return to democracy, or against economic inequality and ethnic division as well? Are their tactics better than in the past?

TM: Millions of people are protesting because they voted for Aung San Suu Kyi. They believe she is the only legitimate leader of the country. Others are motivated less by any loyalty to her or the NLD than by a deep hatred of military domination and a fear that their lives, like their parents’, will be destroyed by a new cycle of brutal and kleptocratic army rule. A new generation of protesters has emerged that is more confident, more comfortable with new technologies, and has everything to lose with a return to the past. Their tactics are certainly working well, but whether there will also be a real strategy for change is far less clear. What’s missing is a progressive agenda that cuts across ethnic lines, focuses on discrimination, underdevelopment, and inequality, and unites a very divided society.

JT: Do you think the military has any intention of allowing new elections within a year, as it has promised? Would such a vote lead to the same result as the last one: victory for Aung San Suu Kyi and the NLD?

TM: The likely default plan is for elections, perhaps in a year, but elections that will not include Aung San Suu Kyi or the NLD. In a way, it could be a repeat of 2010, when the first elections under this constitution were held, Aung San Suu Kyi was under house arrest, and the NLD was not able to participate. Those elections were widely derided as neither free not fair, but, surprisingly, led to a government of reformist ex-generals. The difference is that 2010 was the exit strategy for then Commander in Chief Than Shwe, who was turning 80. The current commander in chief is 64 and may well want to remain in power but in civilian garb.

JT: The Biden administration has responded to the coup by announcing new sanctions. Will these make any difference? Have China and Russia already stepped in to bail out the generals?

TM: Myanmar’s generals are one of most isolated political elites anywhere in the world. All their friends and enemies, dreams and nightmares, are in Myanmar alone. Most have never traveled, speak no foreign languages, and own no assets abroad. They are more isolated than poor people in country, millions of whom have worked overseas. Targeted sanctions will not shift the generals’ core political calculations. Broad sanctions could do enormous economic damage and would devastate the lives of tens of millions of ordinary people.

I’m not sure about Russia, but I don’t think China will rush to support the new government. Beijing had a very good relationship with Aung San Suu Kyi and had big hopes for a second NLD term. Beijing’s relations with the army, in contrast, were thorny at best. And the army is probably the political institution that’s most wary of China, not least because it sees China as the main backer of the nonstate armed organizations against whom it’s been fighting these past several years. It’s possible, though, that the army and China will come to see new mutually beneficial opportunities in the months to come.

JT: Such as? What do you think China wants to happen in Myanmar now

TM: Sino-Myanmar relations have an incredibly complicated history. In the early 1950s, remnant armies of China’s nationalist government, the Kuomintang, invaded Myanmar from China’s Yunnan province and occupied much of the eastern uplands, with support from the United States. The Myanmar army grew primarily in response to this threat, which took a decade to eradicate. In the late 1960s, communist forces backed by China’s People’s Liberation Army invaded Myanmar, again from Yunnan, to establish a “liberated zone” across much of the region. In 1989, this communist insurgency collapsed, leaving behind several new successor armies, all with close links to China. The leadership of these armies are all Chinese-speaking and include in their top ranks many ethnic Chinese. It’s the same area that’s home to a $75 billion a year methamphetamine industry as well as a hundreds of casinos, catering to Chinese visitors.

China’s economic footprint in Myanmar has also grown steady over the past couple of decades. Big Belt and Road infrastructure projects have been slow to get off the ground, mainly because of Myanmar reticence, but other investments, by thousands of small and medium size Chinese companies, have grown enormously, as has cross-border trade. China’s interests remain the same as always: ensuring stability, in particular along the border; preventing Myanmar from entering into a military alliance with rivals; and deepening economic ties. At the same time, China will be eager not to be on the wrong side of public opinion.

JT: Do you think Washington and Beijing could work together to put pressure on the generals to restore democracy

TM: It’s not impossible. Washington and Beijing were both happier with the situation before the coup. Neither, especially Beijing, wants to see growing instability. The same would be the case for India and Japan as well. And a concerted diplomatic effort, ideally with the support of the U.N. Security Council, would have a far greater chance of success. At the same time, it’s hard to see China agreeing to work with any outside state on a country it already sees as part of its own backyard.

JT: So is there anything outside governments could do that would actually help

TM: First, it’s important to express support for those protesting against a return to military rule. At the same time, with many protesters calling for international military intervention, it’s important not to raise unrealistic expectations that the outside world is going to fix Myanmar’s problems. Second, it’s absolutely vital that life-saving aid (including for COVID-19 related health programs) be protected, and that everything is done to keep livelihoods intact. There’s no scenario where the economy goes into a tailspin, tens of millions of desperately poor people are left with no money and no options, and a democracy miraculously appears the next day.

JT: What do you think most of us watching from the West are missing about what’s happening in Myanmar right now? What don’t we understand that we should?

TM: The political crisis is taking place within the context of multiple other crises. This is a society that’s been traumatized by over seven decades of violent conflict. Over two dozen nonstate armed organizations (the largest of which, closely linked to China, fields over 25,000 men), together with hundreds of ethnic-based militias, hold sway over much of the uplands. A million people are refugees, and hundreds of thousands of others are internally displaced. State institutions everywhere are extremely weak, unable to collect taxes or provide health care or other social services to the vast majority. Racial and religious discrimination exists alongside exploding wealth inequality. And over the past year, COVID-19 has led to a near collapse of the economy, with those making less than $1.90 a day soaring from 16 percent to 63 percent of the population between January and October 2020. Myanmar’s economy is increasingly tied to China’s, as a provider of primary commodities. And it’s an economy at whose apex is not the army but transnational networks of money-making far more powerful than any institution. A far better understanding of this political economy is needed to really understand Myanmar’s options for the future.

Jonathan Tepperman is an editor at large at Foreign Policy, a role he assumed in November 2020 after three years as the magazine’s editor in chief. He is the author of The Fix: How Countries Use Crises to Solve the World’s Worst Problems. Twitter: @j_tepperman