Another coup

There are not just lessons but indications in the Myanmar coup

AT PENPOINT

The military coup d’état in Myanmar provides some lessons to other countries with a shared heritage, not just of a previous colonial past, but of militapry rule.

Burma was originally a colony not to Britain directly, but of the British Indian Empire. While the British would probably have liked Burma to be something like Nepal or Bhutan, which were nominally independent, but which allowed the UK, or rather the Raj, to conduct its foreign affairs and guarantee its defence, while it was ruled by a native dynasty.

The Burmese ruling dynasty was not complaisant, however, as the Raj found out in the course of the three Anglo-Burman War in the 19th century. The second, in 1852, ended with the British annexation of a Burmese province, which was named Lower Burma. The third in 1885 ended with the annexation of the remainder after the ruling dynasty was replaced. Burma became a province of British India, which it remined until 1037, when it became a separate crown colony. Like Inia, however, it became self-governing, and had its own prime minister.

During World War II, it was occupied by the Japanese, but there was fierce fighting, mostly by Indian troops, and this was a theatre in which most of Pakistan and India’s initial military leaders received their initial battle inoculations. An interesting Pakistani connection is that Ayub Khan commanded a unit of Burma Rifles as a lieutenant-colonel, which was the only unit command he held before promotion to brigadier and command to the Pakistan Boundary Force.

More importantly, the occupation made Britain opt for independence. India became independent as India and Pakistan in 1947, Burma and Ceylon followed in 1948, Burma as a full-fledged republic, rather than with dominion status.` However, the man with whom the British had negotiated, Aung San, was assassinated after winning a thumping victory, and just after having been made PM, just before the country was given independence. Independence took place nonetheless, but the government was ultimately overthrown by the military in 1962, and Ne Win became the new strongman of the country.

He ultimately was forced to resign in 1988, after 26 years in power. He was replaced by another military man, whose first priority was to end the riots which had broken out. The country was ruled by a junta, and it was not until Thein Sein emerged that single individual became the face of the regime. It was before then that Aung San Suu Kyi emerged as a leader, and in 1988, her party emerged as the largest in elections. However, the military refused to accept those results, and made her go into house arrest.

She emerged from house arrest after the 2015 elections, in which her party obtained a majority, but did not assume complete power. For example, she did not become President, and did not reverse the government’s ethnic policies, particularly on the Rohingya.

The coup in Myanmar showed that cooperation with the military, to the extent of helping it paper over the charges of massacring the Rohingya, does not work. This might have been gauged from the Pakistani case, where the PPP and the PML(N) both developed an anti-Army narrative even though their respective founders came into politics by piggybacking military rulers. What is remarkable is that there have been none of the corruption charges so common in Pakistan whenever there has been a military takeover.

The present coup has occurred because Suu Kyi’s party, the National League for Democracy, won re-election, and the party that the military backed, the Union Development and Solidarity Party, lost again. That meant that the movement towards greater democratization was moving forward in a way unacceptable to the military. Another reason mentioned is that the Army chief, Sr Gen Min Aung Hlaing, was due to retire this July, upon reaching the age of 65. Interestingly, the retirement age was originally fixed at 60, and was amended in 2014 when General Min was coming up against it (though still over a year short).

It is interesting to note that the Myanmarese military relies on the security threat posed by the many minorities the country to justify its intervention in politics. It has positioned itself as the champion of the majority Bamar ethnicity, imbued with Theravada Buddhism not so much in itself, but as a nationalist symbol. That might provide Pakistani observers a reminder of the Zia Martial Law, but to an extent is inevitable, with the US military a bastion of Christian fundamentalism, the Indian military reflecting much support for the BJP and the UK military for the Church of England. The military seems to reflect a tendency to adopt the religion of the people to fulfill its own purposes, such as reinforcing discipline.

However, this religion must be subordinated to patriotism. Buddhism would seem a poor candidate for a warriors’ creed, but as it is part of the Bamar identity, and that identity is central to Myanmarese patriotism, the Bamar religion, Theravada Buddhism, is the creed officially supported. The previous military ruler, Thein Sein, abandoned politics to become a Buddhist monk. The ugly face of Myanmar was exposed by its persecution of the Rohingya, who are Muslim, and whom Bamar politicians, whether Thein Sein or Suu Kyi, have excluded from Myanmarese-hood, claiming that they are not citizens, but the descendants of migrants from what is now Bangladesh.

The military seems to be the main institution the British left the region. Military coups seem to have been quite common in former colonies, and South Asia has had its fair share. Apart from Burma, there have been coups in Pakistan and Bangladesh, and in both countries the military continues to play a pre-eminent role in politics. While Sri Lanka has avoided a military coup, its Army has been prominent because of the fight against Tamil separatists, and also are imbued with Buddhism as an adjunct of Sinhala nationalism. Only India has not undergone a military takeover, but after the rise of the BJP, does it need to?

The Myanmar coup might point out how the Pakistan or Bangladesh militaries might choose to regard as a betrayal by the electorate: a coup, so as to reject the results.

As Bangladesh is showing, where the Chief of Army Staff, Gen Aziz Ahmad, is the subject of Al-Jazeera documentary, the Army can become a kleptocracy. The Army is, through the COAS, providing full backing to the government, and the COAS is busy using his brothers’ criminality (three are involved in a murder) to buy up property abroad.

The coup in Myanmar showed that cooperation with the military, to the extent of helping it paper over the charges of massacring the Rohingya, does not work. This might have been gauged from the Pakistani case, where the PPP and the PML(N) both developed an anti-Army narrative even though their respective founders came into politics by piggybacking military rulers. What is remarkable is that there have been none of the corruption charges so common in Pakistan whenever there has been a military takeover.

Its international acceptability will also reflect how far it is imitated in the rest of South Asia. Though Myanmar has seen itself as belonging to South Asia, as reflected in its membership of ASEAN rather than SAARC, it has historical links to South East Asia. South East Asia seems to have turned away from military coups, but will militaries in the Philippines, Indonesia or Laos be learning lessons making them seek a lost prominence? The coming days will tell.

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