One Year into the Lose-Lose Putsch (1): 2021, The Golden Age of the Burmese Military

One Year into the Lose-Lose Putsch (1): 2021, The Golden Age of the Burmese Military

A year ago, Burma’s latest — and potentially greatest — spiral into the abyss was initiated by by a crudely attempted return to total control by its ageing generals.

Today, on Feb 1, 2022, the Assistance Association for Political Prisoners notes that 11,838 people were arrested and 1,503 people were confirmed killed by the junta.

The number of undocumented and combatant deaths is far higher; the toll on the people of Burma is immeasurable.

To memorialize the crimes of the military, from Feb. 1, DVB English will publish a four-part series of articles which chronicle the murder of Burma.

2021: The golden age of the Burmese military

Between 2012 and 2021, many in Burma proper had habituated to a life in a rapidly developing brave new consumerist society. GDP growth rates of between 5 and 10 per cent per annum supported the sprouting of modern high-rises, glowing malls, five-star hotels and international tourism. The conglomerates of the friends of the military were fast being washed — from being viewed as barbaric but charming war profiteers, drug lords and feudal extractivists, “the cronies” became faces in international high society, and made joint ventures with reputable corporates and brands.

These truths, of course, failed to hold for many living in the perpetually repressed and tortured ethnic regions of Burma. For this group, the decade was a mere continuation of an ongoing battle to establish access to basic rights in the face of arbitrary atrocities. In 2010, staged elections had led nation states to once again ponder bringing Than Shwe to trial for atrocities committed against Burma’s ethnic peoples under his reign. By early 2021, however, many within the international community — especially the world’s business leaders — had gradually come around to a policy of tacit support of the generals. What now happened outside of the major cities, on the frontiers, no longer concerned many; narratives of aid and conflict resolution were fast being replaced by the economic imperatives of development. It was, even after the administration was called to the stand at The Hague on genocide charges, a glowingly fortuitous situation for a military whose entire existence was still predicated on the repression of ethnic people and the plundering their lands’ vast resources.

The puppet masters of the Burma Army had — after six decades of extreme human rights abuses, of arbitrary terror and the dehumanization of a nation — remarkably all but redeemed themselves. Whilst hiding behind the more acceptable facade of Aung San Suu Kyi and her NLD, the generals amassed power, wealth, and international prestige unparalleled in their experience.

Then, in February, a man rapidly reaching retirement age decided he had had enough. Perhaps Min Aung Hlaing was a victim of his own inflated self-confidence — many believe that, whilst perpetuating the lose-lose putsch, the cosseted megalomaniac truly believes the nonsense espoused by his obsequious ministries: paranoid, self-interested, and operating under what appears to be a hopelessly weak chain of command, the military may well have ensured that, even before February, the senior general was contentedly perched in his echo-chamber, partially oblivious — yet obviously entirely complicit in — the nation’s hatred of him, and the sub-human atrocities performed every day by those under his command.

The family of Min Aung Hlaing is alleged to have benefited financially from the coup — but, aside from a few other top brass, is likely the only family in all of Burma to do so. In its immediate aftermath, many notorious cronies of the junta — including some now signaled out for punishment by revolutionary groups — muttered dark thoughts about the general in private to this correspondent, fearing that their hard work of the past decade was about to be washed away by a raft of sanctions and the return of what was one of the world’s fastest growing economies to the global doldrums. Past coups had shown that the economic powerhouses of Burma were not as indispensable to the generals as they themselves had come to assume.

Directly after troops had hijacked the first opening of Burma’s parliament, the Hluttaw, since the 2020 elections, a remarkably large proportion of the children and grandchildren of the military-business nexus took to the streets in protest, sickened, like the rest of the harassed nation, by the irrational return of the great scourge of Burma, knowing that it was back in geriatric form and ready to kill their friends, their reputations, and their futures abroad. 

As the military had managed to retain, over the past decade, its reach and control over these families, their protests, although earnest, were largely short lived. Their appearance, although fleeting, goes to show just how limited support for the coup has been from the offset.

On the morning of the coup, arguments which one year later continue to divide the nation’s future were already taking shape. Many foreign business people with stakes in the country speculated that the takeover may not be a bad thing — the economy was faltering in the later years of Suu Kyi’s rule, they said, and anyway, look at Singapore, or Thailand! The families of lower ranking officers posted confused yet celebratory posts to social media: “Finally, we will be rich!” exclaimed the daughter of one colonel. A knees-up posted to Facebook by a particularly jubilant foreign restaurateur celebrated that an upcoming soirée would be free of “villagers”, presumably pesky protesters — who, disproving the moniker, had just a few weeks into the coup had taken to urban streets in their millions. 

Thway Thitsar

It is certain that nothing short of an unprecedented backlash, launched and sustained by almost the entire population, would have put paid to Min Aung Hlaing’s schemes — and this is exactly what the year has provided. Unlike the eternal optimists, firm in their belief that a “Tatmadaw 2.0” had somehow risen from the barracks poised to return the country to double digit growth, most Burmese, still generationally haunted by the lived experiences of the pre-Thein Sein era, knew that this coup, aerobics dancer aside, was the start of something extremely sinister. 

As soon as the first protestor — Mya Thawe Thawe Khaing in Naypyidaw — was shot in the head by a police officer, it was inevitable that a complete cross section of urban society — from wealthy merchants to civil servants, celebrities, flashy kids and Burma’s new class of international professionals and CEOs — would rebel: nobody given a taste of relative freedom comparable that experienced by Burma’s urban youths would agree to return to a situation where an irrational military machine gave all of society’s perks to its obsequious, largely abusive and backwards legions. Parents and older siblings remembered the days of perpetual bribes, of outrageous public murders going unpunished, and of arbitrary confiscations of wealth, businesses, and, in many cases, their own bodies. 

With the gradual removal of these feudal constraints, plus the coming of the internet and with it the norms of the outside world, the country, and a new generation — intelligent, urbane, not cowered by tyrants — had moved on.

Recently, the junta’s goonish deputy minister of information, Maj. Gen. Zaw Min Tun, compellingly argued that, before the coup, the military itself had failed to judge the depths of popular hatred towards it; a comprehensive lack of judgment that has set the tone for all that followed.

At first, Burma’s protests were earnest yet good humored. Millions took to the streets to call for the military to return to its barracks, with Burma’s netizens devising novel ways — typically involving fancy dress — in which to show their discontent. For the entire month of February, the country came to a complete standstill. 

Then, as protests failed to abate, security forces received the order to fire on civilians. On March 14, at least 65 protestors and bystanders were shot dead by soldiers in Yangon’s industrial Hlaingtharyar township after being kettled by troops. The protestors had used plastic shields to defend themselves against automatic weapons. By the end of March, rampaging soldiers had killed over 500 civilians: most died whilst peacefully protesting on Burma’s streets. 

As the junta sent squads into streets at night to both dismantle barricades and to abduct those found supporting the protests from their homes, an increasing number of urbanites fled to the “liberated” territories of Burma’s Ethnic Armed Organizations (EAOs)— some looking for sanctuary, other for training in small arms. The country’s Civil Disobedience Movement had taken root, and hundreds of thousands of striking teachers and medics now also became fair game for troops. Mass rallies gave way to ‘guerrilla’ flash protests, and the revolution’s momentum moved underground. 

This is the environment in which the parallel National Unity Government (NUG), birthed on April 16, entered the equation. A People’s Defence Force (PDF) — a civilian resistance, to consist largely of those living within Burma proper — was soon to be announced.

Continue to Part II – Who Rules Burma?