By Yanis Iqbal
On February 1, 2021, Myanmar’s military – known as the Tatmadaw – invoked Article 417 of the 2008 constitution, dismissed State Counselor Aung San Suu Kyi, and arrested her and other members of her National League for Democracy (NLD) party, thus putting an end to the country’s ten-year experiment with democracy.
The coup followed weeks of unsubstantiated allegations of electoral fraud, first from the losing Tatmadaw’s proxy party, the Union Solidarity and Development Party (USDP), and then from the military itself. The allegation of electoral fraud used to justify the coup is a mere charade, all the more flimsy coming from the military that organized in 2008 a sham referendum to approve an undemocratic constitution and, two years later, a highly controlled election – boycotted by the NLD – in which the unpopular USDP obtained a dubious victory that marked the beginning of the transition.
Myanmar has a long history of being dominated by a ruthless military. When it achieved national independence in 1948, the numerous ethnic and religious divisions quickly posed a problem for the first Prime Minister U Nu. Civil war erupted across the country within the first year of Burmese independence.
Ultimately, the army would wrest political control in 1958 with promises of a “caretaker government” that soon gave way to decades of brutal military rule, with the army faced off against communist and ethnic insurgencies. In total, the country has experienced five decades of military dictatorship: the first one lasted from 1958 to 1960 and the second lasted from 1962 to 2011.
Myanmar underwent a transition from direct authoritarianism after the election in 2010 when power was transferred to a nominally civilian government in 2011. The transition was, however, only partial, as the new government of President Thein Sein and the USDP originated from the Tatmadaw, came into power through a flawed election, and governed on the basis of the military-designed 2008 constitution that curtailed the democratic capacities of the civilian administration.
Three key provisions of the constitution guaranteed the army’s continuing sway. First, the constitution gave the military control over the three key security ministries – Defense, Home Affairs, and Border Affairs. Second, it reserved 25% of parliamentary seats – one in four – to soldiers handpicked by the commander in chief.
Third, it granted the Tatmadaw total power over its own affairs, as well as blanket immunity against any prosecution for the crimes routinely committed in the several wars against ethnic armed groups in the periphery of the country. Fourth, all constitutional amendments must garner the support of at least 75% of sitting MPs, virtually impossible, given the army’s strategic chunk of assembly seats.
The 2008 constitution was seen as heralding a new age of democracy since the absence of a constitution has been a defining feature of Myanmar’s governance framework. The country was ruled for 36 years – first from 1962 to 1974 and then from 1988 to 2010 – without a constitution. The latter period was an era of direct military rule by decree, although the military claimed to be a transitional government.
Myanmar has a system of military-dominated capitalism, earning the label of “khaki capitalism”. Military enterprises, established in the 1950s, have been some of the earliest and largest Burmese commercial conglomerates. Myanmar Economic Holdings Limited (MEHL) and Myanmar Economic Corporation (MEC) are military enterprises which continue to remain central players in Myanmar’s post-2011 economy.
Military conglomerates are a major source of off-budget revenue for the military and a main employer of retired soldiers. Yet, few veterans receive more than a small piece of the profits from MEHL. The vast bulk of dividends instead disproportionately benefit higher ranking officers and institutions within the Tatmadaw.
Obligatory or semi-coerced contributions from active-duty soldiers are a source of cash flow for MEHL, effectively constituting a transfer from the government budget to the military’s off-budget entities. Despite receiving 14% of the government budget in 2017 – 18, the military claims that MEHL and MEC are necessary as they deliver off-budget revenues that reduce the military’s demand on the government budget.
The Myanmar military also maintains murky links to the jade industry through subsidiaries and front companies – all this making up a lucrative trade for the top generals. MEHL is heavily involved in jade through their subsidiary Myanmar Imperial Jade (MIJ). MIJ is at the apex of additional subsidiaries with profits flowing back to military regiments, battalions and generals. Tatmadaw outsources mining licenses to their cronies – such as KBZ Group, who mine jade for the military and reap the jade profits through commercial bank.
The immediate trigger behind the coup has been the landslide victory registered by the NLD in the November 2020 general elections. Despite many barriers and with voting banned in many ethnic areas, the NLD won a second term very convincingly. While the NLD is not inclined toward enacting structural reforms against the military, the latter may have felt threatened by the “excesses” of democratization, namely the ability of a party to construct a complete hegemony on the electoral arena.
Since November 2010, when she was released from house arrest, Suu Kyi has been the dominating presence in Myanmar’s struggle to free itself from military rule. On the basis of her political ancestry (Aung San, her father, played a key role in the country’s fight for freedom from British rule) and the immense public support she commands, Suu Kyi has come to create a strong political pole in the country.
Confident of popular support, Suu Kyi has sometimes crossed the barriers set by the military. To take one example, when she was barred from the presidency by a clause in the constitution that prevents those with close foreign relatives from reaching the highest position – her two sons are British citizens – she created the position of “state counselor” and reserved for herself the Ministry of Foreign Affairs. In March 2020, Suu Kyi’s party proposed a constitutional amendment to allow her to become President, something the military clearly could not accept since they designed the constitution specifically so that she could never be president. As Suu Kyi was growing more powerful, the military decided to put a stop to this before it was too late.
Charting a New Path
In response to the coup, tens of thousands of protesters have marched daily in Yangon and Mandalay, the country’s biggest cities and the demonstrations have spread throughout the country – including the capital city of Naypyitaw. These demonstrations are the inevitable result of Suu Kyi’s popularity. To ensure that these protests succeed, a new path needs to be charted – one that does not emulate the submissive politics of NLD.
Instead of confronting the Tatmadaw, the NLD thinks that by doing the junta a favour, they will hopefully grant them the minimal democratic reforms it wants. But it is crystal clear that they will never grant democratic reforms that truly threaten their power and privilege, thus this liberal path reveals itself as nothing but complicity in the efforts of the ruling class to deceive the masses. The only way to remove the junta from power is through revolutionary praxis that defends the oppressed masses from the authoritarian capitalist system under which they live.