Myanmar Pretense of Control 05/11 06:55
BANGKOK (AP) -- After Myanmar's military seized power by ousting the elected
government of Aung San Suu Kyi, they couldn't even make the trains run on time:
State railway workers were among the earliest organized opponents of the
February takeover, and they went on strike.
Health workers who founded the civil disobedience movement against military
rule stopped staffing government medical facilities. Many civil servants were
no-shows at work, along with employees of government and private banks.
Universities became hotbeds of resistance, and in recent weeks, education at
the primary and secondary levels has begun to collapse as teachers, students
and parents boycott state schools.
One hundred days after their takeover, Myanmar's ruling generals maintain
just the pretense of control. The illusion is sustained mainly by its partially
successful efforts to shut down independent media and to keep the streets clear
of large demonstrations by employing lethal force. More than 750 protesters and
bystanders have been killed by security forces, according to detailed
"The junta might like people to think that things are going back to normal
because they are not killing as many people as they were before and there
weren't as many people on the streets as before, but... the feeling we are
getting from talking to people on the ground is that definitely the resistance
has not yet subsided," said Thin Lei Win, a journalist now based in Rome who
helped found the Myanmar Now online news service in 2015.
She says the main change is that dissent is no longer as visible as in the
early days of the protests -- before security forces began using live
ammunition -- when marches and rallies in major cities and towns could easily
draw tens of thousands of people.
At the same time, said David Mathieson, an independent analyst who has been
working on Myanmar issues for over 20 years, "Because of the very violent
pacification of those protests, a lot of people are willing to become more
"We are already starting to see signs of that. And with the right training,
the right leadership and the right resources, what Myanmar could experience is
an incredibly nasty destructive, internal armed conflict in multiple locations
in urban areas."
Meanwhile, the junta also faces a growing military challenge in the always
restive border regions where ethnic minority groups exercise political power
and maintain guerrilla armies. Two of the more battle-hardened groups, the
Kachin in the north and the Karen in the east, have declared their support for
the protest movement and stepped up their fighting, despite the government
military, known as the Tatmadaw, hitting back with greater firepower, including
Even a month ago, U.N. High Commissioner for Human Rights Michelle Bachelet
was describing the situation as grim, saying Myanmar's "economy, education and
health infrastructure have been brought to the brink of collapse, leaving
millions of Myanmar people without livelihood, basic services and,
increasingly, food security."
It was not surprising that The Economist magazine, in an April cover story,
labeled Myanmar "Asia's next failed state" and opined it was heading in the
direction of Afghanistan.
The U.N.'s Bachelet made a different comparison.
"There are clear echoes of Syria in 2011," she said. "There too, we saw
peaceful protests met with unnecessary and clearly disproportionate force. The
State's brutal, persistent repression of its own people led to some individuals
taking up arms, followed by a downward and rapidly expanding spiral of violence
all across the country."
Junta chief Senior Gen. Min Aung Hlaing has shunned all efforts at
mediation, from the United Nations as well as the Association of Southeast
Asian Nations, of which Myanmar is a member.
Myanmar's resistance movement, meanwhile, has organized widely and swiftly
Within days of the junta takeover, elected parliamentarians who were denied
their seats convened their own self-styled Parliament. Its members have formed
a shadow National Unity Government with guidelines for an interim constitution,
and last week, a People's Defense Force as a precursor to a Federal Union Army.
Many cities, towns and even neighborhoods had already formed local defense
groups which in theory will now become part of the People's Defense Force.
Aside from being morale boosters, these actions serve a strategic purpose by
endorsing a federal style of government, which has been sought for decades by
the country's ethnic minorities to give them autonomous powers in the border
areas where they predominate.
Promoting federalism, in which the center shares power with the regions,
aligns the interests of the anti-military pro-democracy movement with the goals
of the ethnic minorities. In theory, this could add a real military component
to a movement whose armaments are generally no deadlier than Molotov cocktails
and air rifles --- though homemade bombs have been added to its arsenals in
In practice, at least for the time being, the guerrilla armies of the Kachin
in the north and the Karen in the east will fight as they always have, to
protect their own territory. They can give military training to the thousands
of activists that are claimed to have fled the cities to their zones, but are
still overmatched by the government's forces. But on their home ground they
hold an advantage against what their populations consider an occupying army.
That may be enough.
"The only thing that the military is really threatened by is when all of
these disparate voices and communities around the country actually start
working against it, not as a unified monolith, but all working against the
military's interests," said the analyst, Mathieson. "And I think that's the
best that we can hope for moving forward, that the people recognize that all
efforts have to go against the military. And if that means fighting up in the
hills and doing peaceful protests and other forms of striking back against the
military in the towns and the cities, then so be it."
It's hard to gauge if the army has a breaking point.
Mathieson said he's seen no signs the junta was willing to negotiate or
concede anything. The Tatmadaw is "remarkably resilient. And they recognize
that this is an almost existential threat to their survival."