By Gwynne Dyer
China’s Xinhua news agency tactfully described the Burmese army’s seizure of power on Monday as a ‘cabinet reshuffle’. This suggests a possible new approach for Donald Trump’s legal team as he faces a second impeachment trial, but it won’t work, for two reasons. One, Trump’s coup attempt failed. Two, people got killed.
Whereas the Burmese army moved with practised ease to arrest democratic leader Aung San Suu Kyi and all the members of her National League for Democracy (NLD) who had been elected in a landslide victory last November.
Military snatch squads grabbed the sleeping MPs out of their beds – they were all in the capital for the official opening of the new parliament later on Monday – and nobody got hurt. But the great mystery is why the army bothered.
After all, the army still owned all its money-making commercial enterprises, and it really controlled the government too despite the democratic window-dressing. Nobel Peace Prize winner Aung San Suu Kyi was in office, but the army was the power behind the throne. That was the deal (hopefully transitional) that she had made with the generals in 2015.
She could not choose who got the three most important cabinet posts: Home, Defence and Border Affairs were reserved for serving generals. And enough seats in parliament were reserved for unelected military officers to veto any changes in the constitution.
It was a rotten deal, but the generals had all the guns and that lopsided power-sharing deal was the only alternative to naked military dictatorship. And when the army started massacring the Rohingya, a small Muslim minority in Rakhine state, in 2017, Suu Kyi had to go along with that as well.
‘Had to go along with it’ may be a tad generous. Suu Kyi didn’t just keep quiet about the genocide that drove most of the Rohingya population (700,000 people) across the border into Bangladesh. She actually went to the International Court of Justice last year and defended the army’s actions in person. (That was when her foreign admirers finally cancelled her honorary sainthood.)
No matter. She did it – and the NLD got 80% of the votes in the November election, so it worked. She kept her side of the rotten deal. Why didn’t the army keep its side? Maybe because it expected the army’s proxy civilian party to do well in the election. After all, the ruling Bamar ethnic group (66% of the population) had backed the army’s actions in Rakhine.
Here it gets quite Trumpian. If you believe you should have won the election, it’s a short step to thinking that the vote was rigged. It’s a longer but still possible step to deciding you should use force to reverse this injustice.
There was no evidence of fraud and the election commission said so, but the army started claiming there were “massive voting irregularities.”
There has long been dissatisfaction among some junior generals and colonels about the army’s collaboration with the NLD, profitable though it has been. However, the commander-in-chief, Senior General Min Aung Hlaing, was distinctly less enthusiastic in his claims of fraud in the run-up to the coup.
What happens now? Probably a new head of the 11-man military junta to replace Min Aung Hlaing within weeks, and then another prolonged period of military rule. Foreign sanctions? Definitely. Popular protests? Almost certainly. Massive bloodshed and repression? Quite possible; the army has done that before. And Aung San Suu Kyi gets another crack at sainthood.