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Unmasked

FIRST PERSON - Alex Magno (The Philippine Star) - February 4, 2021 - 12:00am

If he were a little more competent, Donald Trump might have staged exactly this power play.

Last Monday, as the new government was due to convene, Myanmar’s army mounted a coup. The iconic Aung San Suu Kyi, President Win Myint and senior elected leaders of the National League for Democracy (NLD) were arrested and detained at the new capital of Nay Pyi Taw. Communications were disrupted and banks were ordered closed as troops quickly deployed to secure vital government installations.

Military chief  Min Aung Hlaing appears to have installed himself in power. The army announced, according to sketchy reports coming out of the country, that a state of emergency will be imposed for a period of one year.

This is exactly what the army in neighboring Thailand said when they seized power some years back. To this day they have remained in power.

There are only sketchy analyses of the event offered by experts in Myanmar’s murky politics. What is clear is that tensions between the army and the NLD began escalating after the elections last November, the second such exercise since the country began its slow trek to democratic politics.

In last November’s elections, the NLD captured 80 percent of the popular vote. The landslide win for the democrats is a stinging rejection of the army-backed political party.

The generals could not accept this humiliating electoral outcome. They accused the NLD of electoral fraud, a charge rejected by the electoral commission as well as international observers of the exercise. The army mounted the coup exactly on the day the government produced by the November elections was due to convene.

On one hand, the coup might seem superfluous. The army wrote the Constitution to ensure they remained in control even as some semblance of democratic politics was allowed to evolve. The Constitution reserves for the army a fourth of the seats in the national assembly as well as important government portfolios.

But the great landslide won by the NLD does signal a popular rejection of the military establishment. With a stronger mandate, the NLD could start chipping away at the military’s constitutionally guaranteed presence in government.

Popular rejection could threaten the economic interests of the military establishment. Through decades of military rule, the military as a corporate entity accumulated economic interests. Individual officers, such as Gen. Hlaing, are also said to have grown their own wealth.

Fifty years of military rule transformed Myanmar from one of the wealthiest countries in Southeast Asia to possibly the poorest. But without firm military control, the nation could succumb to ethnic and communal conflict.

Before the democratization process began, Aung San Suu Kyi, daughter of the nation’s founder, was kept in house arrest for 15 years. In a historic deal with the army, she convinced her party to explore a path to democratization in partnership with the generals. She lost much of her international stature a few years ago when she spoke at the UN and defended the army from charges of genocide perpetrated against the Rohingya minority.

Now we know the democratization process has been a fraud. The military ensured they would always be in control. They used the NLD merely as a guise to assuage international condemnation of the dictatorship. Now the true political dynamic has been unmasked.

During the decades Myanmar (previously known as Burma) was under brutal military rule, the nation was reduced to a pariah among the community of states. This week’s coup, met with international condemnation, will probably mean Myanmar will be returned to political isolation. It will become a version of the hermit kingdom that North Korea is.

Those who most loudly condemned the coup threaten Myanmar with more sanctions. Unfortunately, more sanctions will hurt the poor rather than the generals.

On the prospect of returning to some form of republican government, Myanmar was able to join the ASEAN. Now, the regional association is at a loss over how to treat a member-country that has shed its democratic guise.

Several ASEAN member-countries, the Philippines included, ventured to express “concern” over the most recent development. As a general rule, relations between ASEAN members are governed by strict non-interference in the internal affairs of other members. Expressions of concern test the limits of that internal rule.

The US and the European Union condemned the military take-over. They will have to back that up with sanctions.

China professes to be studying the situation in Myanmar. That is an excuse for not taking a position on what happened. The Asian superpower has nothing to gain from supporting Myanmar’s new military rulers.

Eventually, albeit uncomfortably, the region will reconcile with what happened in Myanmar. There is nothing to gain pushing this country back to autarchy.

Just two days after the coup, there is an eerie silence on the diplomatic front. The perfunctory condemnations or expressions of concern are done. It is more convenient to ignore Myanmar and leave the country to its own devices – just as the region did in the five decades the country was under tough military rule.

The democratic experiment in Myanmar is over. It ended badly for the democrats. The rest of the world is simply too busy fighting climate change and a pandemic. Not too many are willing to engage the crafty Burmese generals. The army, after all, is the only institution holding this diverse nation together.

The coup will be bad for Myanmar’s nascent economy. But the generals seem happy to rule a backwater economy in an otherwise prosperous region.

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