FIRST PERSON - Alex Magno (The Philippine Star) - February 23, 2021 - 12:00am

Alas, the democratic movement in Myanmar will be left to carry on alone. The rest of the world is preoccupied with the pandemic and climate change.

For over half a century, the Burmese military held absolute power over what was once the wealthiest and most cosmopolitan country in Southeast Asia. Dictatorship, and the international condemnation it invited, put the country in a time warp. A decade ago, the military allowed a window to democratization to open – albeit under very strict controls.

The constitution the military itself provided was designed to conserve their role in government. Key portfolios were reserved for the army. A fourth of seats in the assembly were reserved for the pro-military political party.

The army even inserted an insidious provision aimed obviously at democracy icon Aung San Suu Kyi. It prohibited anyone married to a foreigner from being elected president of the country. The National League for Democracy (NLD) went around that ban by electing Suu Kyi “state counselor,” installing her close ally as the nation’s president.

Suu Kyi performed a delicate balancing act. She defended the military at the UN when the institution was charged with genocide over its treatment of the Rohingya minority. For that, she disappointed many of her international admirers. But the Burmese people understood the balancing act she had to perform.

In last November’s elections, the NLD won over 80 percent of the vote. That was a clear statement of the political direction the Burmese people wanted to go. They wanted an open society, accountable government and respect for civil rights.

The military was not happy with the results of the vote. Without any evidence, they accused the NLD of committing electoral fraud. On the first of February, the day the new national assembly was to be inaugurated, they mounted a coup.

Suu Kyi was detained for the silliest of reasons. She was accused of possessing a walkie-talkie set, a gadget available in most toy stores everywhere else. Senior officials of her party were thrown into prison.

The international community strongly condemned the power grab. Member-countries of the ASEAN, notwithstanding the association’s scrupulous non-interference tradition, frowned at the development. Even China issued an unexpectedly strongly worded condemnation of the coup. The US and the EU immediately prepared tightly focused measures intending to punish military leaders while sparing the rest of Myanmar’s population.

But that is about the extent any country is willing to venture to influence the unfolding events in Myanmar. Apart from the distractions offered by the pandemic and the calamities caused by global warming, all countries recognize the pragmatic limits to pushing against the military.

Myanmar, like Libya and Iraq, is deeply fissured along ethnic lines. Without a strong centralizing role exercised by the military, Myanmar could quickly disintegrate into communal conflict. This is what happened in Libya and Iraq when the former strongmen leaders were deposed. Both Middle Eastern countries have become ungovernable, with open warfare waged between heavily armed factions representing ethnicities and religious identities.

Myanmar as a political entity, after all, is a product of British colonialism. It grouped within a territorial entity a wild quilt of ethnicities and languages – as well as centuries-old animosities. Through its whole existence, even under the boot of a military dictatorship, armed separatist movements flourished. The possibility of political disintegration gives critics of the Burmese military some pause.

Myanmar, like many other post-colonial countries, is so differentiated it cannot stand without a strong centralizing force. As in ethnically differentiated Indonesia, the army was the bearer of nationalist ideology in the immediate post-independence period.

But Indonesia, after the army-inspired nationalism has been deeply ingrained, the country was able to gradually transition out of dictatorship towards some variant of a democratic polity. In Myanmar, the military has been so deeply tarnished by its brutal suppression of dissent and its cruel treatment of minorities, it has no confidence in leaving the democratization process to proceed under its own dynamic. The experiment with democratization was intended simply to shield the military from international sanctions.

On top of the deep-seated popular disdain for the military, its current crop of leaders are insecure about their personal fortunes. The army chief, who is now nominal leader of the country, was due to retire in a few months and had no way to retain power through civilian channels given last November’s election results.

The coup, however, further deepens popular disdain for the military.

Since the coup was mounted, there have been daily protests in the streets of Myanmar’s cities. The suppressed creativity of an oppressed people gained free play in these modes of popular action.  As the protest actions grow larger and noisier, the military response is bound to become more brutal.

Over the past few days, three demonstrators were killed. All of them by gunshot wounds, one to the head.

The violent military response will unlikely dissuade further protests. But further protests increase the likelihood of more deaths. This situation could spiral until all possible resolutions are untenable.

On this day, 35 years ago, a very different political storyline unfolded on Edsa. A coup unraveled and throngs gathered around the military camps to protect the beleaguered plotters. That unlikely storyline produced a democratic uprising.

This is not going to be the storyline defining the course events in Myanmar would take. A corrupt military institution, looking after its corporate interests and the personal fortunes of its leaders, is deeply hated by the masses.

The Burmese military cannot accomplish its strategic nationalist role without popular support.

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