As soon as the news hit — once again, Myanmar’s army had seized total power — the crimson flags started to vanish.
Many citizens take pride in displaying them in front of homes and shops: red banners, emblazoned with a yellow peacock. This is the symbol of the National League for Democracy, the country’s most popular political party.
The party is helmed by Myanmar's most famous person, living or dead: Aung San Suu Kyi. Now, “Aunty Suu,” as she is widely known, is deposed and detained, along with hundreds of other elected politicians.
The generals say they will rule outright for up to a year. Since no one knows how petty this could get — will soldiers go after everyday supporters? — many people are taking down their flags or scraping decals off their cars.
Others stubbornly let them fly. This is the first of many agonizing choices facing Myanmar citizens: when to relent, when to resist.
This coup is a strike at voters (few of whom picked the military’s favorite party in recent elections) and punishment to Suu Kyi’s political network, which has been trying to chip away at the military’s dominance — rather gently and often without success.
Only in recent years has the military allowed legitimate general elections at all. It was the generals who set up this entire political system, designing it so that army power is enshrined no matter how the voting goes. Elected officials can’t give orders to police or troops; military leaders can veto major reforms.
But all that control was still not enough for the coup mastermind, Commander in Chief Min Aung Hlaing.
His takeover has reopened a wound in the nation’s psyche. Anyone in Myanmar who is 25 and older has spent most of their life under a totalitarian state. They had hoped those days were over.
“Our people, our society at large, are deeply traumatized.”
“Our people, our society at large, are deeply traumatized,” said Khin Ohmar, an activist from Myanmar who heads the advocacy group Progressive Voice who fled the nation’s bloodiest coup in 1988. She now lives in exile on the Thai-Myanmar border.
“Now, they’re showing off their military might, rolling tanks in the urban areas,” she said. “It’s fearmongering, instigating anxiety among the people.”
Not to mention outrage. So, what to do now? Khin Ohmar, who has a large network inside her home country, says that is the question everyone is asking.
Protests would be the classic move. There is a deep tradition of Myanmar citizens confronting soldiers on the streets. But past uprisings have ended with civilians beaten, tortured or killed — and the generals still firmly in control.
“I’ll never say whether people should or should not go protest,” Khin Ohmar said. “We all know the military, as an institution, is ruthless and will do everything to keep power.”
Roughly 36 hours after the coup, the people of Yangon tested their luck, banging pots and pans en masse to signal their anger. The cacophony rang out for miles around.
There is also talk of a general strike. Medical workers, on the front lines of a worsening COVID-19 pandemic, are already sticking out their necks, signaling their disgust with the coup.
In general, Myanmar’s activist culture is feisty and creative. Other strategies are sure to follow — and they are almost sure to synthesize online.
This is the X-factor. In the past, practically every scrap of information was subject to censorship, and dissidents whispered nervously in tea shops. But the past decade has seen mobile phones and social media accounts proliferate at light speed.
Myanmar’s new junta faces a population that is now more connected and knowledgeable — and possibly harder to control.
“Compared to our generation, they are far more aware of the country’s past and better at guessing what will happen next.”
“Compared to our generation,” Khin Ohmar said, “they are far more aware of the country’s past and better at guessing what will happen next.”
Perhaps the pro-democracy vanguard’s most powerful cheerleaders are American lawmakers. For decades, this has been a bipartisan mission: boosting Suu Kyi, held aloft as a resistance symbol, so much so that the State Department’s Myanmar policy has seemed to revolve around this single person.
But much has changed in recent years. Not only did Suu Kyi ruin her saintly image by condoning a brutal ethnic cleansing campaign, but the US is also not the empire it once was.
Nor would many in Myanmar welcome a return to America’s old strategy, strangling Myanmar’s economy under blanket sanctions, the sort still leveled against Iran or North Korea. Especially during a devastating pandemic.
“General sanctions, blanket sanctions, we are not calling for that,” Khin Ohmar said. “But the US needs to impose sanctions on the military and its conglomerates.”
This could be low-hanging fruit for the new White House: sanctioning one of the army's big moneymakers, a corporation that funnels cash to the military through various businesses: beer breweries, ruby mines, garment factories and more.
President Joe Biden’s administration may do just that. But few imagine these sanctions would be enough to reverse the coup. Despite promises to “take action,” there may be little the White House can do to coerce this cabal to change course.
Far more influential is neighboring China, Myanmar’s biggest trading partner, a political and military behemoth with enough clout to scare the generals.
China both supports and threatens the regime: courting the top brass in front of the cameras; behind the scenes, speaking the language army generals best understand — violence — as it not-so-secretly supplies weapons to Indigenous insurgents loathed by the generals.
If any foreign power can make or break the generals’ fate, it is China. There are actions the military could take to anger Beijing, such as interfering with Chinese fuel pipelines or other megaprojects.
But a return to totalitarian rule does not cross Beijing’s red lines. While the White House continues to talk tough over the coup, Chinese state media describe it as nothing more than a “cabinet reshuffle.”
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