In this webinar, Mr Nyantha Maw Lin and Mr Maw Htun Aung shared their views from inside Myanmar on the situation at ground level, in both urban and ethnic areas, and offer insight into people’s prevailing sentiments and reactions to the current crisis.
MYANMAR STUDIES PROGRAMME WEBINAR
Friday, 21 May 2021 – Close to four months into the military’s seizure of power in Myanmar, the ISEAS Myanmar Studies Programme invited two Myanmar analysts to share their insights on the impact of the coup and implications of recent external and internal developments in relation to the coup. Mr Nyantha Maw Lin and Mr Maw Htun Aung gave their honest and frank assessment of the situation in Myanmar, as experience and viewed by the various peoples and communities bearing the brunt of the coup’s impact on society and the economy.
ISEAS’ third webinar on the Myanmar coup caught the interest of 214 attendees, and was conducted as a moderated conversation addressing three broad questions/topics of discussion. Ms Moe Thuzar, co-coordinator of the ISEAS Myanmar Studies Programme served as moderator.
- The situation on the ground in Myanmar four months after the coup
In early May 2021, the National Unity Government (NUG), appointed by the Committee Representing the Pyidaungsu Hluttaw (CRPH), established People’s Defence Forces (PDF) as a precursor to an envisioned federal army. Some of these PDF took to using aggressive force in responding to the violence and suppression by security forces. This thinking that a “classic non-violence strategy does not work in Myanmar” revealed decades of hard experience under military rule, which led some to view armed struggle as the only way to resist the military.
Non-violent protests continued, taking on new and creative forms. There was now a more dedicated core sustaining the momentum through non-violent protests and the Civil Disobedience Movement (CDM). Up to May, resistance to the coup had been disciplined and peaceful; the military escalated tensions by firing live ammunition into crowds of protesters with the intent to kill.
Average citizens faced a growing economic crisis. The impact of the Covid-19 pandemic in 2020 had already slowed down the economy, and the February 1 coup had destroyed hopes for post-pandemic recovery. People viewed the coup as an example of the long-term costs of submitting to military rule, and thus showed their willingness to endure damage to their economic life in resisting the coup. Despite huge transaction costs and disruptions to daily life, the ongoing protests and support for them indicate a general drive that is adaptive and resilient, with the main aim to deny the military any legitimacy.
The CDM had slowed down logistics, banking services, and the functioning of various government departments and agencies. This had catalysed a rapid slowdown in the economy. Public health, especially tertiary care, had collapsed. The higher education sector had also stalled, with two-thirds of faculty either participating in CDM or dismissed by the military because of their CDM participation. The military had substituted teachers with unqualified daily-wage staff, which would affect the quality of education even more.
The impact in coming months would be worse, especially with the start of the monsoon when communicable diseases are more easily spread. The impact on the economy would also worsen.
The current political crisis in Myanmar should not be interpreted as a battle between the National League for Democracy (NLD) and the military. The nationwide protests are regardless of whether people voted for the NLD or not; the coup had shattered hopes for building on the gains that the earlier democratic opening had brought. People in Myanmar do not trust that the military would honour its promise about a future election (or that that election would be inclusive and free), nor that electoral fraud was the reason for the coup.
2. Impact of the coup on society and economy overall, and implications of recent internal and external developments
The wide acceptance of and support for the CRPH and NUG demonstrated the will of the Myanmar people to accord legitimacy to elected representatives, and to deny that same legitimacy to the State Administration Council (SAC) established by the coup. The military had thus miscalculated the impact of and public reaction to the coup. Different from previous coups in Myanmar, the current coup could be considered as having failed, as the SAC could not function effectively as a government; ethnic and mainland Bamar communities are united in their resistance of the coup. This resistance has also given birth to a shared understanding across the country to set the stage for an inclusive political vision. Discussions on this shared vision are becoming more open and progressive, with thought leadership emerging from different activists and organisers.
The military’s intent to hold on to power at all costs indicated a grim reality that while the economy might collapse, the military might still prevail. Yet, there was a willingness among the populace to bear the cost of a downward spiral, politically, economically, and socially.
Myanmar in May 2021 showed a situation far from the expectations for some political continuity after the November 2020 elections, anticipation for Covid-19 recovery after being among the earliest Southeast Asian countries to start nationwide vaccinations, and being on track for a surplus net export of grains in the agri-food value chain.
The countrywide shutdown of the internet had killed the country’s nascent digital economy and banking. Despite great difficulties for people to go to work or conduct normal commerce, the banking sector had been pressured to stay open. The Myanmar Kyat (MMK) depreciation indicated a looming liquidity crisis, as the Central Bank of Myanmar, now under military control, had limited withdrawal amounts to MMK 2 million (approx. USD1200) per week, while private banks could not even ensure that. “Brokers” were charging 10-15% commissions for higher withdrawal amounts, causing the MMK to depreciate by almost 30%.
The manner in which the region (represented by ASEAN) and some major powers are engaging with Myanmar seemed to employ a limited lens of viewing the military as the only (organised) institution, or Myanmar as a site of power contestation. The opportunity costs – including potential spillover effects – of a delayed or slow response were high, as frustrations mount daily in Myanmar.
3. The federal vision, and sentiments and aspirations of ethnic nationalities
Forming a federal union was viewed as a formal exit from the current “mess” and had been a consistent demand by Myanmar’s ethnic nationalities since the 1960s. The 1962 coup was in fact the military’s refusal to accept the federal arrangement proposals. The current discussions on federalism reflected a recognition that a vision for a “new Myanmar” was necessary, that included the aspirations of ethnic communities. A federal democratic setting would allow stability to return to Myanmar, which would contribute to regional stability and Myanmar’s bilateral relations with neighbouring countries.
People’s reaction and resistance to the coup was beyond political dissent; it had brought to society a social awakening and deeper awareness of Bamar privileges, especially in the urban areas. For the first time in decades, people in mainland/heartland areas now understood the decades-long plight of ethnic communities. This realisation had also shattered some myths about the military (Tatmadaw) being the vanguard of stability in Myanmar. For the first time, Bamar heartlanders were sending support and encouragement to ethnic communities affected by fighting in Kachin and Kayin States. The social awakening that started since February 1 had also led to more discussion on equal rights and treatment, particularly with regard to the treatment of the Rohingya community. The federal vision thus went beyond power arrangements between elites, with its transformative potential for Myanmar society.
Both speakers exhorted the international community to develop a unified voice and approach to their response to the Myanmar crisis. Perceptions in Myanmar towards ASEAN were low, following the grouping’s engagement of the SAC. People in Myanmar viewed the SAC not as a post-coup military government but as representative of an occupying force without any legitimate claim to govern or represent the state. As such, people were determined not to give up their resistance to the coup.
Even were a political solution reached, the impact of the coup on the financial and SME sectors would require at least three to five years of recovery. International assistance would be needed for rebuilding health and finance systems, which had collapsed, portending many hardships in coming months. Humanitarian assistance responses should harness technology to directly reach communities in need such as farmers and the urban poor. Myanmar and her people in 2021 were no longer disconnected to the international community, nor to reactions and responses to the continuing crisis in the country.