Old habits die hard

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A cyclist bikes past a signboard with an image of Myanmar leader Aung San Suu Kyi, in Yangon, Myanmar Friday, Jan. 29, 2021. Myanmar’s election commission rejected allegations by the military that fraud played a significant role in determining the outcome of November’s elections, which delivered a landslide victory to Aung San Suu Kyi’s ruling party. (AP/UNB Photo)

On Saturday, January 30 Myanmar’s military denied its chief was threatening to stage a coup over complaints of election fraud, saying the media had misinterpreted his words. Two days later, he did just that.

Aung San Suu Kyi, the Nobel Peace Prize laureate who became Myanmar’s leader in 2016 following five decades of military rule, cautioned repeatedly that the country’s democratic reforms would only succeed if the powerful army accepted the changes.

Her warnings proved prescient. The military detained Suu Kyi and other senior politicians on Monday and said it would rule under a one-year state of emergency.

It was a sharp halt in the tentative steps toward democracy by the Southeast Asian nation in the past decade.

Suu Kyi has spent much of her life fighting military rule. She was born on June 19, 1945, in the city now called Yangon, to charismatic independence hero Gen. Aung San, who was assassinated when she was only 2.

Buddhist-majority Myanmar, then called Burma, attained independence six months after his death. Suu Kyi’s mother, Khin Kyi, served in the post-independence Parliament, became a government minister and later was ambassador to India in the 1960s.

Suu Kyi mainly lived abroad as a young adult. She earned a degree at Oxford University in philosophy, politics and economics, and then worked for the United Nations in New York and Bhutan. She married British academic Michael Aris and had two sons.

Her homeland, meanwhile, was under the control of a military leader, Ne Win, a former comrade of her father who had seized power in 1962.

Protests against the military government had been growing before Suu Kyi returned to Myanmar in 1988 to nurse her dying mother. She was little known but soon became the face of the swelling opposition.

Defying a brutal military crackdown that by some estimates killed thousands of people, she helped found the National League for Democracy.

Placed under house arrest in 1989, Suu Kyi was detained for 15 of the next 22 years, mostly at her dilapidated lakeside home in Yangon. Even when free, she did not dare leave the country to see her husband and sons in Britain for fear the military would prevent her return. Her husband died of cancer in 1999 without her being able to visit.

In awarding Suu Kyi the Nobel Peace Prize in 1991 for her nonviolent struggle, Norwegian Nobel Committee Chairman Francis Sejersted likened her not only to her father but also to India’s Mohandas Gandhi.

Her reputation for grace under fire grew during her confinement. The Myanmar public called her “The Lady,” a sign of respect and knowingly indirect, to avoid attention from the ubiquitous secret police.

The military finally eased its grip on politics, allowing elections in 2010, and eventually for Suu Kyi to hold government office.

She resumed traveling, no longer fearing the generals would bar her return. More than 20 years late, she delivered her Nobel lecture in Norway in June 2012.

Her party swept elections in 2015, but she couldn’t become president because of a provision added by the military to the 2008 constitution designed to bar her from the country’s highest office. Instead, she became de facto national leader with the title of state counsellor, a position created for her.

She had no direct control over the military, which retained significant power. The pace of reform slowed. Her government freed most, but not all, political prisoners, and new arrests of journalists and activists were made under unchanged, colonial-era laws.

Critics say she helped whitewash the bloody history of the generals she replaced and made scant headway in tackling the country’s dire poverty, dysfunctional judicial system and crumbling infrastructure.

Supporters viewed her stance as pragmatic in a country where the military kept its dominance even after the country’s transition to a civilian government.

“I am concerned about how much support there is in the military for changes. In the end that’s the most important factor, how far the military are prepared to cooperate with reform principles,” Suu Kyi said in an interview with The Associated Press in 2012.

But her image as a democracy icon was most damaged by her government’s handling of abuses committed by the military against the Muslim Rohingya minority, who were driven into squalid camps by waves of killings beginning in 2012.

In 2017, the military launched a counterinsurgency operation involving mass rape, murders and the torching of entire villages. More than 700,000 Rohingya fled to neighboring Bangladesh, where they continue to live in crowded refugee camps, afraid to return to a country that denies them basic rights including citizenship.

Suu Kyi repeatedly defended the military, even at the International Court of Justice, and would not speak up for the Rohingya, dismaying her global supporters.

Asked once in a BBC interview about her once-saintly reputation, Suu Kyi replied: “I am just a politician. I am not quite like Margaret Thatcher, no, but on the other hand, I am no Mother Teresa either. I have never said that I was. Mahatma Gandhi, actually, was a very astute politician.”

Before Monday’s coup in Myanmar, the country’s relations with China already were complicated by Chinese investments in its infrastructure and the Myanmar military’s campaigns along their shared border.

The coup deposed national leader Aung San Suu Kyi a little over a year after Chinese President Xi Jinping made a show of support to her with the first visit by a head of state from Beijing to Myanmar since 2001 and 33 agreements on a wide range of issues.

The military’s commander in chief, Min Aung Hliang, has taken charge of the new government under a one-year state of emergency.

A more uncertain return

Rohingya refugees from Myanmar living in camps in Bangladesh condemned the military coup in their homeland and said it makes them more fearful to return.

A counterinsurgency operation by Myanmar’s military in 2017 involving mass rape, murders and the torching of villages drove more than 700,000 Rohingya Muslims into neighboring Bangladesh.

Bangladesh has hosted them in crowded refugee camps and is eager to begin sending them back to Buddhist-majority Myanmar. Several attempts at repatriation under a joint agreement failed because the Rohingya refused to go, fearing more violence in a country that denies them basic rights including citizenship.

Refugees said they are more afraid now that the military is in complete control.

“The military killed us, raped our sisters and mothers, torched our villages. How is it possible for us to stay safe under their control?” said Khin Maung, head of the Rohingya Youth Association in the camps in Cox’s Bazar district.

“Any peaceful repatriation will hugely be impacted,” he told The Associated Press. “It will take a long time because the political situation in Myanmar is worse now.”

Officials from Myanmar and Bangladesh met last month to discuss ways to start the repatriations, with Bangladesh’s Foreign Ministry seeming more hopeful of success and officials saying they expected to begin sometime in June.

But refugees said they totally oppose the military takeover.

“We strongly condemn the coup. We love democracy and human rights, so we are worried about losing them in our country,” Maung said.

“We are part of Myanmar, so we feel the same as Myanmar’s common people. We urge the international community to raise its voice against the coup,” he said.

Mohammad Jaffar, 70, said they had been waiting to go back.

“The hope that we had to go back has now been interrupted by this change in regime in Myanmar,” Jaffar said. “Repatriation will not be safe at all under this regime. ... Now if we go back into the hands of people who are responsible for our torture, we will probably have to bear twice as much pain as before.”

Another refugee said repatriation would not be possible now.

“Even if they try to repatriate us, we will not agree to go back under the current situation. If they take us back into that regime, they will torture us even more,” Nurul Amin said.

Bangladesh’s Ministry of Foreign Affairs said on Monday that it hopes the coup will not hamper the refugees’ return.

“As an immediate and friendly neighbor, we would like to see peace and stability in Myanmar. We have been persistent in developing mutually beneficial relations with Myanmar and have been working with Myanmar for the voluntary, safe and sustained repatriation of the Rohingya sheltered in Bangladesh,” it said.

The United Nations has described the Myanmar military crackdown on the Rohingya as a form of genocide. In total, more than 1 million refugees are being sheltered by Bangladesh.

Monday’s coup was a dramatic backslide for Myanmar, which was emerging from decades of strict military rule and international isolation that began in 1962.

Looking to Beijing

Before Monday’s coup in Myanmar, the country’s relations with China already were complicated by Chinese investments in its infrastructure and the Myanmar military’s campaigns along their shared border.

The coup deposed national leader Aung San Suu Kyi a little over a year after Chinese President Xi Jinping made a show of support to her with the first visit by a head of state from Beijing to Myanmar since 2001 and 33 agreements on a wide range of issues.

The military’s commander in chief, Min Aung Hliang, has taken charge of the new government under a one-year state of emergency. Even if China played no role at all in ousting Suu Kyi, Beijing is likely to gain still greater sway over the country, analysts say. That’s especially likely if the U.S. and other Western governments impose sanctions to try to punish the regime.

At a briefing on the situation at the United Nations Security Council on Tuesday, the U.N. envoy for Myanmar condemned the coup and urged the council to support democracy in the country. But it was unclear if the council would issue a statement calling for restoration of democracy and release of all those detained by the military because the U.N. missions of China and Russia said they had to send it to their capitals for review.

Beijing’s initial reaction to the coup was measured.

On Monday, Foreign Ministry spokesman Wang Wenbin said China was studying the situation, describing Myanmar as a “friendly neighbor.” He urged Myanmar to properly handle the situation according to its laws and constitution and “maintain political and social stability.”

China has invested billions of dollars in Myanmar mines, oil and gas pipelines and other infrastructure and is its biggest trading partner. But while China’s ruling Communist Party tends to favor fellow authoritarian regimes, it has had a fractious history with Myanmar’s military, sometimes related to its campaigns against ethnic Chinese minority groups and the drug trade along their long, mountainous border.

It was partly a backlash against China’s growing dominance of Myanmar’s economy a decade ago that led the previous junta to shift toward democratic reforms and the civilian government that enabled Suu Kyi to join Parliament and become the nation’s de facto leader, even as the military retained ultimate power.

Suu Kyi has shifted closer to Beijing in the past few years as she defended the military against condemnation of atrocities against Myanmar’s Rohingya minority. That may have deepened military leaders’ distrust, especially after their party suffered a resounding loss in recent elections.

“It was always a risk that the military would step in to try and shore up their power,” Champa Patel, director of the Asia-Pacific Program at Chatham House in London said in an emailed statement. “Their insecurity has deepened as (Suu Kyi) consolidated her power within the country and deepened ties with countries such as China.”

The coup came just three weeks after a visit by Chinese Foreign Minister Wang Yi, who met with Suu Kyi and also military officials in the capital, Naypyitaw. The visit was seen in part as an endorsement of the victory of Suu Kyi’s party in the November election and partly as a signal Beijing would like to see faster progress on projects agreed to a year earlier.

Some have speculated that Beijing might have given a covert nod to the generals.

But while the coup may lead Myanmar’s leaders to lean more heavily on support from China, supplier of most of their weapons and one of the country’s biggest sources of foreign investment, researcher Zhao Gancheng at the Shanghai Institute for International Studies, says it was an unwelcome disruption.

“As a neighboring country, I can’t see anything good for China, given that all of China’s investments and infrastructure construction need a stable environment,” Zhao said. “China is concerned about this development,” he said.

Regardless of what internal politics, antagonisms and personal ambitions might have driven Min Aung Hliang and other military leaders to seize power, China is bound to continue to expand its influence in Myanmar given the huge projects already under construction and the depth of Chinese involvement in businesses ranging from casinos, factories and property development to pipelines and ports.

A less pliant public

Medical workers across Myanmar began a civil disobedience protest against Monday’s coup, wearing red ribbons and declaring they won’t work for the new military government.

The army takeover that ousted the civilian government of Aung San Suu Kyi over allegations of fraud in November’s elections could not have come at a worse time for a country battling a steady rise in COVID-19 cases with a dangerously inadequate health system.

“We want to show the world we are totally against military dictatorship and we want our elected government and leader back,” said Dr. Zun Ei Phyu, who lives in Yangon, the biggest city and commercial capital. “We want to show them we will follow only our elected government. Not the military.”

Health workers in government hospitals and facilities issued a statement Wednesday opposing the coup. Photos were shared on social media showing workers with red ribbons pinned to their clothes or holding printed photos of red ribbons. Others used a three-finger salute that has become a symbol of pro-democracy protests in neighboring Thailand, where a former general has led the government since a 2014 coup.

Some medical staff went on strike while others who continued work in government-run clinics made public their opposition to the new military rulers.

Some of those on strike have begun to volunteer at charity health clinics, many of which were shut down as a precaution against a surge in COVID-19 cases. The clinics that have remained reopen are extending their working hours so people can still receive care during the protest, Zun Ei Phyu said.

“We give free treatment and medicine to anyone who is in need,” she said, adding the clinics often operate with donations from charities and local communities.

Myanmar’s early response to the pandemic mirrored that of many countries: borders were nearly completely closed, lengthy quarantines were imposed on travelers, and daily life slowed with stay-at-home orders.

It seemed to work until early September, when cases exploded from less than 1,000 to some 14,300 a month later. Now with more than 140,600 confirmed cases and 3,100 deaths, Myanmar’s fragile health system faces the perfect storm of the pandemic and the coup.

“You could expect the military to take full advantage of COVID-19 as a political opportunity, not as a health care responsibility to the people of Myanmar,” said Ronan Lee, a visiting scholar at Queen Mary University of London’s International State Crime Initiative.

History shows those concerns are not without merit.

In 2000, decades after the former military junta took control, the World Health Organization ranked Myanmar’s health system as one of the worst. According to the World Bank, Myanmar’s health expenditure was around 1.87% of GDP in 2010, the year before democratic reforms began.

In March 2020, Myanmar reported just 0.71 intensive care unit beds and 0.46 ventilators per 100,000 population, which was insufficient to deal with even a moderate outbreak, according to data from the World Bank and WHO.

Donations of medical equipment have since arrived and the government has increased bed capacity with new quarantine centers, clinics and hospitals. But experts cite a lack of medical staff as a continuing problem.

Myanmar’s small health care force had just 6.7 physicians per 10,000 people in 2018, significantly lower than the global average of 15.6 in 2017.

The coup comes just days after Myanmar launched its vaccination campaign with some 1.5 million doses of a two-shot vaccine donated from India. Last week, Suu Kyi observed vaccinations at a hospital in the capital, Naypyitaw, and told reporters that the process must proceed carefully because the government does not have all the supplies it needs.

The military has its own medical corps and medical facilities across the country. But Sharon Bell, a researcher who previously studied the health system in Myanmar, said she doesn’t anticipate the military will have the ability to control outbreaks or conduct sufficient vaccination programs.

The military released a statement saying “prevention of the current outbreak of the COVID-19 pandemic will be efficiently carried out with momentum.”

According to Lee, when the military talks about getting the virus under control, it means “locking down the community and preventing opportunities for public expressions of opposition to their rule.”

“I expect they’ll use the pandemic as a shield to defend them from scrutiny,” he said.

Too little too late?

The U.N. Security Council strongly backed a return to democracy in Myanmar on Thursday and called for the immediate release of Aung San Suu Kyi and all those arbitrarily detained by the military.

In its first statement on the military’s ouster of the government, the U.N.’s most powerful body “stressed the need to uphold democratic institutions and processes, refrain from violence, and fully respect human rights, fundamental freedoms and the rule of law.”

The council’s 15 members also encouraged “dialogue and reconciliation in accordance with the will and interests of the people of Myanmar.”

In addition to calling for the immediate release of State Counsellor Suu Kyi and President Win Myint, the council expressed concern “at the restrictions on civil society, journalists and media workers.”

The statement was issued two days after the council met behind closed doors to discuss the military’s seizure of power on the eve of the first meeting of the country’s new Parliament. The military said it was necessary because the government had not acted on the military’s unsubstantiated claims of fraud in November’s election in which Suu Kyi’s party won a majority of seats.

At that meeting, Christine Schraner Burgener, the U.N. envoy for Myanmar, urged the council to ensure that “democracy is expeditiously restored” to the Southeast Asian nation. The council took no immediate action because China, a close neighbor of Myanmar, and Russia said they needed to consult their capitals.

Additional reporting by AP

  • Myanmar’s Military
  • Rohingya Repatriation
  • Nobel Peace Prize Laureate
  • Rohingya Crisis
  • Aung San Suu Kyi
  • Rohingya

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