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Myanmar: Military Response to Snowballing Public Protests

(This may be read in continuation with article China and the popular unrest in Myanmar dated September 20, 2007)

After seeing the massive participation in the public protest led by the monks against the military regime, in which as many as 100,000 people of Yangon took part on eighth continuous day on September 25, 2007, the military regime slapped a dawn to dusk curfew in the capital and moved in troops. With the stage set to confront the defiant monks, the troops prevented them today from getting out of the Shwedagon pagoda, the holiest Buddhist shrines in Myanmar. Troops have been stationed in strength to control such movement of monks in Sule pagoda and other vantage points in the city.

The monks’ action has highlighted the cause of the democratic struggle in Myanmar particularly when world leaders had assembled at the UN General Assembly. The mounting public protests have set off a lot of activity in diplomatic circles not only in Washington and Beijing, but also in the UN. The US President George W Bush speaking at the UN called upon all nations to “help the Burmese people reclaim their freedom” and announced fresh sanctions against the ruling junta, their supporters and families by slapping a visa ban and targeting the assets of people related to the regime. This is of significance because in the past the US had been a favourite destination for the education of the children of ruling elite.

Though the monks had tried to keep their protests free from politics, the agitation assumed political overtones when on September 22, 2003 about 1000 protesting monks met pro-democracy movement leader Aung San Suu Kyi behind a security barricade at the gates of the house where she is kept under arrest. The faint hope of the people that the military regime was going soft by allowing the protestors to see Aung San Suu Kyi was belied when no marchers were allowed near the house on the following days.

The All Burma Monks Alliance had exhorted the people to speedily form a Peoples Alliance led by the clergy to fight against military despotism, their common enemy in a statement issued on September 21, 2007. The strongly worded statement called for a peaceful struggle against ‘the evil military dictatorship till its complete downfall.’ It said the Alliance would take the initiative to speed up the formation of ‘a disciplined and united people’s alliance. The military regime perhaps made up its mind to order the troops to curb the protest marches after this call from monks to the public. With the imposition of curfew and restricting the movement of monks the regime has now made it clear that it would tolerate no more marches.

How will the regime react if the monks come out in defiance in large numbers? This is question waiting to be answered in the coming days because that would decide the future of the fate of the democratic struggle as a whole.

According to what is purported to be the minutes of a high level briefing of battalion commanders in October 2005, the Myanmar War Office had assessed ‘agitation through its citizens’ as one of the three ways in which the US might “invade” Myanmar to topple the regime. The other options in this assessment were: invasion in alliance with insurgents and ceasefire groups or through a multination led invasion. (And Thailand, the strategic ally of the US on Myanmar border was considered the “nearest enemy” in this document.) If this report is correct, the regime has every reason to react strongly to the current agitation of monks even though its political contours or line up are not clear.

So it is not surprising the regime is, not only seeing, but believing the escalation of the public protests as a US inspired plot to bring down the regime as it coincided with the UN General Assembly meeting. This belief could cloud its assessment of the actual situation.

There should be no doubt about the regime’s capability to let loose the security forces to crush the protestors as it did in 1988 when 3000 protestors were killed. However, taking such an action now, after nearly two decades, might not be as simple as it was then. The world and in particular the strategic neighbourhood of Myanmar has changed with Myanmar having better relations with not only China, but also India and the ASEAN. The ambition of the regime’s mentor and friend China, which were local in 1988, has now become global. So it will be different strokes now in every direction.

The China card

China has proved to be a trusted ally who had baled out Myanmar in the UN Security Council early this year. Though the regime had taken action to broaden its relations with India and ASEAN (particularly Thailand) within the ruling junta the China lobby has considerable influence. So the military junta would not want to take any precipitate action that might antagonize China. So far the reaction from China to the developing situation had been muted, with the stress on maintaining “stability” in Myanmar. But it might not be so if the situation turns bloody and China is saddled with the embarrassing job of once again defending the regime globally, particularly when China is already doing it for the regime in Sudan. However if the regime’s survival is threatened as it happened after the 1990 election, the regime is likely to come down heavily to silence the protestors. In such a setting, the Chinese response would be carefully calibrated upon how quick and successful the regime is in silencing the protests and cleaning up the after effects rather than solely upon international sensitivities.

China holds the vital reigns of economic, trading, military, and developmental sectors of Myanmar in its hands. Many of the officers have undergone military training courses in China. Myanmar’s weapon systems are mostly Chinese. Considering its overwhelming interests in Myanmar, China would prefer a client regime than an uncertain democratic regime which is more likely to become the darling of Washington. China has been cultivating an international image and has been making conciliatory noises with its neighbours including India. China has to see the Olympics safely through, as it expects it to boost not only the international image but also its national self image. In spite of all this, China is likely to leverage its influence in Myanmar only when it is directly benefitted. In other words, China is not going to play the game according what Washington or the EU desires but on its own terms. However, we can expect China to present the visage of a rational and balanced power in handling the Myanmar issue even though it may not toe the Western line.

There is a large ethnic Chinese population involved in trading activity in many Myanmar towns. There had been some reports of anti-Chinese protests. The protest marchers also had converged outside the Chinese embassy on one or two occasions. However, this is unlikely to be a major issue in the overall anti-government protests if the Chinese make the right moves. After all, even if a democratic government comes to power, it needs a friendly rather than hostile China on its borders. The Chinese are likely to factor this in giving shape to their Myanmar policy.

Military regime’s response

Over the years, the military regime has evolved its own strategies to stay in power. I had discussed these in my SAAG article “Myanmar: Military regime’s strategy to stay in power” of November 15, 2005 available at . To briefly recapitulate, the military junta’s survival strategies have three basic elements: tackling the struggle for democracy while retaining power, containing ethnic insurgencies, and leveraging global power equations to its advantage. Strategies under each of these elements have been applied successfully all these yenars. Of immediate relevance are its strategies on tackling the struggle for democracy ad leveraging global power equations.

Handling the struggle for democracy

The military regime’s bouquet of strategies to handle the struggle for democracy would include keeping Aung San Suu Kyi and political leaders under control, carrying out piecemeal reforms as window dressing for world opinion, dividing the opposition, curbing free expression and movement, and continue the strengthening and modernizing of armed forces. So we can expect the following actions from the regime:

  1. Use force to reestablish physical control over the people and curb their free movement and block out modes of electronic and other media. (However, one hopes the regime will take more preventive action than let loose mindless violence on the citizens in view of the rather unfriendly international environment towards the regime.) Arrest key local organizers including student leaders (without arresting monks at this stage) of dissent and unrest.

  2. Welcome the UN representative to discuss the release of Aung San Suu Kyi and other political leaders in custody, so that the regime buys time to bring the situation under control. Despatch senior members of the regime to Beijing, New Delhi, and ASEAN to present the junta’s view of the current internal situation and action taken to bring back the country to normal life.

  3. Infiltrate the protest movement and spread disinformation so that the leadership is divided. Carry out selective elimination of leaders using front organizations.

  4. Ease restrictions after achieving a level of normalcy and get the national convention bandwagon going to the next stage of “constitutional reforms” in full propaganda blitz. Arrest a few black marketers and announce some price reductions.

  5. We can also expect an escalation of operations against Shan and Karen insurgent groups to divert public attention from the agitation.

Options for leaders of pro-democracy movement

After the pro democracy movement failed to move forward after 1990, the people of Myanmar are de-motivated and disillusioned both at home and abroad. However, the monks have imparted certain energy into the scene and student leaders have taken up the cause. The first and foremost task of the political leaders will be to sustain the momentum of the movement both overtly and covertly. The key to the situation is to convert the public disaffection into a structured political response. The last time the democratic leadership failed to do this when they had no unity among themselves and depended solely upon Aung San Suu Kyi to lead the movement. Once she was arrested, the struggle lost direction. This time around they will have to recapture the imagination of the people and restore their confidence. Their ability to take on this tremendous responsibility will decide their own future and the fate of the movement than further international sanctions, which have proved of limited value.

By keeping a studied silence, India has lost all its relevance to influence the situation. It is a pity because it has underlined to the people of Myanmar the relative importance of the two big powers on their border in influencing the decision makers in Myanmar.

(Col R Hariharan, a retired MI specialist on South Asia, is an intelligence analyst. He is associated with the Chennai Centre for China Studies. E-mail:

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