In a pre-dawn swoop on February 1, Myanmar’s military junta – known officially as the Tatmadaw –once again pushed the civilian façade offstage and directly seized control of state power. This coup returns Myanmar to the same kind of direct authoritarian rule that remains the norm in many other countries of the region, including its gigantic neighbour China in the north and Thailand, Laos, Cambodia and Vietnam in Southeast Asia.

Until it began opening up its regime, the military had held the reins of the state since 1962. For the past decade, however, the military has taken a back seat, allowing a civilian, state counsellor Aung San Suu Kyi, to run the government in exchange for a constitutional guarantee reserving a quarter of the seats in both legislative houses to the military.

It was Suu Kyi’s plan to gradually curb the army’s influence in politics, by decreasing the number of seats it was guaranteed, that led the junta, led by General Min Aung Hlaing, to oust her from power.

Chinese connection

Suu Kyi’s plan to reduce military representation also made China nervous. Myanmar had been the first non-Communist country to recognise the Chinese People’s Republic after its founding in 1949.

The relationship between the two countries became even warmer in the mid-1970s, during Deng Xiaoping’s rule when China softened its support for the Burmese Communist Party. Since then, China has established a strong foothold in Myanmar. The Tatmadaw became a reliable partner for maintaining Chinese strategic and commercial interests in the region. Myanmar now plays a strategically significant role in China’s efforts to preserve its hegemony in South East Asia and to counter India’s growing influence in South Asia.

Myanmar State Counsellor Aung San Suu Kyi with Chinese President Xi Jinping during a meeting in Beijing in 2017. Damir Sagolj / AFP

China sees Suu Kyi as having a Western liberal bias that makes her an unreliable partner. The Chinese fear that if liberal democracy prevails, the army will lose control of the government, eventually leading Myanmar to align with the Western bloc. Like the Tatmadaw, China views Suu Ki’s proposed constitutional amendments to reduce military representation in parliament as an attempt to phase out the military’s role in politics entirely – as well as the first step toward moving Myanmar out of China’s orbit.

Along with North Korea and Pakistan, Myanmar is one of China’s three most crucial strategic partners, none of which China can afford to lose. Hence, after the coup, with Russia’s tacit support, China stands as a strong bulwark for the military junta in international arenas.

West should refrain

Given this complex geopolitical calculus, some Western analysts – lacking an understanding of the on-the-ground realities of postcolonial nations – have advocated the old tactic of imposing more stringent sanctions as a way to stand up for Myanmar’s democratic movement.

Some local civil-society activists (who mainly belong to the upper echelons of society) echo this call, urging the newly installed Joe Biden administration in Washington to impose new, stricter sanctions on the regime.

Western governments have long attempted to coerce authoritarian regimes with sanctions, and have little or nothing to show for their efforts. Rather than undermining authoritarian rule, such measures have helped dictators consolidate power and have only worsened the suffering of ordinary people. Sanctions by the West constitute a form of neo-colonial aggression and have enabled dictatorial regimes to brand pro-democracy activists as foreign agents working to establish Western domination.

The West does not follow a universal guideline for enforcing sanctions. Usually, the countries they have adverse relations with are the prime targets of these punitive measures, while those who maintain good ties with the West avoid them. Critics wonder whether the true motivation for sanctions is to gain geostrategic advantages, rather than to establish democracy.

If the West opts to take the path of stringent sanctions, Myanmar’s colonial past places the military in the advantageous position of being able to brand domestic democratic activists as stooges of the West and to isolate them from the people. This will eventually tarnish the growing protest movement in Myanmar. Further, it will work to China’s and Russia’s geopolitical interest by allowing them to play their age-old, cherished role of saviours of the Third World.

A poster featuring Myanmar armed forces chief Senior General Min Aung Hlaing during a demonstration against the military coup in Yangon. Photo credit: STR / AFP

Will democracy succeed?

The sudden end of once-celebrated democratic openings infuriates people from all walks of life, sparking massive anti-coup upheavals that have so far resulted in the killing of at least 126 people. Massive uprisings against the military junta are not new in Myanmar.

The country has a long history of uprisings against the regime. So far, these repeated upheavals have not been able to decisively shift the balance of power away from the military. The army has always been able to crush them with brute force. Yet the future of democracy in Myanmar hinges on the success of the current uprising.

Military rule in Myanmar has crippled political parties and civil society – the two fundamental pillars of a vibrant democracy. Moreover, the army establishment has been able to inculcate a culture of authoritarianism among a significant portion of the population. This popular support provides a solid foundation for General Hlaing’s regime, one that many observers either tend to ignore or are unable to fathom. On top of this, modern surveillance technologies make it easier to track democratic activists and more difficult for them to organise protests.

Yet the ongoing protests in Myanmar are powerful, and their power lies in their spontaneity. Tracking particular participants cannot foil the movement – its lack of a central organisation gives it an edge over surveillance.

No doubt, peaceful protests are rarely a match for military might. But the fact that the movement is growing is a reason for optimism. People from all walks of life are participating and urging government officials to join the civil disobedience. More than 100 police officers have done just that.

If this trend continues, the Myanmarese people may succeed for the first time in history in reaching democracy, as their Bangladeshi neighbours did in 1990. Failure would mean the return of direct military rule. Still, if the military rule does continue, the junta may eventually reintroduce a quasi-democratic system.

Sayeed Iftekhar Ahmed is a faculty member at the School of Security and Global Studies at the American Public University System. He is the author of Water for Poor Women: Quest for an Alternative Paradigm.