The 1221 Coup in Myanmar- The Breaking of a Hegemonic Bloc or Business as Usual?

Yangon City

When the Tatmadaw began to grumble about the results of last year’s elections, very few suspected that a coup was in the making. But when lawfare failed as the Election Commission declared the election valid last week, the grumbling turned into a roar.

The coup comes as a shock to those who had described the dominant political party the National League for Democracy (NLD) and the Tatmadaw (the institution of the armed forces in Myanmar) coming together to forge a new hegemonic bloc. While the military junta of the 90s and 00s was always accused of “cronyism” when it came to their personal stakes in the economy, it doesn’t take too much of a cynic to see that the brave new world of liberal democracy would not prevent those with capital from getting even richer. Indeed, the keywords of the post-2011 parliamentary era have not been “freedom from fear” but “frontier capitalism”. The hegemonic bloc thesis drew support from issues such as the Letpadaung copper mine, a Chinese/Burma joint venture set up by the military that was furiously opposed by locals, but supported, in the name of growth, by NLD leader Aung San Suu Kyi. In the west of the country, Suu Kyi’s equivocation and ambivalence on the Rohingya genocide, in which the Tatmadaw launched what they euphemistically called “clearance operations” on Rohingya settlements, would similarly see her in awkward alignment with her former captors, much to the outrage of some (but not all) long time democracy activists.

Culturally, this bloc drew its strength from a Bamar and Buddhist chauvinism backed by the heavy weight of the Sangha. Maung Zarni, writing in 1999, had perceptively noted that there was an ideological strain of the dominant Bamar ethnicity that conceptualised Myanmar as primarily a Bamar State and that “organizational integration with minority peripheries only needs to be completed either democratically or by force.” Thus the Myanmai State between 2011 and 2021 was a Janus-faced spirit in regards to its relation with the ethnic minorities, many of which have their own armies, and quasi-state structures including functioning education systems. At times, Aung San Suu Kyi, in her stirring speeches for reconciliation and growth appeared to play the “good cop”, while any resistance was met with the full force of the Tatmadaw.

While the geographic imaginary of the State of Myanmar is organised into divisions and states, many of which on the borderlands, correspond, in name at least, to the majority or traditional ethnic group of that area. Nevertheless the centralised State apparatus continues to resist calls for anything but a watered down federalism. In Northern Kachinland, the war between the Kachin Independence Army and the Tatmadaw continues, with the latter occupying a dominant position and in the process, creating almost 100,000 internally displaced people, who live an uncertain existence in camps across the region. Kachinland is a vital part of the Myanmar State’s economy strategy and the ceasefire which began in 1994 and ended in 2011 was in retrospect ‘ceasefire capitalism’, an opportunity for the Tatmadaw to move in and begin to allocate and accumulate resources: jade, biofuel, and hydropower among the key spoils.

The ongoing resource wars are not simply about extraction but are a process of capitalist encroachment. The recent Vacant, Fallow and Virgin Land Management Law has meant that what was formally communal land, owned in perpetuity by smallholders and communities for their subsistence, is now under threat of being classified as ‘wasted’ and subject to large scale confiscation by the government. Land grabs are nothing new, but the new law gives legal backing to enclosure. In contrast to the enclosures of 19th century Britain in the midst of the industrial revolution, the process of proletarianisation in Myanmar is limited. So while ideological bullies such as the World Bank bemoan the low economic productivity of Myanmar’s subsistence farming, there are no waiting jobs for the displaced farmers. Thus, we may see a pattern of capitalism described by Kalyan Sanyal in which the dispossessed do not even fall into the category of reserve labour army but becomes part of a sphere of non-capital, that Sanyal calls the ‘wasteland’. With the international development industry’s legion of technical experts and consultants encased within a bubble of capitalist realism and poverty management, growth at all costs became the NLD’s strategy, even if that mean aligning to the Army, an institution it nominally was opposed to, in order to realise those visions and ignoring the dispossession, exploitation and destruction that followed.

However, February’s coup, already dubbed “1221” in a country known for auspicious datesii, seems to suggest the hegemonic bloc thesis is flawed. After all, those in a bloc don’t arrest and depose one another. One suggestion is that this coup is a petty matter, with Commander-in-Chief Min Aung Hlaing’s now wrecked personal ambitions of country leadership being a driving force. The military aligned Union Solidarity and Development Party (USDP) won 883 seats in the 2010 general election, an election boycotted by the NLD. In 2015, this had dropped to 117 and by last year it won only 33 seats. It is difficult to estimate how much a deflated hubris played a part in this coup. If Min Aung Hlaing had hopes of trading a military uniform for a civilian one that would lead the USDP to parliamentary victory they would have been dashed by the performance in the elections. From one point of view, it seems entirely obvious that the political party aligned to the military who had ruled the country for two decades would see a collapse in support up against the party of nominal democracy led by a fêted heroine who in the popular imagination is both daughter and mother of the nationiii. Yet party insiders may have existed in a bubble of their own making when it came to estimating their popular support. The USDP had always known that it had to go beyond its military base when it came to party politics and had over the years co-opted members of Burmese civil society such as business leaders and teachers into its ranks in a bid to gain real support. But after being crushed by the NLD in 2015, USDP leader Shwe Mann wrote that the results “shook us”. In 2020, it’s not unlikely that further decimation of the party was similarly a shock to the USDP elite who had hoped for a rebound. It’s worth noting that the scale of election fraud alleged by the military is not merely a quibble, but claims of 8.6 million cases. If the military are genuine in their belief of this, then the seizure of power is a righteous act in their minds. A more critical explanation would have course looked at how the NLD’s movements towards restricting Army power and perhaps even curbing the Army’s economic investments are among the more pertinent reasons for the coup, nevertheless, in an institution that relies on hierarchical commands, personal affront by those at the top must form part of the story.

At the root of this is the Tatmadaw’s institutional position within the Myanma State ensemble. For those not used to Myanmar politics, what’s important to note is that the army are not subordinate to the civilian parliament. In one respect the Tatmadaw are part of the parliament, as they are constitutionally mandated 25% of seats, a decisive number, in both the upper and lower Hluttaw. Yet the Tatmadaw are are also an autonomous institution, who, as the last decade has shown, are able to pursue their own agenda when it comes to military action in Myanmar. Thus any civilian government elected to parliament, is essentially being voted in to share power with the Tatmadaw. This dual system is at the heart of Myanmar State’s constitution a constitution introduced by the military itself in 2008. From one perspective, then, the Tatmadaw are a militia force unto themselves. Yet from their perspective, and this is key to understanding the coup, they are the protectors of the nation and the ultimate arbiter on governance. It’s likely that the coming months will see the Tatmadaw attempt to spin their coup in this way, yet the decades long story of the Tatmadaw attempting to convert their military might into economic and social capital has only succeeded with the former. It seems likely that the military and USDP will certainly realise that their mechanistic approach to political parties has failed them. The danger is that this could lead to further repression particularly of ethnic minorities.

Perhaps the idea of the ‘bloc’ was always flawed at one level, given that as long as the Tatmadaw remain an autonomous militia unaccountable to anyone but themselves, an elite partnership is an ontological impossibility. Nevertheless, the institutional oppositions of the power elite are conducted on a platform built on a broad consensus (or doxa) of a political economy based on extractive capitalism and a centralized Bamar-State.

Yet despite everything the NLD still have popular support as a vehicle for change and this coup is an anguished setback for the hopes and dreams of a generation. The coup threatens to rollback the very moderate gains made in freedom of speech and assembly that at least held potential for progression. Everything depends on whether the Tatmadaw will hold true to their word and hold free elections in a year’s time. If they do and the NLD win, without making changes to policy or developmental outlook, then the hegemonic bloc will simply resume. Yet, even such an outcome might be too hopeful, given the erratic and petulant behaviour of the Tatmadaw. It’s also important to remember that for many of the ethnic minorities of Myanmar, the coup is merely the exposure of the illusion of democracy. For those who over the past ten years of ‘parliamentary democracy’ have been victims of land grabs, displacement and war, the coup is ‘more of the same’. An important question for the NLD now is whether they stick to their rightwing lean or can be persuaded to move to a more distributive form of development, one that centres welfare and rights over growth and extraction and makes genuine progress towards federal autonomy. Failure to do so, in the short or long term, will signify the continued hegemony of Bamar Capitalism within the country, no matter who is in charge.

Nevertheless, we must also reject analyses that only see the country as a singular entity and ignore the lines of capital flight that come from within and without. Incoming and outgoing capital is not merely an additional element to Myanmar’s economy, but a constitutive part of it. Thus a reimagined development discourse, cannot simply treat Myanmar as a ‘basket case’ country but also take aim at actors who represent the demands of global capitalism that call for this former pariah state to be slotted into a global economic hierarchy that sees it as a source for primary good extraction.

To say that the 1221 coup is ‘business as usual’ is far too flippant. The dangers and fear it brings are all too real, in particular the use of internet shutdowns as a chilling tactic of citizen control and repression. The risk of talking of high level politics, is that we miss the real lives on the ground, those of fear and those of hope. If we are to aim for a hopeful ending to this article, then we must look to the grassroots. Throughout the previous military junta, it was Myanmar civil society, in both religious and secular forms, that forged strong bonds of resistance and mutual aid. When parliamentary era arrived, these bonds did not crumble, but continued to hold the elected government to account, even under the strain of violent crackdowns. Indeed, the rest of the world could learn a lot from Myanmar’s civil society, particularly the student unions, who in 2015 showed immense courage and intellectual integrity in marching the length of the country in protest at the restrictive new education laws. Similarly, civil society leaders in Kachinland have been paragons of bravery and principle in the face of repression. There are countless stories from all over the country of activists and civil society working together to effect change from below. We call for solidarity and mutual aid where possible with those working for a better world.

Ko Leik Pya. February 2, 2021.

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iThere is no consensus on the adjective form for Myanmar. This author chooses to use the word Myanma as the adjective for the State. While Burmese is often used as a synonym, it can often be confused with the Bamar ethnic group.

iiThe last time the military staged a coup was on 8/8/88.

iiiAung San Suu Kyi is the daughter of anti-colonial independence hero Aung San who was assassinated months before Burma’s independence. Aung San Suu Kyi is also colloquially referred to by supporters as “Mother Suu”. In more formal terms she is known as Daw Aung San Suu Kyi.