We're Live Bangla Thursday, May 06, 2021

Myanmar has no easy way back to elections

People are seen during a demonstration against the military coup in Yangon on Feb 16, 2021. PHOTO: EPA-EFE

The political journey of Thailand's Prime Minister Prayut Chan-o-cha offers a playbook of sorts for Myanmar's coup-maker Min Aung Hlaing.

In 2014, then army chief Prayut staged a coup and suppressed pro-democracy activists and politicians from the ousted Pheu Thai Party. He oversaw the drafting of a new Constitution that made it harder for Pheu Thai to return, and then held an election in 2019 which rebranded him as a civilian politician.

Myanmar's Senior General Min Aung Hlaing, who seized power on Feb 1, appears to be putting those set pieces in place.

His chief rival, the leader of the National League for Democracy party, Ms Aung San Suu Kyi, is now detained under charges that could rule her out of any future election - even if she is freed again.

Various organs of his newly constituted military regime repeat ad nauseam yet unsubstantiated allegations of massive fraud in the Nov 8 election, which the NLD won emphatically, as well as the promise to work towards free elections after the one-year state of emergency.

Meanwhile, he is courting ethnic minority politicians earlier snubbed by Ms Suu Kyi to give ballast to a possible future quasi-civilian government once again led by military proxies.

The Myanmar general's problem, though, is that his country is not polarised.

While some sections of Thai society welcomed the 2014 coup and still genuinely support Mr Prayut, most people in Myanmar hold its military in contempt.

The NLD won 83 per cent of contested seats in last year's election not because its first-term government performed well, but because voters were anxious to deny the military - which is guaranteed a quarter of parliamentary seats - any constitutional path back to power.

But the Tatmadaw, as the military is called, seized power in the end, ending a 10-year experiment under which it steadily lost ground in the civilian-military power sharing arrangement.

Ruthless and well-resourced, the Tatmadaw fully intends to maintain its grip even if that means rolling back a decade's worth of progress, say analysts.

The regime has arrested some 400 people so far and amended the law to allow for indefinite detention without trial. Internet shutdowns nationwide are now common, the most recent being on Monday (Feb 15) and Tuesday between 1am and 9am. A draconian cyber security Bill which gives the junta sweeping and invasive powers could be enacted at any moment.

But all that has not deterred people from gathering to support civil servants boycotting work, nor prevented them from spontaneously parking their cars in the middle of the road to block army trucks transporting soldiers to protest spots. A growing civil disobedience movement has disrupted banking, health services and railway networks.

Police attempts to disperse protests have left one person brain dead and many others with rubber-bullet injuries.

But Myanmar's older generation knows the real guns have yet to be drawn. In 1988, thousands of people were killed or jailed when the then ruling junta cracked down on pro-democracy protesters.

"Up until now, we can say that both sides have been showing restraint," says political analyst Khin Zaw Win. "That could change at any time."

Another political analyst, who has been involved in Myanmar's peace process and who asked not to be named, said current conditions are not conducive for any sort of negotiation that might avert tragedy.

"The street protesters demand that Aung San Suu Kyi be released, and the 2020 election results be honoured," he said. "The Tatmadaw insists it wants to tackle election fraud and hold a new election. These two positions are very different. Negotiation is almost impossible."

Dr Khin Zaw Win, however, thinks there is still room for mediation through a third party like the United Nations, and if more stakeholders such as ethnic minorities are involved.

Until then, locals are rueing the missed opportunities for a country still struggling to cope with the Covid-19 pandemic.

"It is like playing snakes and ladders," said Dr Maung Maung Lay, vice-president of the Union of Myanmar Federation of Chambers of Commerce and Industry. "The snake swallowed us and we are trying to climb the ladder… We are not sure how we are going to climb back."