The peaceful protests against Myanmar’s February 1 military takeover are seemingly ebbing. The number of demonstrators hitting the streets in major townships like Yangon and Mandalay are coming down. One would expect that to happen because the military junta has been ruthless in response, with nearly 600 deaths reported in indiscriminate firings so far.
That may not be anywhere near the kind of casualty figure witnessed in 1988, when thousands were mown down by gunfire in Yangon and Mandalay in a few hours, but it’s good enough to scare people off the streets.The drop in the intensity of public agitation doesn’t mean, however, that the movement has petered out.
Far from it, the agitation against the military junta has spread. State railway workers have continued their strike despite police crackdown. Three quarters of the country’s civil servants have been on strike, all private banks are closed and the protests have weakened the economy significantly. The Buddhist clergy is divided, unlike during the 2007 Saffron Revolution, but the younger elements in it have joined the protests.
Those leading the agitation are looking up to the international community to act. However, an increasingly powerful section within the pro-democracy movement is moving towards armed action. The formation of the ‘Federal Army’ somewhere in Yangon, by drawing on the younger hardliners, points to efforts by some in the movement to raise the cost of military intervention.
‘Federal Army’ leaders are drawn primarily from the younger elements – college and university students, workers and white-collar professionals — who are angered by the harsh military response and feel they need to hit back. Most are from the neighbourhood resistance committees, some from college and workers’ unions.
This writer is privy to the first meeting at a north Yangon township where the Federal Army was born on March 11. The leaders planned targeted killings – military informers responsible for guiding night raids in the neighbourhoods to cripple the movement, military commanders and members of their families, political associates of the junta leaders. At the moment, nearly 200 activists of this new outfit are undergoing training in bases of some ethnic rebel armies, who welcome this as an opportunity.
This is not a new trend. In 1998 ethnic Bamar students and youths fled to Karen rebel camps on the Thai-Myanmar border in large numbers, received combat training and inducted weapons, when the announcement of elections by the SLORC military junta led to a rethink among the hardliners who decided to give the elections a try.
The military has announced it will hold elections within a year, but its decision not to honour the November 2020 election verdict is keeping the embers of protest burning. Protestors have a new target this time – China. Convinced that the Tatmadaw received full backing from China to go ahead with the February military takeover, protestors in Yangon and elsewhere have targeted factories and business establishments financed by Chinese companies.
This may be a reflection of public anger over a growing narrative that China is a new neo-colonialist in Myanmar (and elsewhere in Asia and Africa), conspiring to take away its huge mineral resources, precious stones, hydrocarbons and much else — for which they need a military totally dependent on them and isolated from the rest of the world. But some among the pro-democracy leadership, both NLD and ‘Federal Army’ types, feel targeting Chinese interests may force Beijing to put pressure on the Tatmadaw to step down and return the country to parliamentary democracy.
There’s a precedent that such a course of action may work. In 2008-10, fierce and coordinated resistance in the Kachin state and elsewhere in Myanmar forced the quasi-military government of President (former General) Thein Sein to cancel the $6 billion, 6000MW Myitsone dam project. Kachin insurgents, church, tribal elders and civil society raised the pitch of their resistance to the project. Mainstream Burmese civil society joined the movement because the Irrawaddy – formed by the two rivers at whose confluence the Myitsone Dam was planned – is the backbone of the country’s agrarian economy and a sharp drop in hydrological flow in it may adversely impact the country’s agriculture.
Western anti-dam and human rights groups joined the pitch against Myitsone, having failed to stop China’s Three Gorges Dam earlier in the decade. Beijing’s determined push to resume the Myitsone project by Beijing hasn’t worked. Suu Kyi’s government also scaled down the investment size of the China-financed Kyaukphyu deep sea port and SEZ project, raising alarms in Beijing over the China-Myanmar Economic Corridor project. After the Sri Lankan government long-leased away the Hambantota port and some other China-financed projects because of unsustainable debt burden, opposition parties in Malaysia and even China’s surrogate Cambodia have railed against Chinese projects because they fear a Chinese takeover of the economy if local government are compelled to pawn away crucial infrastructure projects.
Many in Myanmar’s democracy movement realise Chinese vulnerabilities and are determined to pressure Beijing by ‘political acupunture’ – pressing where it hurts. With India increasingly giving up inhibitions in criticising the military takeover, the anti-China pitch after the military takeover may open new opportunities for Indian business.
But to gain from China’s discomfiture, India will have to shed its ambivalence advocated by sections among our military and diplomatic higher echelons, and behave like the decisive regional power that PM Modi wants it to be. A country becomes a power if it thinks and acts like one.
Views expressed above are the author’s own.
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