But where Trump was frustrated in his attempted coup, the generals of Myanmar were successful. Or so it seemed. There was a moment of quiet shock on February 1, when the army cancelled parliament and locked up the elected leaders including Aung San Suu Kyi.
Senior General Min Aung Hlaing announced a one-year state of emergency and installed himself as ruler. But resistance has built every day since. At first, it was demonstrations by students and young people, then the whole society seemed to join in. Truck drivers stopped delivering goods arriving at the ports. Workers went on strike, forcing banks to close. Civil servants stayed home, cutting government services. Doctors marched against the junta. The army restricted internet access to try to stop protesters organising.
The Myanmar military controls a multibillion-dollar business empire that funnels profits from jade, rubies, banking, oil and gas, construction and mining into the army’s pockets. These independent profits allow it to operate outside the structures of the state and to act with impunity.
Now the World Bank expects it will shrink by 10 per cent this year. The financial information company Fitch Solutions says that “all areas of GDP by expenditure are set to collapse”, that a 20 per cent economic contraction this financial year is “conservative”.
And a second front against the army soon opened. The ethnic armies that once warred against the state had become largely inactive, but in the last few weeks the Karen and Kachin and the Shan and the Rakhine militias have joined forces with the civilian opposition. The ethnic armies are demanding that the military, known as the Tatmadaw, restore civilian government. And they are moving to take up arms.
“If the Kachin, Karen, Shan and maybe Rakhine insurgents were to engage in widespread military operations, however loosely co-ordinated, and at the same time there is an increase in violence in the heartlands, the Tatmadaw would face a huge problem,” according to Anthony Davis, a security analyst with Jane’s intelligence. He estimates the total strength of the ethnic armies at around 75,000 fighters.
At the same time, the military has grown increasingly violent with the civilian protesters too. The army’s latest escalation came on Friday. It was bad enough that troops had been firing into crowds of peaceful protesters for weeks, worse that they’d started to order snipers to shoot unarmed civilians in the head.
But on Friday the army launched a dawn raid on a protest camp in the ancient capital of Bago, firing rocket-propelled grenades and machine guns at unarmed demonstrators. They killed at least 80 that morning, the biggest massacre in any one place since they launched their coup. The Tatmadaw has killed more than 600 civilians in total, according to a monitoring group.
The “unity government” would include Aung San Suu Kyi’s National Democracy League and its elected members of parliament as well as civil society leaders and the ethnic armies.
“The military lacks legitimacy and it seems to be losing control,” observes the Australian federal Liberal MP and former diplomat Dave Sharma, who is convening a parliamentary sub-committee on foreign affairs and aid to discuss the crisis on Tuesday.
The UN’s special envoy to Myanmar, Christine Schraner Burgener, predicts a “bloodbath” unless there is some sort of intervention. The UN Security Council, however, is paralysed – vetoes by China and Russia prevent it from even condemning the coup, much less taking any action.
Sharma worries about a worst-case scenario: “If you have a protracted civil conflict it inevitably pulls in outside actors and you can have a situation where Myanmar becomes Syria in Asia,” as neighbouring countries take sides to protect their own interests. A failed state in the heart of Asia, in other words.
The conflict could spill across borders, driving big flows of refugees, as Sharma points out. “I think this problem is only going to get larger for Australia and the region. We will need to examine policy settings and co-ordinate with regional countries.”
There’s no evidence of any activity by the Minister for Foreign Affairs, Marise Payne – which is probably why it falls to Sharma, a mere backbencher, to try to stimulate debate, though he’s too polite to say so.
Sidoti has a list of policy ideas for Australia. One is to join the US and Britain in imposing sanctions on the Tatmadaw’s commercial empire. Another is to join the two-year-old genocide prosecution of the Tatmadaw in the International Court of Justice.
A third is to work with Thailand to make sure humanitarian help flows into Myanmar. Fourth is to work with ASEAN, which is having trouble bringing coordinated pressure to bear on the Tatmadaw, partly because ASEAN can only act with the agreement of all 10 of its members and Myanmar is one of them.
Who would represent the country at an ASEAN meeting? Australia could help break the impasse by convening a larger initiative to mediate with the regime, including some key ASEAN members plus the US, China, India, Timor-Leste and Japan, suggests Sidoti.
Finally, Canberra should stand ready to recognise a united national front as Myanmar’s legitimate government the moment it is announced. The coup attempt didn’t work for Trump, gratefully. The world has an opportunity to make sure it doesn’t work for Myanmar’s military either.