Tipping the balance of power in the Myanmar crisis

“The price of a successful attack is a constructive alternative.” — Saul Alinsky, Rules for Radicals

Credits to Bangkok Post. Protester in Yangon demanding the release of their leader, Daw Aung San Su Kyi and the restoration of the civilian government.

“The price of a successful attack is a constructive alternative.” — Saul Alinsky, Rules for Radicals

The current political crisis in Myanmar is a crisis of power relations between two formidable political forces in the country. How the current political and economic landscape will look in the next 6 months is anybody’s guess.

Conflicts happen when there is instability in the power relations. In this case, you have on one side the pro-democracy movement started by the National League for Democracy (NLD) anchored on Daw Aung Sun Su Kyi’s (DASSK) popularity and the electoral support the party acquired in the November 2020 elections. On the one hand, there is the Tatmadaw, its power anchored on its military might, their hold of the economy, and the seeming political support of China and Russia. For almost 10 years, the political stability in Myanmar has been standing in this precarious balance. All of that changed when the NLD won a landslide in the November 2020 election which gives the NLD another 5 years to consolidate its power to advance democratic reforms and further liberalization that will threaten the Tatmadaw’s power that is based on accumulation of arms, economic wealth, isolationism and nationalism.

In many conflicts, stability can be achieved either by the annihilation and defeat of the other power holder, a defeated pro-democracy movement, or a defeated junta or by giving concessions between conflicting parties to return to a balance of power.

In the current context, the protests are bent on calling for the defeat of the junta by the sheer force of the civil disobedience movement. The goal of this movement as it appears is about bringing down the economic power of the junta by disrupting economic activities — banks, businesses, and foreign direct investments and bringing down the government bureaucracy. One of the biggest gains that these protests have achieved is the emergence of new and younger pro-democracy leaders and organizations that can bring a newer form of dissent that will engage a protracted reputational and economic war against the junta. The liberalization for the past 10 years has given the Myanmar people more means to express dissent and protest. This seems to be working and the Tatmadaw is indicating that they are feeling the threats of economic collapse indicated by issuing more threats to workers, specially bank workers so they report back to work. In the recent days, there have been several statements coming out from the various ethnic armed groups throwing their support to the calls to restore the ousted civilian government. This development further tip the scales of power in favor of the pro-democracy movement.

While the current strategy of dissent seems to be effective this is not without cost to the poor and vulnerable in Myanmar. This will have public health costs caused by disruptions in the testing, tracing, and vaccination to control COVID-19. The pandemic also resulted in huge spikes in income poverty and food insecurity. When businesses and banks are closed, this will impact daily wage earners which have already seen a reduction in income due to the broad COVID-19 restrictions implemented since 2020. COVID-19 has already decimated small and medium businesses in Myanmar resulting in a spike in income poverty to as much as 60% in the last quarter of 2020. Economic-based sanctions will further slow down if not collapse the economy. The civil disobedience movement need to plan a long term course for dissent that considers reducing the socio-economic costs to the Myanmar people.

In the recent days, news came out of Indonesia leading consultations within the ASEAN to explore options to resolve the political impasse in Myanmar. China has been very vocal in its support for dialogue and peaceful resolution of the political crisis.

If in the event that the opposing forces will agree to come to a dialogue, the biggest concession and leverage the pro-democracy movement can give is mechanism for a “graceful exit” for the Tatmadaw. This mechanism is to gradually transfer back power to the civilian government but in the process address the fundamental flaws of the Myanmar democratic model. This transition mechanism can be a hybrid form of civilian-military government that equally shares power between Tatmadaw and civilian leaders, including ethnic leaders but with clear mandate to work towards long term solutions. This temporary government can have the following features:

· Retain the current State Administration Council chaired by the Tatmadaw but recognize the Committee Representing the Pyidaungsu Hlutaw (CRPH) — the body of what remains of the elected national parliament — as an advisory council to the SAC, to serve as a counterbalance to the actions and decisions of the SAC.

· Laid out a roadmap for crafting a new constitution for a new democratic system that is inclusive an fair for all ethnic groups, respectful of the will of the Myanmar people and provisions for the professionalization and civilian oversight of the Tatmadaw.

· Conduct new elections under the newly adopted constitution. ASEAN and UN can play a role in ensuring that the elections will be fair, transparent and lawful according to the new constitution.

The ASEAN will ensure that the Tatmadaw will adhere to whatever agreements made.

As a way to stabilize the economic repercussions of the this political transition, the SAC should release without conditions, and charges are dropped for all NLD leaders including DASSK, the elected members of the parliament, civil servants and other political prisoners arrested since February 1. This will ensure that the representatives of the people are free to engage in the drafting of the new constitution.

To keep current investors and businesses be at ease and stop a possible economic collapse during this time of political a crisis, all new laws passed since February 1 that curtail freedom of expression, privacy, and free conduct of businesses should be reversed and that no such laws be passed during the state of emergency.

How many of these concessions that the Tatmadaw is willing to give in will depend on how much “damage” the pro-democracy movement can inflict to the Myanmar economy. With these concessions, the Tatmadaw will gain some form of “legitimacy” to their claim to power but at the same time the NLD and the civil disobedience movement will get their leaders back including DASSK to re-group and re-strategize the engagement towards building genuine political reforms.

The window of opportunity for genuine and effective dialogue of this crisis is narrow, tipping “the power stalemate” to either conflicting parties will close this window. Time is running out not just for the Myanmar people but also for the international community to take action. The crisis can either be an opportunity to finally end the oppressive military rule or an opportunity to gain partial victories and concessions supportive to long-term struggle towards democracy.

Describes himself a ruralist, a tattooed development worker in southeast Asia advancing the interests of rural communities.