Myanmar’s long-delayed time of reckoning

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In 1287 the kingdom of Bagan in what is now central Burma/Myanmar fell to repeated Mongol invasions. The king fled to Lower Myanmar, and the collapse was followed by 250 years of political fragmentation.


A lot of things about Myanmar are being re-written. The confusion that has plagued assessments of the country is being cleared in the days since the coup of 1 February. Most importantly: where the military institution stands, where the NLD stands, and indeed where each individual stands on the overarching issues.

In this tragic and bloody period, we can tally how much each institution has lost, in some cases irrevocably.

The Myanmar military had stumbled badly once before, with the wholesale killings of protesters during the 1988 uprising. Ironically, ASSK played a part in letting them off the hook and re-legitimizing them. The military was the foil she had needed (abetted by some Western powers) to build up her stature.

The military is now repeating the same blunder, but this time there will not be any comeback. The two leading institutions in Myanmar have in a matter of days forfeited many if not all their “assets”. For the military, it can never be the same again.

The are many unique facets of this “leaderless” revolution and many, many heart-rending ones too. The ‘pacted transition’ that many people counted on following 1988 has fallen apart. A lot of scholarly writings have to be thrown away. From the gruesome way the military has responded to the protests, there can be only one outcome: revolution. I don’t rely upon “international support”.

A lot of protesters and other people, including children, have been killed by security troops. But the Myanmar military’s pre-eminence is also dead, and so is the idea of a single Bamar dominant majority, and so is exclusionary thinking. These things are rarely, if ever, juxtaposed — I would say this is the first time in history it has happened. A huge vacuum has opened up in the Myanmar centre, and it will remain for the foreseeable future.

If we are to follow the standard, time-worn recourses, it would be a return to an elected government or fresh elections. A lot of negotiations are involved in both. Right now, amidst the gunfire and bloodshed, one sees a lot of desperate jockeying as both sides scramble to assert their legitimacy. Simultaneously, the centre of gravity is now shared between parliament, the ballot box, and the battlefield.

Many observers had been unclear about which way Myanmar politics would go, or whether federalism would be realized and how, and what relations with the military would be like.

1 February has turned the page for Myanmar, but no one can predict the future with any certainty. I am listing what I see as some immutable trends —

The image of the armed forces has been smashed;

The political party (and the politicians) have come out poorly. Both will undergo change, and democracy will be transformed in the years ahead;

The truism has been revived that guns count for more than votes. New concepts and structures emerging;

The stalled movement towards federalism and peace has been turned on its head. EAOs will have a more prominent role in building federalism compared to parties. In several ways, a federal army will precede political federalism;

The “peace” being pushed by the Bamar military, NLD and “experts” is in the trash bin. A completely new entity will be born;

The Westphalian concept is less and less relevant to Myanmar. The “Myanmar sovereign state” is further weakened, and the military will finish it off.

The military junta has already lost – on two counts: in spirit and in principles. It can never match the spirit of the Myanmar people, which we see every day. It can never utilize this spirit either. As for principles, the people are going out to the streets, not because of a leader or ideology, but because their principles had been abused by the seizure of power.

A fundamental of guerrilla warfare is that guerrillas may not win wars, but their enemies frequently lose them (see Vietnam).

In Myanmar, it is a war declared by the junta on its own people, and the people are responding with guerrilla warfare of the spirit. It is an uprising against an oppressor. It is a re-writing of history, no less.

Astute analysts might predict the outcome of a war, even a civil war. But no one can humanly foresee how a revolution will end. And on this issue of assessments, scenarios and forecasts, the two major institutions have committed huge blunders which are fatal in nature.

The NLD had everything going for it and still commands support. But it is unreformable, just like the military. Its mode of governing, lack of capacity, and above all, leadership failure at the top are fast closing the gates to the future.

For the military, the long-overdue reckoning is finally at hand, which has come about of its own doing. The abuses that it has been committing upon the ethnic communities, especially the culture of impunity that grew around it, are the subject of a long and sad chronicle. What took place after the February coup is a massive expansion of this, fuelled by the military’s over-confidence, hunger for power, and plain blood lust. In this, it has clearly over-reached itself, and the outcomes have been narrowed sharply. Will it be able to, or allowed to hang on? Thailand’s military junta and North Korea are said to be role models, but it could be far worse (with help from influential friends and mentors, of course).

The alternative that is shaping up is a diverse and traumatized country finally saying with one voice, “enough is enough,” and getting to its feet and forging its own future minus the current military. This kind of coalescence of views and commitments happens only rarely in a country’s life. It is definitely happening in Myanmar now.



Khin Zaw Win is the Director of Tampadipa Institute in Yangon, working on policy advocacy on communal issues, land and nationalism. He was also a prisoner of conscience in Myanmar for “seditious writings” and human rights work from 1994 – 2005.




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