How can you hold on to wealth if you are no longer in power?
On February 1, did the Burmese generals declare war on their people? Are we witnessing a tragic repeat of the 1988 uprising, when the Myanmar military brutally suppressed popular protests? Why a military coup, and why now — Wasn't the army still effectively in power? And why did the generals decide to follow Donald Trump's lead and belatedly contest the results of an election, which took place on Nov. 8, and whose outcome was definitive? The National League for Democracy, the party of Aung San Suu Kyi, won a clear victory, with more than 80% of the votes.
The answer begins with the fact that Myanmar's generals were motivated by a mixture of humiliation and fear. Their defeat was simply too absolute. They feared the results at the ballot box would push Suu Kyi's party to upset the delicate balance of power between the civilian government and the military leaders. Above all, they feared a possible constitutional reform that would take away the military's privileges, which allow them to monopolize a large proportion of the country's wealth.
Across the world, from Algeria to Egypt to Russia, the transfer of power is made infinitely more complex by its relation to wealth. How can you hold on to wealth if you are no longer in power, when wielding power is the most reliable way of accumulating and retaining wealth? In Egypt and Algeria, the army's argument is essentially: "It's us or anarchy. Let us keep our riches, and we'll keep you alive." It's not that far removed from the knights of the Middle Ages.
In Myanmar, there is no real threat from Muslim fundamentalists. The Rohingya are hardly a radicalized, power-hungry minority.
To justify their recent coup, the military is hiding behind an argument that is at best flimsy, at worst absurd. Like Donald Trump's supporters in the United States, they are claiming to be defending democracy after "stolen elections." It's clear that their real motive has nothing to do with democracy, and more to do with the balance of their bank accounts. The reason for the coup is closer to what the former Chairman of the U.S. Federal Reserve Alan Greenspan once referred to as "infectious greed."
Myanmar protesters continue to demonstrate in Yangon — Photo: Myat Thu Kyaw/NurPhoto via ZUMA Press
But this "great leap backwards' – 33 years backwards to the coup of 1988 – also has political and strategic causes. Because she refused to distance herself from the army over their treatment of the Rohingyas, Aung San Suu Kyi had lost the status she enjoyed on the international stage when she was awarded the Nobel Peace Prize. The country's generals calculated that the international community is no longer under any illusions about the future of Myanmar. Add to that the COVID-19 crisis, and the world certainly has other priorities.
Beyond this indifference from other countries, the generals also know that they can count on the support of China, which can block all UN Security Council resolutions against them. The Chinese have a vested interest in preventing the leaders of democratic countries from getting involved in what is important to them: the nature of democracy in the world.
The main aim of your coup is to retain control of your country's wealth. This risks backfiring on you.
From Hong Kong to Myanmar, China seems to be deliberately engaged in a battle against the democratic model and its supporters. The current situation feels like a continuation of the debate from the early 1990s between Francis Fukuyama and Samuel Huntington. Democracy has certainly not won, but neither has the clash of civilizations usurped the ideological conflict between the democratic model and despotism. This argument has been complicated by the emergence of "illiberal democracies." How should we categorize India, Hungary, Poland, the Philippines or Turkey?
China does not believe a resurgence of the United States is coming, and politically speaking it has no respect for the European Union. By offering Myanmar's generals its implicit political backing, in much the same way it might have offered military backing in past conflicts, Beijing is seeking to strengthen its influence in Asia, and its position on the world stage. The protesters lining the streets in the main towns of Myanmar are not deceived. They are supporting democracy over and above Aung San Suu Kyi specifically, but they are also denouncing China's interference in their country's affairs.
What should the international community do or not do in the face of a Myanmar military junta that enjoys the protection of China? There is a middle ground, somewhere between doing nothing and exerting real political pressure worthy of the name. And it can be effective. It would mean attacking the leaders of the coup in a way that truly hurts them, targeting their wallets. It would mean saying to them: "The main aim of your coup is to retain control of your country's wealth. This risks backfiring on you." Targeted sanctions against military leaders, like those imposed on Russia, will take away their wealth. What's more, this is 2021, not 1988. The young people protesting on the streets did not experience the brutal suppression of the protests in 1988. They are mobilizing on the internet, which cannot be completely shut off without damaging the economy and therefore the generals' own wealth.
Despite their differences, the crises in Hong Kong and Myanmar both illustrate the frailty of democracy, but also the resilience of its supporters.