A brutal crackdown by the ruling junta in Burma has extinguished the largest mass protests against the regime’s rule in nearly two decades. Although the military is now undoubtedly in control of the current situation, the crisis is far from over.
The end of the protests?
The suppression of protesters, which began on 26 September and is estimated to have included 15,000 troops, led to the arrest of nearly two thousand marchers and killed around fifty to two hundred people (though the official number stands at twelve). Even the small pockets of protesters which defied the military paralysis of Rangoon city centre have now stopped. However, the calm which has returned to the former capital is widely expected to be temporary.
Past experience suggests the anti-junta protests have not run their course. The last pro-democracy protests on this scale (in 1988) waxed and waned for many months and only subsided after a series of massacres. Monks are still refusing to accept alms from the military and the population remains angry at the treatment meted out to the most revered institution in the country. Moreover, the acute economic hardships which initially sparked the demonstrations and the deep resentment at a lack of political freedom still persist.
Any significant relaxation of the military’s clampdown will witness an upsurge in protests. While protests in Rangoon have been silenced, other centres of unrest, in which the military’s presence has been lighter, are proving more difficult to extinguish. For example, on Saturday around 30,000 Burmese took part in demonstrations in Kyaukpadaung, Mandalay, while some 5,000 participated in short-lived protests in Sittwe in Arakan State in western Burma.
When protests begin again (which is almost certain), the military will deal with them in an increasingly harsh manner. Further bloodshed is expected.
The possibility for talks
UN special envoy Ibrahim Gambari travelled to Burma on 29 September with the backing of the Security Council support of ASEAN. Despite reports indicating that Gambari met with several figures on his wish list, there are severe doubts that the UN mission will yield substantial results.
Gambari’s conveyance of international concern at the violent crackdown on the protesters will have little effect. The regime is notoriously isolated making sanctions and international criticism largely symbolic.
The UN envoy’s second meeting with Aung San Suu Kyi immediately after his meeting with General Than Shwe raised hopes that the UN was successful in opening a small window of communication between the two sides.
Any dialogue, though significant is unlikely to be fruitful. The recent arrest of key opposition activists including members of the National League for Democracy suggests the regime is not willing to seriously consider any change.
The junta has often appeared to acquiesce to international calls for change when the world’s attention is focused on them, reneging once the limelight has shifted. Most recently this occurred in 2006 when just a week after Gambari met with the junta leader and Aung San Suu Kyi, the latter’s house arrest was extended still further.
Changes within the regime?
The opportunities for change from such an isolated and insular regime are not likely to come from without, but rather from within. There are a number of factions within the regime. The protests, the most significant in two decades, are likely to prove a catalyst for internal change in the leadership of the regime:
The protests brought to the fore differences between the two leaders of the regime. The junta’s second-in-command General Maung Aye reportedly opposed using force against the protesting monks in contrast to Senior General Than Shwe. Than Shwe apparently took over direct command of certain units after several commanders refused to use force on protesters. He is therefore ostensibly directly responsible for the bloodshed and its consequences. If protests continue therefore, General Maung Aye may overthrow Than Shwe to prevent a repeat of the recent events.
There are indications that the regime’s top two generals are at loggerheads over what direction should be taken in the aftermath of the crackdown. It is known that Than Shwe despises Aung San Suu Kyi and would be extremely unlikely to enter into any form of dialogue with her. But Maung Aye, 69, his second-in-command, is said to be favoring some form of tactical compromise. Continued international pressure, including the visit from Gambari may convince him the time is ripe to topple ailing Than Shwe; this could open up the possibility of talks between the junta and Aung San Suu Kyi.
The notorious Soe Win, a loyalist of Than Shwe died on 3 October. Lieutenant General Thein Sein will replace him and Tin Aung Myint Oo will replace Thein Sein as First Secretary.
Danger from the rank and file
Reports indicate incidences of minor splits in the rank and file of Myanmar's military, with disobedience from police and soldiers who refused to fire on Buddhist monks. In Mandalay the 33rd Division refused to fire on the monks and instead paid respects to them. These were too minor to have a practical effect on the outcome of recent events but present a risk for future clashes between protesters and the army.
In the near future, the military’s cohesion will be critical to the survival of the regime. If rank and file soldiers join forces with protesters, the regime will be in real danger of collapse.
The main threat to military cohesion is the inclusion of monks in the protests. Due to their revered status in Burmese society they could provide a wedge that cracks open the 400,000 strong military.
The regime leaders recognised this crucial role the monks could play in destabilising the regime and so cracked down hard on disobeying officers, beating or replacing them. More importantly the leaders reduced the prominence of the monks in the protests. Chances of soldiers joining in the demonstrations, a key requirement for destabilisation of the regime evaporated with the removal of the monks.
The military are likely to keep a tight lid on the monkhood in future and any sign of future protests by them will be cracked down swiftly and harshly. If this leads to bloodshed, this could prove counterproductive; inflaming the population and leading to a mutiny within the rank and file.
Andrew Legon is a Research Associate with the Asian Programme in the International Security Studies Department at RUSI. He is contactable at firstname.lastname@example.org
The views expressed here do not necessarily reflect those of RUSI.