Just over ten years ago there were hopes that Myanmar might become a fully functioning democracy. Today there are concerns that the country may disintegrate into civil war. The widespread opposition to the military’s brutal crackdown on peaceful protesters also includes possibly as many as three-quarters of the soldiers in Myanmar’s army, according to an officer who has recently defected. If this is accurate, there could be large-scale defections in the near future.
But what does this mean for the future of democracy in Myanmar? And is Myanmar on the precipice of civil war?
Myanmar’s security apparatus is large, consisting of an army of about 350,000–400,000—most of whom are ethnic Bamar Buddhists, another 80,000 police (who have been relied on heavily to confront protesters), as well as state intelligence service members.
Defections from the military have happened from time to time, such as after pro-democracy uprisings in 1988 and during the Saffron revolution in 2007. But over the past 60 years the military has remained a fairly cohesive unit, supported by a system of rewards and punishments and a rigorous indoctrination process.
Yet today’s military in Myanmar—the Tatmadaw—has had more exposure to the outside world since the country opened up in 2010. While it is still very brutal, it is not an organization that is as blindly obedient as it was in the past.
Defections from the army or other elements of the security apparatus are important, because the success of any revolution is dependent on them—though they would need to be on a wide scale. The police and the military are the only organs of the state that can use tools of violence to enforce the will of an authoritarian regime.
Why Soldiers Change Sides
There are several factors that are important for understanding what drives military defection. Not surprisingly, military cohesion is important to preventing revolution, as a cohesive military that stays firm in its support of the regime is near impossible to overcome. The worst-case scenario for Myanmar is if some of the military defects, but not enough to overturn the regime peacefully, which could lead to a protracted civil war, as in Syria.
Typically, militaries that consist of one ethnic or sectarian group are more cohesive but considered less legitimate in the eyes of the public, and are usually less professionalized as they are not recruited on the basis of merit. Militaries that are professionalized and not ethnically recruited tend to be more likely to side with their citizens in the face of sizeable protests.
The role of the ethnic composition of the military is illustrated by the Arab Spring. Both Egypt and Tunisia did not have ethnically-recruited militaries, and in both countries the military ended up siding with protesters – although in Egypt’s case this was ostensibly to oust the then president, Hosni Mubarak, and rule behind the scenes.
In contrast, both Bahrain and Syria had militaries where recruitment was based on sectarian ties to some extent. In the case of the former, foreigners were also widely recruited to decrease the chances of members of the security apparatus siding with any public protests.
Other drivers of military defection are how the military is being treated (mostly financially) and the political influence and social status that it has acquired. The popularity and legitimacy of the military are also important.
Connected to this point is how popular and widespread the protests are. Notably, the current protests in Myanmar are very different from the past—they are widely popular and involve different ethnicities, religions, and occupations. Due to the large volume of people taking to the streets, important institutions—including banks—have been closed due to lack of staff, causing financial chaos.
Military personnel are also increasingly aware that the regime’s use of violent tactics to maintain power, such as shooting at everyone, including children, tarnishes any legitimacy it may have had.
This all affects the calculations of military defectors. There has also been a rise in defections among police, which is usually under the military’s control.
Chances of Revolution or War
But is there much chance of a successful revolution? Revolutions are often hyped as a common way of ending authoritarian regimes. But in reality, they take place infrequently. In the 1960s and 1970s, fewer than 5 percent of autocrats were ousted through public revolt, with more than half ousted through military coups. That number more than doubled in the 2010s, but revolution is no more likely to oust a dictatorship than a civil war.
Myanmar’s chances of war are amplified by the presence of various ethnic armed organizations. Technically Myanmar has faced continuous conflict since the country gained independence in 1948, making it one of the longest ongoing insurgencies. A ceasefire took place in 2008, but calls for greater federalization and increased autonomy of ethnic states have never dissipated.
Some of these ethnic groups are able to rule in de facto zones (through funds from drug trafficking) without much government interference. Though the military is well trained and experienced in combat, it does not have the capacity to fight simultaneously in the north, east, west, and center of the country.
In addition to being unpopular with its citizens, General Min Aung Hlaing’s regime has not gained much international support either. Though Russia and China are major arms suppliers to the Tatmadaw there are serious international concerns that the regime’s actions are causing too much instability. At a United Nations Security Council briefing, an expert warned that Myanmar was “on the brink of state failure.”
The crisis is taking place in a context of dire poverty, economic chaos, a raging pandemic, and one in which few political elites (including Aung San Suu Kyi’s National League for Democracy) are truly committed to democracy. Thus, even though the increase in military defections might seem promising to protesters, Myanmar appears more likely to collapse than to democratize.
Natasha Lindstaedt is deputy dean for education, and professor in the Department of Government at the University of Essex. This article was originally published in The Conversation.