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Home >Opinion >Columns >Restoration of its parliament is the only way ahead for Myanmar

With civil servants not turning up for work, dock workers refusing to load ships, doctors in their whites marching on the streets, students confronting heavily-armoured vehicles, Myanmar presents sad, familiar images. Security forces used tear gas at first, and then live ammunition, killing peaceful demonstrators with impunity, as Myanmar seems to move inexorably towards its familiar past. There is the intransigent military on one side, and a jailed democratically-chosen leader on the other, facing charges for laughable offences, and a wary global community trying to figure out how the crisis can be resolved peacefully.

Myanmar has had uprisings since the late 1980s, but it is a mistake to see the current situation as the third act of the same film, even if the actors, interlocutors, adversaries and allies appear to be the same, speaking similar lines about sanctions and constructive engagement, and the limits of what foreign powers can do, and Myanmar’s neighbours invoking the principle of non-interference in a nation’s internal affairs.

The Tatmadaw, as the military is called, has shrewdly calculated that the international community is preoccupied with other crises: the pandemic is one, presenting the twin challenges of equitable vaccine rollouts and reviving economies. The other is the spectre of instability elsewhere, with conflicts in Ethiopia and the Middle East as well as setbacks to democracy in Hong Kong. The Myanmar junta therefore thinks it can get away with its adventure. It has already started cutting deals, saying it will take back some Rohingya refugees from neighbouring countries, and raising the possibility of okaying the controversial Myitsone dam that China wanted to build in Myanmar but its civilian government had stopped.

With the Association of South-East Asian Nations (ASEAN)—of which Myanmar is a member—divided, some ASEAN states would like to intervene, and Indonesia has taken the lead, whereas some prefer the traditional option of quiet diplomacy (which in effect means business as usual), the Tatmadaw’s confidence may even seem justified. But not so fast. Singapore’s foreign minister Vivian Balakrishnan’s unusually blunt words calling upon the junta to show restraint, release detained political leaders and not undermine ASEAN’s credibility are noteworthy.

Since Myanmar’s partial democratization and opening of the economy, foreign investment—largely from the neighbourhood—had started flowing in. The Tatmadaw is banking on resource-based investors not being able to walk away easily and Western governments unwilling to impose broad sanctions so as not to hurt the poor. But concerned ASEAN leaders are wisely noting what the people want.

Has the Tatmadaw bitten off more than it can swallow? For, just as Myanmar’s economy has been transformed and politics has changed, so has its society. In the past decade, Myanmar has integrated more with the world, and the internet has connected people both within the country and outside. Cutting off access may be possible for short periods, but longer disconnections are hard. Net-savvy youngsters are using more secure tools on the internet. Nationwide internet blackouts are counter-productive. Financial transactions and commerce increasingly rely on the internet, and during the pandemic, education and other essential services need a robust telecom infrastructure. Myanmar has a sizeable population of migrant workers overseas, whose electronically-transmitted remittances help many families, and delinking them from those flows is not in the junta’s interest.

It is important to listen to what the people on Myanmar’s streets are saying. Myanmar’s young want their vote respected, their voices heard. They want a fully representative democracy, where the generals are in the barracks or on the border, but not in parliament.

The Tatmadaw is adept at presenting itself as being a truly national force, and may seek to present the National League for Democracy (NLD) as a party representing only the majoritarian interests of the Bamar community. But the elections showed that NLD candidates from ethnic minority groups defeated candidates of ethnicity-based parties. The generals have offered sops to some of the defeated leaders, who are seizing those crumbs. To be sure, for human rights groups and democracy advocates outside Myanmar, the NLD has been a big disappointment. Its rule saw crackdowns on journalists and dissidents, and its policies were virtually inseparable from those of the Tatmadaw on the Rohingya issue. That cost the NLD its international support, and its leader Aung San Suu Kyi suffered irreparable harm to her reputation.

Yet, the NLD remains widely popular. Myanmar will need a new constitution and deserves a representative government. A new election, especially if it is held without the NLD, will not restore faith in democracy. Nor can a new constitution be imposed. The parliament that was to have met a month ago is the only legitimate body that can initiate the process of getting a new constitution drafted, and it is precisely this prospect that the generals seem scared of. Yet, that’s what the demonstrators want and should be the international community’s focus.

Salil Tripathi is a writer based in New York. Read Salil’s previous Mint columns at www.livemint.com/saliltripathi

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