Yet overnight, on February 1, the army was abroad on the streets and Suu Kyi locked up again after winning overwhelmingly a fair and free election. The army apparently fears the further loss of control of its vast economic empire, the source of wealth for its officers, in economic deregulation programs.
The people of Myanmar seem determined not to give up their democracy again. Apart from broad popular rallies, large numbers of doctors and nurses, truck drivers and council workers, judges and lawyers have marched in the streets and joined in the go-slow and strike movement that has swept the country and curbed the economy. The army is not deterred.
“At the moment, we are seeing the most notorious divisions in the Myanmar military being deployed to Yangon, Mandalay and the capital Naypyidaw,” says Chris Sidoti, the Australian human rights lawyer who was part of the UN fact-finding mission in Myanmar in 2017-19 to investigate the army’s purge of ethnic Rohingya.
Specifically, he says, the 33rd, 66th and 99th Light Infantry Divisions, which were implicated in the worst brutality against the Kachin and Rohingya minorities. As for the peculiarity of their numbers, Sidoti explains the little-known fact that “the military relies on soothsayers for many things, including the numbering of their divisions”.
Unless there is a circuit breaker, we can see the grimly inevitable outcome. The military dictator, General Min Aung Hlaing, will not relinquish power and the people will not recognise his legitimacy. The outcome is bound to be mass bloodshed.
Reports of secret nightly flights from China to Yangon have fed suspicion that Beijing is helping Myanmar’s military, the Tatmadaw, to prepare for further crackdowns. An analyst at the Australian Strategic Policy Institute, Susan Hutchinson, last week reported an average of five unregistered flights a night: “Whoever has arranged these flights is going to great lengths to hide them. The planes’ transponders have been turned off, a violation of international aviation rules.”
China’s officials say they are routine business and humanitarian flights. Hutchinson has two theories about what’s aboard the planes: “One is that they’re bringing in Chinese troops and cyber specialists to help the Tatmadaw control access to information and the internet. The other is that they’re increasing the Tatmadaw’s weapons stores.”
Sydneysider Sophia Sarkis, a representative of the Australian Burmese community of some 400,000 people, is distraught: “People are being killed, shot in the head, the army is using snipers, it’s as if terrorists have invaded and started killing innocent people. It’s like our country has been suddenly stolen.”
Sarkis, who migrated to Australia 28 years ago and is now an Australian citizen who runs a family aluminium business with her husband, was one of the organisers of a pro-democracy rally for Myanmar in front of Parliament House last Thursday. She has a message for the Morrison government: “We are not asking for anything ridiculous. We would like the Australian government to at least notice what’s happening and make a response to it.”
Australia’s has been one of the meekest responses to date. The Foreign Affairs Minister, Marise Payne, said the use of lethal force against civilians was “unacceptable”. The US Secretary of State, Antony Blinken, called Sunday’s repression “abhorrent violence”. Indonesia said it was deeply concerned and Canada said it was appalled.
Labor’s spokesperson on foreign affairs, Penny Wong issued a statement: “The Australian government has still not made clear what it has done to oppose the recent actions of the Tatmadaw, including the mass arrests of democratically elected leaders, political figures and protesters.
“The Morrison government must send a strong signal to the Tatmadaw that the bilateral relationship won’t return to business as usual until democracy is restored.”
The US, Britain and Canada have imposed some sanctions on the dictatorship. The EU said on Monday that it will shortly “take measures in response” to the “brutal repression”. Four of Myanmar’s nine ASEAN neighbours – Indonesia, Malaysia, Singapore and Thailand – abandoned the ASEAN principle of “non-interference” in other members’ affairs and denounced the coup as “unlawful”.
Most promisingly, Indonesia’s Foreign Affairs Minister, Retno Marsudi, has been interceding with the regime, discussing the terms and timing of General Min Aung Hlaing’s promised return to democracy after 12 months of “emergency rule”.
Australia has announced no measures and has kept intact its military co-operation with the Tatmadaw. The Australian energy giant Woodside has been way ahead of the government, announcing the withdrawal of its offshore drilling teams and putting all business in Myanmar under review.
Sidoti says that Australia’s inertia could be understandable if it were to protect negotiations for the release of Australian Sean Turnell, an economic adviser to Suu Kyi who has been locked up together with his employer. But, after a month, “the problem is it’s not paying any dividends whatsoever”.
Payne said on Monday the government was considering its options for imposing sanctions or other measures. Sidoti has drawn up a list of eight steps Payne could take to contribute to a solution rather than “giving comfort to the regime” with her inaction.
The list includes suspending Australia’s military co-operation program with Myanmar, imposing sanctions on the top leaders of the coup, and working with ASEAN to restrain General Min Aung Hlaing from committing a massacre. “There’s a need for active public leadership by Australia,” he says. Better to start now rather than after the next mass killings.
Peter Hartcher is international editor.
What in the World
Peter Hartcher is political editor and international editor of The Sydney Morning Herald and The Age.