What you need to know
Myanmar elders understand on a visceral level that the military is not a rational actor. Those of us lucky enough to be young enough to have only passing memories of pre-transition Myanmar are just starting to internalize this.
“I think it would be so stupid for them to do a coup, but it’s Myanmar, so who knows.”
That was one of the last things I said to my sister before turning in last night. Six hours later, I woke up to dozens of messages and the insistent ringing of my phone. My mother was calling.
“Your grandmother and I are fine. Are you safe?”
No greetings. No preamble. Decades of military dictatorship had rendered no horror too unthinkable for her. Paranoia was her normal state of being. The optimism and belief in rationality upon which I based my prediction less than 24 hours ago was as foreign to her as my newly orange, K-pop-esque haircut.
The thing is, it’s not that a coup wasn’t possible. It always was. The Myanmar military, the Tatmadaw, wrote the constitution under which Myanmar has been governed for the last decade. The Tatmadaw could have done this whenever they pleased, and done so under the guise of legality, as they did today. It’s just that it’s stupid for them to do a coup. But the Tatmadaw is not a rational actor, and that’s something that Myanmar elders understand on a visceral level. Those of us lucky enough to be young enough to have only passing memories of pre-transition Myanmar are just starting to internalize this.
This coup doesn’t make sense. The Tatmadaw and its members, with the exception of a few top leaders, were free to do as they pleased. War crimes and atrocities against ethnic and religious minorities had continued under the National League for Democracy government. They still controlled every weapon in the country through their continued control of the military, police, and other security authorities. Tatmadaw MPs and military aligned party MPs created a voting block in parliament that was guaranteed to veto any changes to the constitution. Military owned and aligned companies were still free to do business nationally and with international partners. To top it all off, the Aung San Suu Kyi-led government, not the military, received most of the international condemnation for everything that was wrong in Myanmar. To do a coup under these circumstances is stupid.
But this institution is the progeny of the military regimes that introduced and then suddenly demonetized 35, 45, and 90 denomination banknotes in the 1970s and 80s. The Tatmadaw is the legacy of regimes that banned the word “sunset,” because it could be interpreted as a pun that could possibly allude to assassinating the dictator at the time. They responded to monks refusing to accept alms from soldiers by publicly beating and killing them.
The international community, including myself as someone who is often accused of being “too Western,” has an almost religious belief in the power of cunning, rational actors. We like things to make sense in a particular way, and look at the world through the lens of powerful players angling for long term control. We tend to assume the Tatmadaw is playing by these rules, and because of this Myanmar can be absolutely confounding for those on the outside.
The Tatmadaw does what it does to display its power, not to maintain control. The civilian government, for all its many faults, represents a threat to that image of power. In refusing to take the Tatmadaw’s challenge to the legitimacy of 2020 seriously, the civilian government spat on that image of power. I’m sure there are other grievances too.
The Myanmar military sees itself as the “father of the nation,” and like any abusive parent, it’s lashing out at an affront to their authority. So this coup is a surprise though it is not shocking. It’s also stupid.
TNL Editor: Nicholas Haggerty (@thenewslensintl)
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