The machine that went rogue
Learning from Myanmar’s unsuccessful ‘Third Force’ movement.
Early on the morning of 1 February 2021, a convoy of armoured vehicles carrying fully armed soldiers approached the parliament, where elected officials were ready to take office after another landslide victory for the ruling party, the National League for Democracy (NLD). The Myanmar military detained President Win Myint, de facto leader Aung San Suu Kyi and hundreds of lawmakers and government officials. Television and radio broadcasters and internet service providers found soldiers at their doorsteps, who ordered them to discontinue their services at gunpoint. Later in the day, Commander-in-Chief Senior General Min Aung Hlaing declared a state of emergency through a televised speech, citing possible voter fraud, and promised to hold a new election at an unspecified time in the future. The coup took place after the Union Solidarity and Development Party (USDP), a party of former generals, lost the election in November 2020. Unable to accept the election results, the USDP demanded a re-run of the election, levelling accusations of voter fraud, contrary to observations from independent election watchdogs that the election results were credible. But the military backed the USDP and ousted the newly elected government.
The Third Force and the army in politics
The 2021 coup is a proverbial slap in the face for everyone who believed that Myanmar's military could be a force for good. During the transitional period from military rule to partial democracy in the 2010s, many observers assumed that the military-drafted 2008 constitution, which protects the political and economic powers of the military, was the best power-sharing agreement between the praetorian military and pro-democracy groups supported by the masses. A group of intellectuals informally known as the 'Third Force' in Myanmar were at the forefront, pushing for political changes during this decade. It is hard to say exactly who the Third Force are because it is a network of loosely connected intellectuals and civil-society groups. But Myanmar Egress, a Yangon-based think tank, is widely considered to be the main driver of the Third Force movement, together with other less well-known civil societies. Founded in 2006, Myanmar Egress made it evident that its intention was to engage with the then military government as its now-defunct website says they are "nationalists committed to state building through …working relationship with the government and all interest groups".
This was not a popular stance for most observers, commentators and activists who completely rejected the military regime. During the decades-long fight for democracy, animosities developed between military leaders and pro-democracy activists. The generals and the pro-democracy camp led by the NLD were at opposite ends before 2011. Influenced by their decade-long experience in counter-insurgency campaigns against ethnic minorities, the military officers began to develop ruthless measures to contain the pro-democracy movement through mass killings, imprisonment, and torture. During the 1988 uprising, soldiers opened fire using live ammunition against peaceful protestors, killing thousands of them. The massacre of peaceful protestors occurred in 2007 and again in 2021. In return, the activists abroad lobbied Western powers to impose economic sanctions on the ruling generals and the country. The country had been in a gridlock, unable to move forward from military rule until 2011, when the nominally civilian government led by Thein Sein, a former general, launched a series of reforms.
The Third Force prioritised finding common ground with the military that had been ruling the country since the 1960s. They called for collaboration, dialogue and national reconciliation instead of direct confrontation with the military. The normative demands for democracy and freedom were replaced with real politics that had no dispute with the "discipline-flourishing democracy" imagined by the military. One of the slogans popularised by the Voice, a mouthpiece publication of the Third Force, is "If we push together, it will move." The slogan taken from a primary school poem to teach the concept of unity was used to highlight the importance of collaboration and dialogue between the military and the rest of society. This rhetoric was used as a panacea to solve all of Myanmar's ills from its longest civil war to civic-military relations. In 2010, the NLD boycotted the election because the electoral laws forced political parties to expel their party members in detention including party leader Aung San Suu Kyi. However, representatives from Myanmar Egress and Vahu Development Institute lobbied for the participation of political parties in the election held by the junta. With no meaningful participation of independent political parties including the NLD, the military-backed USDP won the election even amidst reports of vote-rigging and voter intimidation. After the 2010 election, dialogues took place between the Thein Sein government and the pro-democracy opposition, especially the NLD, as well as the government and ethnic armed groups. Financial support to ongoing peace talks from foreign donors also poured in to cheerlead the military-led peace initiatives. It was during this period the Thein Sein government founded the Myanmar Peace Centre to facilitate dialogue between the military and ethnic armies. Intellectuals associated with the Third Force movement were rewarded with lucrative jobs at Myanmar Peace Centre. It looked as though the country which was once a pariah state was moving towards change.
Another characteristic of the Third Force is the introduction of technocracy using jargon from the fields of political science and public administration. Columns and op-eds of the Voice, and workshops and courses run by Myanmar Egress, were full of technocratic solutions to solve the political problems of the country. In a somewhat ahistorical and depoliticised view, good management of natural resources as well as economic growth were cited as the solutions for ethnic conflict. Neo-liberalism was also imported and incorporated through the full and partial translation of books such as The World Is Flat: A Brief History of the Twenty-first Century and The End of History and the Last Man. The compelling argument made by the Third Force was that the world has become increasingly integrated and Myanmar should begin to take part in the globalised world through a series of technocratic reforms or risk losing it all. Its columns advocated technocratic skills for "good governance" such as transparency, accountability and the rule of law. If good governance was restored, Myanmar would be on the right trajectory towards peace and development, they promised. Consequently, the chronic underdevelopment and ethnic conflict are detached from the decade-long mismanagement of the military governments. The influence of this rhetoric can be found in the inaugural speech of Thein Sein in 2011 where he said, "Democracy will promote only hand in hand with good governance. This is why our government responsible for Myanmar's democracy transition will try hard to shape good administrative machinery".
There is also a widespread tendency to rely on technocracy to solve some of the pressing issues faced by the country. A 2017 editorial referring to the Rohingya genocide argues that it is not a political issue but a "capacity problem". It implies that genocide occurs because of the inability of the local and national governments to manage resources and the rival communities of Muslim Rohingya and Buddhist Rakhines, not because of the military leadership, which ordered its soldiers to slaughter civilians. The belief also echoes another popular narrative that the Rohingya issue is a problem of public relations generated by the inability of the authorities to effectively communicate with the world. Needless to say, the shifting of responsibility to the weaknesses of technocracy rather than successive military governments is popular among the generals.
Short-lived democratic era
Ideas presented by proponents of the Third Force were treated with suspicion or outright scorn in Myanmar-related workshops and in the media before 2011. Now they were embraced by those in the pro-democracy camp despite criticism from a minority of politicians and intellectuals. Win Tin, co-founder of NLD, continued to oppose the 2008 constitution and military-led democratisation. He also wore blue shirts to send the message that the country and its population were still in prison. Likewise, leftist student unions remained sceptical of the military and quasi-civilian government. Their protests were muffled by Aung San Suu Kyi's decision to participate in the military-led reform process. Aung San Suu Kyi ran for a seat in the parliament in the by-election in 2012 and later in the general election of 2015. By this point, the NLD leadership accepted the rules of the game drawn in favour of the military leaders which reserved 25 percent of the parliament to itself and controlled defence services and police. To the dismay of hard-line pro-democracy activists, the NLD's involvement legitimised both the military-drafted constitution and the role of the military in politics. Later, Aung San Suu Kyi and the NLD went above and beyond to reconcile with the army. In a 2013 interview with the BBC, she said, "I am very fond of the army, because I always thought of it as my father's army," while noting the shortcomings of the army. Six years later, she went to the Netherlands to defend the military against genocide allegation at the International Court of Justice (ICJ). At court, her defence team downplayed the number of atrocities committed by the army against the Rohingya despite systematic patterns of abuse documented by rights groups. Her team told the ICJ judges that the military operations were only targeted at the Rohingya militant group and not the entire ethnic group.
By then, everyone in Myanmar had recognised the military's dominance in civilian sectors. Millions went to polling stations to vote in 2015 and 2020. Myanmar's military was lauded as a powerful instigator of change, both at home and abroad. Min Aung Hlaing was invited to European countries as the Commander-in-Chief of Myanmar's military. Rallies were held in major cities in support of Aung San Suu Kyi defending the military against genocide allegations at The Hague in 2019. As the pro-democracy camp led by Aung San Suu Kyi paved the way for reconciliation with the generals, Myanmar Egress and other actors of the Third Force found themselves irrelevant. The premature death of Myanmar Egress' co-founder Nay Win Maung in 2012 also weakened the Third Force movement.
The Third Force could not stand the test of time as shown by the dispute surrounding the 2020 election. Weeks after the election, the USDP and its allies started to make accusations of voter fraud based on inconsistencies in voter lists and dozens of video footage from social media that purportedly showed misconduct at the polling stations. Then, Commander-in-chief Min Aung Hlaing sent a handwritten letter to Aung San Suu Kyi with an ultimatum: postpone the first session of the parliament or face the consequences. The military's request was unconstitutional and against the electoral regulations they themselves had written. After the NLD leaders refused to give in to their demands, the generals launched a coup ending a decade of democratic progress.
What went wrong?
The Third Force movement was built on an unproven premise that the military held goodwill towards the opposition and general population. While the technocratic solutions proposed by the Third Force might improve the living conditions of Myanmar people, the elephant in the room is that the military is at the centre of many issues faced by the country. Its endless intervention in civilian affairs and the violent campaigns waged against its own people are the biggest problems politically. Dialogue and conciliatory politics can only go as far as the military allows. When the all-powerful military decided to detain democratically elected leaders, activists and journalists, there were no safeguards against such actions.
In retrospect, the series of democratic reforms sanctioned by the Thein Sein administration were more likely a glitch in the system rather than a feature of the "discipline-flourishing democracy". The old guards of the military intended to maintain power through electoral authoritarianism with a high level of control. But Thein Sein went off-script. After the initial reforms, he was widely seen as a reformer, a fresh departure from the military leaders who refused to let go of power. The Western press began to compare him to Mikhail Gorbachev. The International Crisis Group gave him a In Pursuit of Peace award for his liberalisation efforts. In 2013, he was even nominated for the Nobel Peace Prize award. The international recognition – something he could never expect as a former general – must have flattered him as his reform agenda became bolder. Unlike the 2010 election and the 2008 referendum, the 2015 general election had little evidence of vote-rigging leading to the victory of the opposition NLD. On the surface, Myanmar looks like another case study in the pattern of peaceful transfer of power from military regimes to civilian rule in the Global South. However, the generals, independent of civilian oversight, ensure things remain relatively the same in the barracks.
In the meantime, the military, as an institution, shows no signs of abandoning its siege mentality. Soldiers and their family members are encouraged to live inside the secluded military compounds, cutting ties to the rest of the society. Against this backdrop, nationalism based on ethnic and religious identity and the history of the Bamar ethnic majority serves as the principal ideology of the military. Inside the military compounds, Soviet-style slogans still remind soldiers of the danger of the outside world. The generals read global and domestic events through their ultranationalist interpretations. The American invasion of Afghanistan and Iraq was conflated with the Western government's criticisms of the regime's human rights record. The terror attacks in Western countries and the Rohingya insurgent group ARSA were seen under the same brand of jihadist operations. Such views influenced the way they saw the civilian leader Aung San Suu Kyi. The cosmopolitan status of Aung San Suu Kyi as the wife of a British academic and mother of two sons of mixed heritage often comes under attack in propaganda materials which accuse her as a foreign agent in the past. The hostility towards Aung San Suu Kyi and anyone perceived as foreign agents moved from state-run newspapers to social media disinformation campaigns during the transitional period. While Aung San Suu Kyi was popularly known as "Mother Su", pro-military trolls on Facebook ran smear campaigns against her as a destroyer of the Buddhist faith and an accomplice in the global conspiracy of Muslims against the predominantly Buddhist country. The anti-Muslim sentiments go hand in hand with the military's extreme version of nationalism. The commander-in-chief asked veterans to think about race and religion when they vote in the 2020 election, which amounts to a nationalist dog whistle to avoid voting for Muslim candidates. No amount of engagement with the generals can convince them to stay out of politics.
In addition, the military's interpretation of continued Bamar rule from the 13th century until British colonialism bolsters their belief in military dominance over civilian rule. According to this narrative, the Burmese nation lost its independence only when the army was significantly weakened in the face of foreign aggression. The lesson, the generals deduced, is the army must continue to strengthen itself, or the nation will fall under foreign hands in no time. This version of xenophobic nationalism coupled with contempt towards civilian institutions is visible in public speeches. Min Aung Hlaing often contrasts party politics which is inherently corrupt with "national politics" which belongs to the military. In this view, civilians can be lured by the riches of foreign agents while the soldiers have a natural immunity to such temptations. The arrest of Aung San Suu Kyi's economic advisor Sean Turnell and other foreigners after the coup are motivated by such xenophobic beliefs. There have been arrests of employees of non-profits receiving support from international organisations that have become the target of the pro-military propaganda machine, which portrays them as engineering a conspiracy against the country. In August last year, the junta put a limitation on the employment of foreigners in the banking sector, fearing that foreigners might be involved in a financial conspiracy against the nation. Such actions, almost incomprehensible to outsiders, can only be explained by the military's ultranationalism.
Myanmar's military leadership simply doesn't have the skillset to solve domestic disputes in a peaceful manner. Born out of anti-colonial struggle and subsequent civil war, the collective military leadership could only speak the language of violence manifesting in the torching of villages belonging to ethnic minorities (and now majority Bamars in the campaigns against the People's Defence Force), indiscriminate shelling of civilian areas, and deploying brutal military strategies to crush both armed and unarmed opponents. When people took to the streets demanding change in 1988, army chief General Ne Win warned protestors in a televised speech, "When the army shoots, it shoots to hit." Thousands were killed as the troops were ordered to open fire on protestors in 1988. The security forces still show blatant disregard for human life and dignity over 30 years later. As the nationwide protests intensified, the state-controlled media put out a statement on 21 February, which ominously warned the protestors there would be "loss of life" if they confronted security forces. At the time of writing, the death toll is over 2000, with the military and police showing no signs of remorse. In one viral video, security forces celebrated after shooting a protestor. There were many other instances that show units under the military's command behaving like an invading army rather than law enforcement agents. Their experiences in the civil war have led them to treat civilians as their enemies. Their extreme nationalism justified their actions.
After the 2021 coup, most members of the Third Force remained silent, while intellectuals who dared to speak out against the military regime were detained or forced to flee the country. However, some Third Force thinkers openly work for the military. Salai (Andrew) Ngun Cung Lian, a former legal counsel to Myanmar Peace Centre was appointed as a legal advisor to the junta after the 2021 coup. At press conferences and talk shows broadcast by the military-owned channels, he argued that the military takeover was constitutional. Aung Naing Oo, a prominent member of MPC, has accused the exiled National Unity Government (NUG) of planning assassinations of him and two other members of the Third Force in what looks like a smear campaign. Although assassinations of alleged informants and civilian officials working for the military occurred, there was no evidence that the NUG was behind such attacks.
With the military rule restored in Myanmar, the ghost of the Third Force still lingers on. China and some ASEAN countries, notably Cambodia, pushed for normalisation of relations with the junta though other ASEAN countries opposed it. India maintained diplomatic relations with the junta while calling for a return to democracy. The UN and Western countries are critical of the coup and subsequent brutality of the army, but they maintained their calls for dialogue with all parties concerned, following the footprint of the ASEAN's consensus. Foreign think tanks also call for engagement with the Burmese military. Implicit in their calls was the understanding of real politics that no one but the leadership of the armed forces of Myanmar holds the key to dialogue and peace. As a result, the approach is at the mercy of the whims of the generals who have a track record of ignoring outsiders' views and treating civilians as enemies. The junta did not respect the five-point consensus agreed by Min Aung Hlaing and ASEAN leaders. The ASEAN special envoy was not allowed to meet with opposition leader Aung San Suu Kyi. The military continued to launch major offensives against ethnic armies in the border areas and the civilian fighters of the People's Defence Force in central Myanmar.
As people across Myanmar – from university students, civil servants, farmers and workers – continue their everyday resistance to the military, the unsuccessful Third Force movement should teach diplomats, policy makers and anyone who cares about Myanmar one thing: Conciliatory policies towards the military are bound to fail. Ultra-nationalism and the siege mentality held by the military makes it next to impossible for anyone to engage with them unless they are significantly weakened. As the military-controlled state and society collide head-on in Myanmar, it is important to pay attention to the glaring mistake overlooked by the Third Force: the Burmese military is a machine that has gone rogue.