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Request For Myanmar's Military To Relinquish Control Goes Unheeded


On February 1, Myanmar's military staged a coup. An opposition movement has been insisting that the military give up control and release the civilian leaders they arrested. But the military isn't moving, and people who know its methods are really worried. Here's Michael Sullivan reporting from Thailand.

MICHAEL SULLIVAN, BYLINE: In 2005, Myanmar's then-absolute ruler, General Than Shwe, suddenly moved Myanmar's capital from Yangon to the secretly constructed, isolated city of Naypyitaw, about 230 miles north. The official explanation - Yangon was too crowded. Another - the ruling generals felt unsafe there, especially after Than Shwe visited an astrologer who warned him to move the capital or else.

RICHARD HORSEY: Naypyitaw is a pretty magical place, and isolated leaders in Myanmar have a long history of magical thinking, in fact.

SULLIVAN: That's Richard Horsey, a political analyst based in Yangon. Part of the military's history, he says, is its belief that it and it alone can hold a fractious nation of various ethnicities together.

HORSEY: This is partly because of indoctrination, partly because of a warped worldview, partly because their definition of what saving the country looks like departs radically from what most of the population would consider to be saving the country. But nevertheless, there is that view.

SULLIVAN: A military that's deeply corrupt, says David Mathieson, another Yangon-based analyst, but one that doesn't see its vast economic interests as a problem.

DAVID MATHIESON: They are greedy, rapacious kleptomaniacs. But you tell yourself a lie long enough, and you create the conditions in which that lie is reinforced by your own machinations. Then, you convince yourself that it's true. They honestly think, we're the only ones that can really do this properly.

SULLIVAN: And there's one thing the military does extremely well, says Phil Robertson, deputy Asia director for Human Rights Watch.

PHIL ROBERTSON: This is a military that is top grade when it comes to human rights violations. In the almost five decades they were in control of Myanmar during the military dictatorship period, they were among the worst of the worst. And they've gotten even worse since then with the crimes against humanity and acts of genocide committed against the Rohingya in 2017.

SULLIVAN: Not just the Rohingya, but other ethnic minorities as well - all over the country, Robertson says - brutality encouraged, says David Mathieson, by the military's self-image from the top down.

METHIESON: There's just this disdain for people who are not within the military. And they can be loving fathers and sons and brothers and sisters and everything else, but they've still fundamentally got this attitude of we are better than you, therefore we get to push you around.

SULLIVAN: That's the military protesters are now facing. And unlike some police and civil servants who have gone over to the protesters' side, soldiers, says Mary Callahan, probably won't. She's a Myanmar scholar at the University of Washington who's currently in Yangon and the author of "Making Enemies: War And State Building In Burma."

MARY CALLAHAN: There are certainly parts of the officer corps that have different dreams and visions for the future of the country. But they have not, in 50 years, been mobilized politically in any significant way. This is not a military that splits.

SULLIVAN: And that, says analyst Richard Horsey, makes the risk of a confrontation with protesters much higher.

HORSEY: I think once they've gone down this path, even if they realize now this was a bit of a mistake and it isn't going at all to plan, there is no way they will reverse it or that they can reverse it. It would be completely against type for a military strongman in Myanmar to back down and say, oops, made a mistake and as you were.

SULLIVAN: That leaves very little space on either side for compromise.

For NPR News, I'm Michael Sullivan in Chiang Rai.


Michael Sullivan is NPR's Senior Asia Correspondent. He moved to Hanoi to open NPR's Southeast Asia Bureau in 2003. Before that, he spent six years as NPR's South Asia correspondent based in but seldom seen in New Delhi.