The Burmese night: pandemic and authoritarian temptations in Myanmar

On 1 February 2021, Myanmar’s generals ended the experiment of ‘disciplined’ democracy (which they initiated) by carrying out a political oxymoron: a military coup d’état occurring almost ‘under the rule of law’. Because the 2008 Constitution shields the prerogatives of the military, the abrupt seizure of power by the Armed Forces of Myanmar took many observers by surprise. In fact, if one looks at the last ten years, the events of 1 February seem somewhat paradoxical. Yet, as argued by Stefano Ruzza – author of the first article in this issue of Human Security and Professor in Political Science and in Peace and Conflict Studies at the University of Turin – the coup may appear more intelligible if we assess it in light of the broader project that the generals had been engaged in prior to the (partial) political liberalization, and, above all, if we consider their actions and words since they returned to government.

The complexity of the political dynamics in Myanmar, however, does not end with the role of the military junta: in the wake of the coup, ethnonational rebel movements have come under the spotlight in Myanmar politics, as explained by David Brenner – Lecturer in Global Insecurities at the University of Sussex. In his article, Brenner reflects on the support offered to the popular resistance to the military by Karen and Kachin armed organizations, and highlights how the strategies of different ethnic armed organizations (EAOs) are deeply shaped by the relationships between their leaders and social foundations.

In contrast to the rebellions discussed by Brenner, the Arakan Army in Rakhine State has maintained a certain strategic ambiguity. Similarly, local civil society in Rakhine State seems to have opted for a milder stance vis-à-vis the deteriorating political situation in the rest of the country. To better understand the perspectives and reactions of the Rakhine people, between July and August 2021 the Arakan Humanitarian Coordination Team (AHCT) conducted a series of interviews, summarized in this issue of Human Security by Lorraine Charbonnier – Research Fellow at T.wai. As the words of the interviewees indicate, the reasons behind the relative silence of the Rakhine people are complex and stem from a long history of discrimination and marginalization coupled with the political aspirations of both the Rakhine people and the Arakan Army.

There is also a more numinous and occult dimension to Myanmar’s political turmoil, which professional freelance journalist Massimo Morello outlines in his article, where he brings in Alejandro Jodorowsky’s idea of ‘psychomagic’ to describe how Buddhist fundamentalism, amplified by esoteric arts and practices, intertwines with Myanmar’s ethnocracy and the junta’s violent repression.

Far more material interests shift the focus of this issue of Human Security to the arms trade and the proliferation of light weapons in Myanmar, most notably to the finding of a twelve-gauge shell marked ‘Cheddite’ – a French-Italian manufacturer based in Livorno – that the military fired against protesters in Yangon. How did that shell end up in a country that has been subject to various forms of arms embargoes by the European Union since July 1991? To address this question, Alessandro De Pascale and Emanuele Giordana – both journalists and regular contributors to the Italian newspaper il manifesto – trace the journey taken by the Cheddite bullet shell from Livorno: first, into the hands of the Myanmar military and then onto the agenda of the Italian Ministry of Foreign Affairs and Parliament. This account is followed by an article by Francesco Buscemi – researcher at the Emerging Research in International Security (ERIS) Research Group of the Scuola Superiore Sant’Anna, and Research Fellow at T.wai – who delves into the dynamics of arms proliferation and the acquisition of weapons by political rebel movements in Myanmar’s borderlands.

This issue of Human Security on Myanmar ends with a closer look at the health situation in remote areas of the country. The first article addressing the topic draws from AHCT’s detailed weekly reports and focuses on the socio-economic impacts of measures to prevent the spread of COVID-19 in Rakhine State and the related challenges faced by humanitarian organizations operating in a context of ‘crises within the crisis’. Among these is the Turin-based MedAcross, which has been providing medical and humanitarian assistance in Myanmar since 2016 and is now striving to meet the health needs of the poorest people in Kawthaung District, in the far south of the country – as described by MedAcross’s representatives Vittoria Brucoli and Erika Vitale.

The complete issue of Human Security n. 16 is available at this link (in Italian).

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