The Asian country’s military overthrew its government over
baseless claims of voter fraud. Sound familiar?
-by Reese Erlich
This week, military officers in Myanmar overthrew that nation’s
democratically elected government after the party it preferred lost the
parliamentary elections. The military claimed voter fraud without presenting
any proof. It tried to fill the streets with cheering supporters. It shut down
some Internet access and all opposition media. People got their news from the
government-owned TV stations spewing pro-military propaganda.
I’ve reported from Myanmar and seen the repression firsthand. This could
have been the US, if President Donald Trump had had more support from the
military for his attempt to stay in power despite losing the election. Both
Trump and Myanmar generals share a similar view about democracy.
Michael Beer, executive director of Nonviolence International, tells me in an
interview that the generals in Myanmar “see themselves as overlords” and
“look down on democracy and the masses. They saw the dysfunction in the US
as a verification of their own need to manage democracy.”
To understand the coup in Myanmar, formerly known as Burma, it’s
important to understand the country’s past.
US promotes heroin trade
After the 1949 revolution in China, Washington sponsored anti-communist
groups in neighboring Burma to disrupt the new, revolutionary government.
The Kuomintang, the nationalists who lost the civil war in China, financed its
Burmese operations with heroin sales.
Later, the CIA-owned airline Air America shipped arms to anti-communist
militias allied with Washington during the Vietnam War and, on the return
trip, brought back heroin from Burma and Laos.
While the Burmese drug trade was controlled by ethnic groups in the north of
the country, Burma’s military benefited from a system of payoffs and
corruption, even offering protection to one of the country’s most infamous
drug lords. Today, Myanmar is the second-largest producer of heroin in the
world after Afghanistan.
First hand reporting
I reported from Myanmar in 1995. The military had been in power since 1962
and ran a repressive regime. Meeting with opposition leaders involved safe
houses and circuitous routes to make sure I wasn’t followed.
“There is no freedom of association, no free press, no freedom of political
activity of any kind,” an underground opposition leader told me for
an article for the San Francisco Chronicle.
While I was in the country, the military released Aung San Suu Kyi after six
years of house arrest. The Nobel Peace Prize winner was the country’s leading
opposition figure. She enjoyed strong backing from London and Washington,
and was already favoring neo-liberal, pro-US policies.
Subsequently, Suu Kyi was arrested and released many times. By 2015, she and
her National League for Democracy (NLD) had won parliamentary elections.
The military still exercised strong influence, however, holding a guaranteed 25
percent of parliament’s seats.
Once in power, Suu Kyi further revealed that she is a Burmese nationalist who
opposes rights for the country’s ethnic minorities. She defended the
military’s attacks on Rohingya villages, which forced more than 1 million to
flee the country.
But she also fought to wrest power from the military. Sometimes the NLD and
military cooperated; sometimes relations blew up. On February 1, troops loyal
to General Min Aung Hlaing seized Suu Kyi, along with numerous NLD leaders,
and government officials in early morning raids.
Hlaing was facing forced retirement this summer and all the corrupt riches
that come with the job will be in jeopardy. “He’s accrued enormous wealth,” says peace activist Beer. “Family members get all kinds of special deals.”
For a time, the military was willing to share some power with wealthy
business people and the NLD. Ultimately, however, their thirst for power and
wealth led them to seize power and to jail their rivals.
If that sounds familiar, it should. Trump had the same motives. Luckily he did
The coup that wasn't
Nine days after the November 3 election, Trump’s lawyers told him he lost,
and that no amount of electoral or legal challenges would change the results.
But Trump was determined to stay in power by any means necessary. So he
accepted the views of other advisors who promulgate outlandish conspiracy
theories. For example, Trump’s attorney Rudy Giuliani claimed a
computerized vote counting system was programmed to switch Trump votes
to Biden. It didn’t. The company that built the machines, Dominion Voting
Systems, has sued Giuliani for $1.3 billion.
Former National Security Advisor Michael Flynn proposed a series of blatantly
illegal and unconstitutional tactics. He wanted Trump to “temporarily”
suspend the Constitution, declare martial law, and have “the military oversee
a national re-vote,” and “silence the destructive media.”
Those are the indications that Trump was prepared to toss out the
Constitution to stay in power. Here’s my projection of how that could have
Let’s say the Electoral College vote was narrow, with victory hinging on a few
thousand votes in swing states. Trump calls on right-wing militias to
“safeguard” the vote, which they do by becoming violent.
In response, millions of liberals, progressives and others supporting the
Constitution march peacefully. Right wing militias attack the demonstrations
and clash with Antifa.
Citing “chaos in the streets,” Trump declares a state of emergency and orders
out the National Guard, local police, paramilitary border guards, and whatever
other armed security forces that support him. Trump stays in the White House
and promises fair elections in 2022.
Trump calls for large rallies of his supporters. Anti-Trumpers do the same.
The immediate future of the US then hinges not on the hallowed institutions of “democracy” but on how the Pentagon and other armed forces react to the
popular opposition to Trump.
As for Myanmar, there are some signs of resistance. Doctors at a government
hospital have gone on strike; residents in some neighborhoods have been
protesting the coup by banging on pots and pans. At this time, we don’t know
if or how long the coup will last.
But I know this for sure: The people of Myanmar are no more interested in
having a military dictatorship than the American people want one controlled