The generals who seized power in Myanmar last week made threatening gestures on the weekend against street demonstrators demanding restoration of democracy. The ruling junta gave no sign of seeking a peaceful settlement with the democratic forces and their imprisoned leader, Nobel laureate Aung San Suu Kyi.
Supporters of the generals suffered a humiliating loss in national elections three months ago. Ms. Suu Kyi’s National League for Democracy won those elections in a landslide. The generals have since complained those elections were fraudulent; the national elections commission heard their complaints and dismissed them. After last week’s seizure of power, the army abolished that elections commission.
The generals would be wise to negotiate with Ms. Suu Kyi, who manifestly had the people behind her in November and still enjoys massive support in the streets. She formerly co-operated with the generals, at great cost to her international prestige, by accepting a role in the military government.
Timid steps toward democracy under Ms. Suu Kyi’s leadership following elections in 2015 whetted the people’s appetite for reform and did not build support for the generals, as they learned to their dismay last November. That exercise should persuade the generals that they have no knack for political leadership.
A realistic reform program would entrust national defence to the generals and take them entirely out of political leadership, for which they have no mandate and no skill. Since they seem not to grasp the depth of their own political ineptitude, however, it may be difficult to persuade them to step aside and allow wiser heads to govern them.
The alternative to negotiation is repression. The generals tolerated peaceful protests by tens of thousands of citizens on Sunday demanding release of the imprisoned democracy leaders, though water cannon trucks sprayed one crowd of demonstrators in the national capital Nay Pyi Taw. Broadcasts on state television have been saying action must be taken against street protesters. This could foreshadow army violence in the streets.
Police brutality in the streets of Russian cities has not yet discouraged young Russians from demonstrating in support of Alexei Navalny, the anti-corruption agitator who refuses to die of the poisons President Vladimir Putin sends him and refuses also to be silent about the opulent lifestyle of Mr. Putin and his cronies. The pro-Navalny demonstrators were out in force again this past weekend, despite beatings and imprisonment by Mr. Putin’s security forces.
Pro-democracy demonstrators in Myanmar are likely to be at least as persistent. They know they won the 1990, 2015 and 2020 elections. They know democratic government is within reach. They know the generals who are pretending to govern are unfit for the role.
Though the generals have imprisoned Ms. Suu Kyi, her political position is extremely strong because of her long service as leader of the NLD and her election victories over a span of 30 years. She may not again allow the generals to use her as lead vocalist in a band where they call the tune. She could, however, bring the public with her into a new constitutional structure for Myanmar that could open the way to peace and prosperity.
The generals’ first instinct is likely to be repression. If, however, they notice how poorly that is working for Vladimir Putin, they might ask Ms. Suu Kyi over for a chat.