At first, sheets of paper featuring the face of Burmese Army Senior General Min Aung Hlaing were fixed onto the streets with sticky tape, ready to be stamped on by angry protesters in Myanmar’s main city, Yangon. Troops promptly removed the pages, only for resourceful demonstrators to return with stencils to paint the junta leader’s image onto the concrete.
The protest tactic offered some protection against charging soldiers, who are reportedly forbidden from treading on an image of their commander-in-chief. It was also a chance for the public to express their deep disdain for the man who stole their democracy.
The decision by Min Aung Hlaing to seize power on Feb. 1 brought an abrupt end to Myanmar’s transition, after decades of military rule, to a more democratic system, and prompted fury across the country.
It also presented the military with one of the biggest challenges in its 80-year history, as protesters poured on to the streets of cities, towns and villages, while vast numbers went on strike, bringing trade, banks and transport systems to a standstill.
“It was a massive strategic miscalculation on their part,” said Richard Horsey, an independent political analyst, adding that the military appeared to have severely underestimated the level of public opposition.
“But I think they still believe they can win this,” Horsey said.
Faced with opposition across society, the military has been unleashing a campaign of terror and chaos. Protesters are being detained, brutally beaten and, increasingly, shot dead.
After dark, trucks of troops swarm through residential areas, firing indiscriminately and setting off stun grenades. Every night homes are raided, with officers going door-to-door arresting protesters and anyone deemed to be sheltering them. About 1,800 people have been taken, although this is probably an underestimate.
“The level of violence and intimidation that they’re having to mete out is creating a wellspring of hatred and opposition that is unifying much of the country,” Horsey said. “They will be able to deploy the violence that’s necessary to impose their will, but then what?”
The military would be left presiding over a country with deep, multiple crises, he said, with far less domestic or international support.
Min Aung Hlaing appeared to have thought protests would be more easily suppressed, and that he could win support from people frustrated with the leadership of Aung San Suu Kyi, who came to power in the 2015 elections, the first free vote in decades.
Both assumptions have so far proved wrong.
“I think the state administration council [the junta] probably calculated that there would be demonstrations, but they probably underestimated how sustained and creative these would be,” said Moe Thuzar, co-coordinator of the Myanmar studies program at the ISEAS-Yusof Ishak Institute in Singapore.
They also underestimated the potential effect of the protesters’ civil disobedience movement, she said, in which huge numbers of people have walked out of their jobs, paralyzing the country.
Faced with such widespread opposition, the junta is resorting to an authoritarian playbook of the past.
The military’s brutal use of violence means far fewer people are now protesting.
However, many are still refusing to go to work, increasingly because they are too afraid to do so when the military is out on the streets.
Min Aung Hlaing took over as commander-in-chief in 2011 as Myanmar began its transition to democracy under a constitution that granted the military significant powers. He was due to retire soon, and it was widely known he aspired to be president, a position Aung San Suu Kyi’s National League for Democracy (NLD) refused to grant him.
In a TV interview with Russia Today in June last year, a presenter praised his leadership qualities before adding that she hoped he would “be able to perform duties with higher authorities in the interest of the country, the world and world peace.”
“I always have such desires,” he said.
When the military’s proxy party was humiliatingly trounced in elections in November, and it became clear that Min Aung Hlaing’s ambitions would not be realized at the ballot box, the military accused the NLD, without evidence, of election fraud — claims it used to justify the coup.
Min Aung Hlaing’s relationship with Aung San Suu Kyi was strained, and there was reportedly almost no face-to-face communication, with both apparently fearing what the other was plotting.
Analysts believe there was anger over what the generals considered Aung San Suu Kyi’s arrogant refusal to consider their concerns regarding last year’s election, which only added to the military’s fear that they had become sidelined since agreeing to share power.
The military had actually retained huge powers, including autonomy over defense, and received a greater share of the national budget than health and education combined, as well as retaining its lucrative business networks.
Since the coup, some western governments have tried to target the army’s financial interests to pressure the regime to act with restraint — although the strike movement is inflicting far greater damage than potential sanctions could hope to do.
Thuzar said the number of people participating varies across ministries, but in the Burmese Ministry of Natural Resources and Environmental Conservation, 56 percent are refusing to work, according to one estimate.
“Even if only half the people in customs at a border trade post, the people who are supposed to process goods coming in, are participating, that slows things down. It affects the supply chain,” she said.
One of the most brutal crackdown on protesters was against shipyard workers who had refused to work, apparently bringing trade to a standstill.
“The current situation is testing the unity of the military in a way it has probably never been tested before,” Horsey said.
There is no indication that generals might turn against Min Aung Hlaing, although splits are not impossible.
Most analysts say that the military is so opaque that there is no way of knowing if there is disunity.
“The only thing that is predictable is that the military does have the power to increase the violence and try to stamp this out, but at what cost?” said David Mathieson, an independent Myanmar analyst.
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