In Sudan and Myanmar, appeals to soldiers’ conscience

The civilian uprisings against each country’s military coups rely on persuading foot soldiers not to shoot.

Sudanese soldiers are greeted by civilians in Khartoum in June, 2019, after the ouster of the autocrat Omar al-Bashir.

Second time’s a charm?

That’s the hope of pro-democracy activists in Sudan who are planning a “million-person march” Oct. 30, five days after the military ousted a civilian government. Their reason is that mass protests worked in 2019 when enough soldiers, facing off against crowds of peaceful demonstrators, refused to shoot their fellow citizens. The top brass, fearing widespread defections, abandoned a long-term dictator, Omar al-Bashir, and set up a transitional regime.

Now the military has again taken full power, touching off a new contest for the hearts and minds of the rank and file. As in many countries during a civil conflict, often the winners are those who make the best appeal to the conscience of frontline soldiers, rather than to their fears, then bullets lose out to basic principles.

A similar contest is now playing out in Myanmar. A military coup in February against the elected government of Aung San Suu Kyi has led to protests as well as rebellion among the majority Burmese population. Two previous uprisings, in 1988 and 2007, had forced the military to create a partial democracy, in part because many soldiers were reluctant to kill civilians.

This time, pro-democracy activists claim their tactics of converting soldiers to their civic cause – or at least convincing the soldiers not to shoot – might force the large Myanmar army to collapse from within. That seems a stretch as the military has long bought the loyalty of soldiers with a narrative of superiority over civilian society or, if that fails, with money or a fear of retribution for defection.

Still, a group of defectors called the People’s Embrace claims about 1,500 military personnel and more than 1,000 police officers have defected since the coup. The group works quietly with the families of soldiers to persuade them of a safe exit from the army. With the country’s economy in a free fall, the military, known as Tatmadaw, may not be able to continue buying the loyalty of soldiers.

”The Tatmadaw is unlikely to disintegrate anytime soon, but threats to its strength and unity are growing and look likely to continue to intensify,” writes Nyi Nyi Kyaw, a scholar at Germany’s Institute for Advanced Study in the Humanities, in the East Asian Forum.

Democratic revolutions often succeed when civilian activists imbue soldiers with the moral norms of democracy – such as civilian rule over armed forces – as well as the international norm of protecting innocent life in a conflict. To a large degree, the conflicts in Sudan and Myanmar are battles for the hearts of those with guns. Either by mass protest or quiet appeals, the battle can be won peacefully.

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