The recent military coup in Myanmar brought looming contradictions in the country’s transition into sharp focus. It has also revealed the international short-term approach to an ingrained politico-military conflict over decades. Western observers have had a romantic and limited perception of Myanmar, which means little to average Europeans aside from being an exotic new tourist destination. Democracy still needs to take root in Myanmar and requires long-term solid commitment. While civilian rule has been suspended, it is possible that the coup will turn out to be brief and might follow the Thailand paradigm of bloodless intervention under a more assertive and organized civil society. A new cycle of violence is not a foregone conclusion. Myanmar has reached its most acute constitutional crisis since the abolition of the old junta in 2010 and the last coup in 1988.
Key partner actions should therefore include joining forces and diplomacy with Myanmar leaders to resuscitate political dialogue that had lost steam since 2019. ASEAN and EU have a meaningful role to play in inter-regional trilateral cooperation to avoid pushing Myanmar deeper into the arms of China which has significant economic and strategic interests in the country. B2B relations and knowledge sharing should also be scaled up through business and academic associations, instead of taking reflex action to impose wider sanctions. During the global COVID-19 response, additional entry points can be created to capitalize on local success in Myanmar’s resilience against the virus. Moving military assets in this direction can help promote reforms. This is urgently needed to put the country on a more solid democratic path to tackle global challenges, including migrations and climate change.
Current Dynamics- Myanmar Actors and International Response
The 1 February military coup in Myanmar and subsequent arrests among senior civilian leaders of the National League for Democracy (NLD) including Aung San Suu Kyi did not come as a complete surprise. After the military- affiliated USDP Party voiced misgivings since November 2020, the military leadership warned of a possible coup in late January. Crisis talks with NLD and the military on 28 January were not successful. At the core were unsubstantiated election fraud allegations just before the newly elected parliament was convened. NLD increased its majority compared to the 2015 election results.
For the Myanmar military with guaranteed 25% of seats in parliament, three senior cabinet positions and one vice presidency under the constitutional arrangement since 2008, there was much at stake. Myanmar’s military- industrial and trading complex is vast and protecting their investments had become urgent, in view of a possible redrawing of the constitution. Abolishing privileges for the military might expose them to international prosecution after retirement. The military established a one-year state of emergency in preparation for a re-run of the last elections. Internet services were ordered to close Facebook and other online messaging up until last weekend. Yangon International Airport was closed for a day until regional flights resumed.
Commander-in-Chief of Myanmar’s armed forces Senior General Min Aung Hlaing became the facto national leader; he has a reputation for problem solving and experts assess he has no intention to curb Myanmar’s economic progress. Most of the new cabinet members are in fact civil servants and not military leaders as in the 1980s (Myanmar Confronts New Uncertainties, China Daily, Global Weekly Edition 5-11 February 2021).Civil society in Myanmar was stunned by the coup which has remained bloodless. After early local discontent, mass demonstrations followed over the weekend and on Monday 5 February in Yangon, the capital of Naypyidaw and other urban centers. However, mostof the detained regional and state ministers were released by 5 February.
International response was swift, and the EU as well as western capitals issued declarations against the coup. Despite internal wrangling and objections from China, the UN Security Council was relatively quick in pronouncing itself on Myanmar. China stressed that the international community should “create a sound external environment for Myanmar to properly resolve the differences.” The Council’s 4 February media statement called for respect of democratic principles and avoiding violence as well as releasing the detainees. so the constitutional order could be restored. Yet the Council avoided a condemnation of the coup and instead demanded that the constitutional order should be respected. Myanmar’s former colonial power (the UK) presided over the Security Council session. UN SG Guterres was frank in denouncing the coup as “absolutely unacceptable” and noting all firm intention to reverse the coup.
The US led international reactions threatening possible sanctions and blocking direct assistance to the government on 3 February, which was a notable policy departure from the Trump Administration. President Biden highlighted the Myanmar coup in his first major foreign policy speech at the U.S. State Department on 4 February, promising to hold the military accountable.
Democratic Pause or Rollback of Reforms?
Examining the country’s trajectory since the ground-breaking 2011 elections and opening from the military dictatorship holds clues for further evolution of the coup. International actors face a dilemma: strong opposition to the coup might drive the military and protestors into a spiral of violence which has potential for another repression like the “Saffron Revolution” in 2007 where thousands of lives were lost. Analysts based in the region see Myanmar backsliding several decades and gains in democratic transition erased.
Despite economic engagement and foreign investments over the last decade, Myanmar has suffered from contradictions and incomplete democratization. Commentators see the coup as confirmation that the 2008 power sharing deal between civilians and the military was never very solid. The legacy of 50 years in political roles for the armed forces- beginning with Aung San Suu Kyi herself as daughter of the independence leader general who was assassinated in 1948- shows that civilian- military relations are complex and still evolving. Therefore dialogue among the political contenders is highly valuable, which requires significant investments and patience.
The two greatest recent challenges for reigning in military power were evident in the violent campaigns against ethnic minorities. First, military anti-terror sweeps in northern Rakhine State against Muslim stateless residents (described as “Rohingya” and anathema to the Myanmar Bamar ruling class) led to a huge population exodus in 2016/2017across the border into Bangladesh. Myanmar was facing international court action on allegations of genocide, which saw Aung San Suu Kyi standing in defense of the authorities at the International Court of Justice. While some steps were taken to try to enable returns and reintegration, those processes remained largely untested.
Second, the fragile peace talks with armed ethnic militias in several states of Myanmar started to fizzle out in 2018/2019.Rebels adopted more mobile tactics to confront the military in known hotspots but also in Rakhine, causing frustrated in the armed forces. The Myanmar Peace Center, established in 2013 with support from the Norway-led Peace Support Donor Group, closed after three years. Its secretariat services were formally incorporated into a National Reconciliation and Peace Center (NRPC) while innovative dialogues received less attention. Official claims from the military that most rebel groups were pacified and cooperating rang increasingly hollow. These were ominous signs that the military was asserting itself as in previous decades. After the coup,return to open warfare with ethnic rebel movements is seen as one of the greatest possible aftershocks of the coup. In both developments, the military was not pushed to undergo deeper reforms and civilian oversight, or use military justice effectively against human rights violators, with few exceptions. This illustrated the pervasive challenges in maintaining inclusive political dialogue. Western actors mistakenly believed that professional military training and capacity building could align the military more with civilian rule.
Thailand Paradigm and Geopolitical Weight of China
In neighboring Thailand, which hosts many refugees from neighboring Myanmar in camps, military intervention has a long tradition in supporting the monarchy against civilian rule. Demands for constitutional monarchy from a grass-roots movement led by young activists are a new phenomenon. Regional reactions to the coup in Myanmar were muted, with the notable exception of Singapore and Malaysia as well as Indonesia. The combination of conservative political rule with relative economic liberalism and unified national trends seen in Thailand is an appealing model for the transition in Myanmar. It could help moderate the military behavior after Myanmar’s coup.It is assessed that Myanmar’s main economic partners will most likely adopt a “wait and see” approach before they start to reach out again and deal with the junta-led government.
China’s Yunnan province borders Myanmar where Chin State has been one of the more recent flashpoints in rebel activity. The area is critically important for China’s designs in bringing Myanmar into the ambit of the transcontinental Belt and Road Initiative (BRI), through a China-Myanmar Economic Corridor (CMEC). This plan features a high-speed train link from China to the Indian Ocean, alongside gas projects/pipeline installations in coastal areas of Rakhine State. China has also pursued
a mega-hydro project (Myitsone north of Myitkyina) which was stalled in 2011 over environmental concerns. In addition, Chinese investors have snapped up a lot of land and real estate in the Yangon area, despite a prohibition on sales to foreign buyers.
China’s President Xi Yiping undertook a milestone visit to Myanmar in January 2020, where he signed 33 agreements and MoUs. The strategic value of Myanmar in these schemes was recently underscored by the visit of China’s Foreign Minister Wang Yi in mid-January 2021- the highest ranking foreign official to arrive since November’s election. In military cooperation, China has taken a low-key approach with Myanmar. Some observers believe that the opening in 2011 provided just enough breathing space for Myanmar’s military to avoid over-dependency on China in the defense sector. India as Myanmar’s northwestern neighbor hosts refugees from the Christian Chin minority and a crackdown might prompt a larger influx of arrivals from Myanmar.
Role of ASEAN and EU: Joining Forces and Preparing for Global Challenges
Myanmar chaired the ASEAN regional group of states in Southeast Asia as a founding member in 2013, after having to abandon this role in 2007, due to peer pressure from ASEAN. Yet ASEAN had avoided a confrontational approach over the forced displacement from Rakhine State; the consensus principle in ASEAN prevents strong common positioning, putting regional cohesion as a top priority. There is no punitive, sanctions-based mechanism as in ECOWAS for West African States, despite an obligation to respect the ASEAN Charter. Accordingly, the current ASEAN chair Brunei appealed to respect ASEAN’s principles of rule of law, democracy and human rights. ASEAN encouraged “the pursuance of dialogue, reconciliation and the return to normalcy in accordance with the will and interests of the people of Myanmar” (ASEAN Statement of 1 February 2020).
What has been missing is the joint thematic dialogue and support to Myanmar through ASEAN and the EU. Lady Catherine Ashton, the first EU High Representative for Foreign Affairs, had a significant role as EU Envoy for Myanmar. A well-resourced European Chamber of Commerce (EuroCham) was opened in Yangon in 2014 to serve as a voice of European businesses in Myanmar. The EU was in fact one of the first actors to respond to the country’s political opening, suspending in April 2012 its restrictive measures except for the arms embargo.
Since Myanmar is vulnerable to climate change, especially in the coastal regions and the large Irrawaddy Delta, collective expertise for humanitarian disaster preparedness, relief and prevention of natural hazards is an entry point for dialogue. The experience of the devastating Cyclone Nargis in May 2008 has left deep scars in the country and productive areas. Therefore making Myanmar fit for withstanding even greater climatic change and extreme weather events in the future is a shared interest for the country’s leadership. Expertise in navigating politically complex situations exists in ASEAN where non-traditional security threats are systematically studied at a dedicated institute in the RSIS School of Singapore.
Greater connectivity and access to innovation is possible with business partners from Europe where the “Green Deal” has heralded a re-tooling of many industries to exit faster from the economic slump caused by the Pandemic to realize ambitious emissions targets by 2030. Myanmar has already shown initiative in flattening the curve of COVID-19 infections from late 2020 into early 2021, due to concerted local sensitization campaigns, e.g. in the “Paung Sie” Facility joint partnership with 50 civil society partners (see: Paung Sie Facility Leaflet, October 2020), and through immigration controls. Similar resourcefulness can promote larger modernization, digitalization and green infrastructure schemes. The NLD already had a response and recovery plan to deal with medium and long-term challenges of the Pandemic, providing some common ground in conciliation with the military.
Myanmar’s Geopolitical and Global Pivot
While the global US- China relations are undergoing a rebalancing, Myanmar offers a convenient middle ground for the global powers to work with the middle powers and regional alliances such as EU and ASEAN. It should not be forgotten that an open, fully fledged democratic Myanmar next door to China will remain a thorn in the side for China, even though the emerging superpower is projecting itself elsewhere into the ASEAN and global arena.
In this wider perspective, the reactions to the military coup in Myanmar will be decisive for shaping the future diplomatic and geo-economic playing field. With foresight and a dose of realism, the recent events can still be turned into an advantage, requiring a substantial increase in inter-regional joint dialogue as well as support to domestic peace and reconciliation efforts in Myanmar. EU and ASEAN but also the UN should scale up the information flow on situational awareness and wield sanctions tools judiciously. There is a risk that more punitive approaches could drive Myanmar deeper into the Chinese sphere of influence once again.