Bringing Myanmar back from the abyss

Myanmar’s military junta has ditched any effort to put a benign face on the coup it enacted on 1 February. It originally announced a state of emergency with a view to preparing Myanmar for new elections to supersede the November 2020 polls, which it claims were fraudulent. The generals painted their seizure of power as a temporary detour away from the political reform process they had overseen since 2010. 

That ‘constitutional fig leaf’, as Melissa Crouch called it, has been replaced with images of soldiers firing live rounds into the crowds of anti-coup protesters. It’s estimated that over 200 people have already been killed, and there’s no sign that the violence will abate soon.

Myanmar’s neighbours, its fellow ASEAN members, and the international community are worried — some out of genuine horror at the military’s brutality, and all because they understand that the consequences of Myanmar’s socio-political dysfunction are liable to extend across its borders.

Thailand is preparing for an influx of refugees across its long and porous border with Myanmar, which has been a source of refugees and irregular migrants for decades. Thailand must be supported to help those fleeing violence; at the same time, it has a legitimate interest in controlling the flow of Myanmar nationals into its territory amid the COVID-19 pandemic. India is to a lesser extent likely to see a flow of refugeesfrom Myanmar.

A man looks at smoke believed to be from a factory fire during the security force crackdown on anti-coup protesters at Hlaingthaya, in Yangon, Myanmar, 14 March 2021 (Photo: Reuters/Stringer).

On the streets of Myanmar’s cities a ‘wave of anti-Chinese resentment’ has crested with attacks on Chinese-owned assets by protesters, who see Beijing as a friend of the junta. Seeing China as a passive beneficiary let alone an active supporter of the coup is simplistic, as Enze Han wrote here at the Forum in February. Yet in a crisis perceptions sometimes dominate reality, and China ‘faces a dilemma: back the men with guns or side with an increasingly anti-China public’.

Faced with that unwelcome dilemma, China has aligned with other international stakeholders and encouraged ASEAN to take the lead in forcing a negotiated resolution to the crisis.

ASEAN’s rhetorical commitment to ‘non-interference’ in its members’ internal affairs doesn’t sit well with the reality that Myanmar’s ‘internal’ affairs are often nothing of the sort. But as Kavi Chongkittavorn writes in our lead article this week, behind the scenes ASEAN is working towards a collective response that brings the quiet force and unanimity that is needed to influence the junta’s behaviour.

The junta has probably only increased ASEAN’s resolve by reacting so violently to protests. ASEAN can abide dictatorship, and shrug at domestic conflicts it considers intractable, but the gratuitous, destabilising nature of the coup and subsequent bloodshed is an embarrassment. Encouraged by the signs that ASEAN doesn’t intend to let the junta off the hook for blowing up Myanmar’s reform process, ASEAN’s dialogue partners — which include China, Japan, India and South Korea as well as the United States — are wisely giving the group the space to do its work.

Direct negotiations between the ousted National League for Democracy (NLD) party and the junta aren’t realistic at this point, Kavi writes. A better starting point would be an informal, ‘track two’ dialogue between representatives of the concerned parties, with the inclusion of ‘the United Nations, ASEAN and key international dialogue partners’ as facilitators and mediators. ‘Such a meeting would provide the opportunity to develop an action plan and create a conducive atmosphere for conflicting parties to negotiate. It would need to have no fixed agenda’ in order to make progress.

Ultimately, though, international partners can only respond to, not determine, the facts on the ground in Myanmar. These will be decided by the shifting balance of political power between the junta leadership, protesters, ethnic groups — and, potentially, factions of the state that may split from junta hardliners if the crisis drags on.

The scale and tenacity of popular opposition to the junta has been remarkable. For that reason, argues Nicola Williams, the failure of its coup and a return to civilian government, with a politically weakened military, shouldn’t be discounted. At the same time, the ruthlessness of the military’s attempts to repress protests means that a return to indefinite military dictatorship is also plausible. Between these two points there is a range of possible outcomes, including that Myanmar emerges from formal military rule and holds elections engineered to hobble the NLD and boost the military’s proxy party and its allies.

If the generals think this last strategy is tempting, they need to cast their eyes across the border to Thailand. There, the military has used the cover of a coup to craft institutions intended to deliver a veneer of legitimacy to a post-coup civilian government under its control. Needless to say, this has not been a recipe for sound governance, political legitimacy or long-term social stability.

Author: Editorial Board, ANU – EAST ASIA FORUM

*The EAF Editorial Board is located in the Crawford School of Public Policy, College of Asia and the Pacific, The Australian National University.

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