International coordination necessary in Myanmar’s crisis

Published on March 11, 2021

By Dr. Nehginpao Kipgen and Prasanna Kumar

The Korea Times – March 11, 2021

The Feb. 1 coup ended Myanmar’s brief stint with nascent democracy. The response to the coup in the form of mass protests and a civil disobedience movement has posed a serious challenge to the junta.

Hundreds of thousands of people belonging to different ethnic groups have come together under a single agenda of opposing military dictatorship. However, the military in Myanmar is known for its brutality and insensitivity toward public opinion; no wonder it has not shown any sign of remorse for its illegal actions.

Thus far, more than 50 people have lost their lives due to gunfire by the security forces, and on March 3, at least 38 people were killed, the highest death toll in a single day since mass protests began.

The international response in the form of targeted sanctions and diplomatic pressure are not enough to discourage the morale of Min Aung Hlaing, the senior general who led the coup.

For instance, in response to U.N. special envoy on Myanmar Christine Schraner Burgener’s warning of increased sanctions and global isolation, Myanmar’s deputy military chief Soe Win said, “We are used to sanctions, and we survived. We have to learn to walk with only few friends.”

Under such a scenario, the role of the international community becomes necessary to ease the tensions. Though the U.N. Security Council has expressed concern over the situation, any action beyond statements, including actions under Chapter VII of the U.N. Charter, is unlikely given China’s veto assurance to the junta.

Perhaps this is the biggest advantage to the military generals sitting in Naypyitaw, although no country (including China) wants a military dictatorship in Myanmar. Certainly, there is a lack of overlapping interests among the international community.

For the U.S. and its Western allies, it is democracy that matters. And for China, it is economic interests and denial of any strategic space to the West in Myanmar. India sees it important to have a friendly regime – either civilian or military – not to lose complete strategic space and also to safeguard its “Act East” ambitions.

Japan finds it vital to safeguard its huge strategic investments. Similarly, the regional bloc ASEAN is showing a divided house. While Indonesia, Malaysia, the Philippines and Singapore are vocal in their criticism of the coup, other members such as Thailand and Vietnam are still reluctant about direct intervention on the issue.

Despite all these, what is important is that the current political crisis in Myanmar should not be seen in isolation, rather in the broader context that includes the political history and socioeconomic aspects of the country. Myanmar has gone through more than seven decades of armed conflict, in which the military ruled with absolute control for almost five decades. The ethnic divisions are sharp and even today government institutions have little control over some parts of the country.

Although no ethnic armed organization demands secession, perhaps the shadow of the disintegration of the former Yugoslavia in the early 1990s haunts the military generals in Naypyitaw. Right from the early days of its independence from the British, ethnic tensions have prevailed in Myanmar’s society.

Complicating the situation, close to a million Rohingyas have taken refuge in Bangladesh and other neighboring countries, and many more are internally displaced. The country’s economy has become fragile especially amid the COVID-19 pandemic, with many losing their jobs and struggling for even basic needs, such as food and shelter.

Given the intransigent nature of the military amid escalating protests, if the international community remains a divided house on the issue then the situation can potentially lead to the first major humanitarian crisis in the post-COVID-era, at least for the region.

The very first thing the international community can do is coordinate among major external players. So, discussions at the international level must move beyond the return of democracy and include elements such as spillover effects of instability to find a common ground on the issue.

For instance, China does not care much about democracy but it cannot afford to see continued violence in Myanmar which could jeopardize its economic interests as well as spillover effects in border areas.

On the other hand, the U.S. does not have much economic stake but pushing the agenda of democracy and human rights too much could result in losing strategic space to China completely and this would adversely impact its Indo-Pacific strategy.

There is no doubt that achieving peace and stability in Myanmar is in every major international player’s interest. Thus, it is important to work toward achieving a common minimum program that involves peace, stability and restoration of democracy.

The fact is that the military generals in Myanmar have become so used to power that any attempt to completely sideline them in Naypyitaw’s power equations may not yield the desired outcome, at least for now. So, it is important to make them part of the solution to begin the process toward bringing constitutional reforms in the future.

It appears that the junta began with a plan to divide and conquer to try to win over the support of some sections of society immediately after the coup. For instance, the junta accommodated some leaders from ethnic minority groups and political parties in its newly formed State Administrative Council. The junta has also released many Rakhine political prisoners, along with others.

But the increasing intensity of mass protests and the rising death toll have foiled the earlier plans. The military generals do not want or cannot afford to be on the negative side of public opinion indefinitely. Added to this, economic sanctions and the exit of investments by some multinational companies will batter the already fragile economy.

The junta may find it hard to maintain the administrative expenses in the coming months. Amid economic crisis, if protests continue for an extended period, it will no doubt bring heavy pressure on the junta.

This may force the military leaders to think about a face-saving exit and it is here that the international community must become active by paving a way for opportunity to blossom by striking a balance between rival groups and pitching for a viable negotiated solution.

ASEAN and Japan have a bigger role to play in this as they are considered to be neutral and acceptable by both the junta and civil society groups, unlike the U.S. and China. On March 4, U.S. State Department spokesman Ned Price called for China to constructively use its influence in Myanmar to help restore the civilian government. This was an indication of some improvement in streamlining the global efforts to end the stalemate, although Beijing’s response to the call has yet to come.

Finally, the end of the coup will not mean the end of uncertainty in Myanmar. The ethnic divisions and trust deficit between the Bama/Burman majority and ethnic minorities will still linger. Thus, the real solution to the conundrum must be an organic and indigenous one coming from within Myanmar, although the international community can act as a necessary cushion in easing the process.

Dr. Nehginpao Kipgen is a political scientist, associate professor and executive director at the Center for Southeast Asian Studies, Jindal School of International Affairs (JSIA), O.P. Jindal Global University. Prasanna Kumar is a doctoral research scholar at JSIA.

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