Saving Myanmar

April 14, 2021 08:32
Photo: Reuters

The situation in Myanmar is beyond dire. Hundreds of casualties, thousands of arrests, internet and wifi connections intermittent at best, and there is a palpable and real fear that the country is sliding into economic Armageddon. Yet saving Myanmar will take more than merely slogans, empty humanitarian rhetoric, or gestures-driven politicking that eschews actual efficacy in favour of feel-good, congratulatory posturing (for more on the situation, check out Sebastian Strangio, Bilahari Kausikan, Thompson Chau etc. – amongst others – who have written extensively on the events unfolding in the country).

There are three critical tenets that must be established clearly, in order to facilitate a clearer and more clear-headed assessment of the status quo.

Firstly, the Tatmadaw is not gaining the upper hand – and this is also precisely amongst the primary reasons for which it is escalating in its violence. Local armies and ethnic minority rebels, such as the KIA (Kachin Independence Army) and Shan insurgency groups, have become increasingly prominent in the civil society-led efforts to overthrow the military regime. Civil disobedience and mass strikes have also thrown a huge spanner in the works for the Tatmadaw, who had originally envisioned the dying-down of the protests as they assumed control through brute force. What was less apparent to them, perhaps, was that the level of brute force was by no means sufficient – if at all – in overcoming the valour and defiance of the Burmese people, who have taken matters into their own hands through initiating direct and indirect actions that struck at the heart of the military’s economic interests, e.g. their factories and the tax collection system. The Tatmadaw is not winning clearly, and it is hence getting desperate, as evidenced by its openly seeking to court the West through measures such as opening the country up for “CNN investigation and reporting” under carefully managed circumstances, and lobbying via the infamous intermediary lobbyist Ari Ben-Menashe.

Secondly, the coup is not in China’s interests. China has few reasons to prefer the more virulently Sinophobic, capricious, and duplicitous military regime, over the increasingly (over recent years) pro-China National League for Democracy (NLD) under Aung San Suu Kyi. As aforediscussed, it is in China’s interests to back the civilian-led civil disobedience movement, perhaps not directly in the form of funding and arming them, but instead in the form of indirect mediation with an emphasis upon incorporating civilian voices into its brokering of peace. If anything, the recent spike in targeted violence aimed at Chinese firms, as well as the precipitously antagonistic rhetoric directed towards China by both the Tatmadaw and Myanmar’s public alike, should pose as sufficient causes for concern for Chinese businesses and investors seeking to preserve their economic interests in the region. More generally, the regional instability and turmoil in Myanmar would not do China any good when it comes to the Belt and Road Initiative, given the strategic value of Myanmar’s ports and train routes as a crucial nexus in the sprawling network of Southeast Asia-China trade and transport corridors.

Thirdly, there is, realistically, little that can be done directly by Europe or ASEAN alone – without some degree of concerted coordination involving China, Japan, alongside these two super-national blocs. The reasoning is simple: even if ASEAN and the EU alike were to implement sanctions against senior leaders within the Tatmadaw, such prohibitive measures would only be successful were the military to have nowhere else to turn to for solace or support. Yet it is apparent that given their being thus deeply embedded within trade and capital networks involving China and Japan, the Burmese military leaders are unlikely to find economic blockades or “cordon sanitaire” an effective (dis)incentive that nudges them to come to the table. Only if China and Japan could set aside their partisan differences in adopting a more consistent, cogent stance on Myanmar – could there be a potential exit path out of the current deadlock.

The elephant in the room hence is, of course, what can we do to save Myanmar? Blindly and unreservedly cutting off ties with the military may contribute towards the feelgood activism that comprises our zeitgeist these days – yet would be equally counterproductive when it comes to securing actual concessions from the military. Engagement – albeit conditional and limited – must be preserved, in order to keep communication channels open and flowing.

More importantly, however, it behooves China to lay down its baselines in the country – but with two specific objectives in mind. The first is to ensure that the Tatmadaw comes to share and align with China’s interests of restoring genuine – not cursory or tentative – stability to the region; this, of course, cannot be accomplished through repressive, draconian, and vastly unpopular militant measures. The second is to offer the Tatmadaw a helpful ‘exit option’, one that ensures that it can continually hold onto power at large within the country, though they must accept, here, the re-introduction of democratic elections to the country.

Some could well argue that the events unfolding earlier this year have attested to the fact that the ’08 Constitution – which granted the military sizeable formal powers within the legislature – was a mistake. Yet the benefit of hindsight is both deceptive and disingenuous: it would indeed be tempting but justificatorily ludicrous, in my opinion, to portray the ’08 Constitution and the consequent reserved legislative-cum-political quotas for the military, as the culprit behind the past months of events. It would have been far less likely for Myanmar to have undergone any democratisation at all in the first place, had it not been for the politically unpalatable (perhaps) yet consequentially necessary ‘Devil’s Bargain’ that Aung San had made at the top of the process.

In any case, saving Myanmar requires more than ‘feeling good’ or paying lip service. It requires all parties to work cohesively (nigh-impossible?) in bringing relevant stakeholders in Myanmar back to the drawing and discussion table. Only then, could there be a possible end in sight for the country.

-- Contact us at [email protected]

Assistant Professor, HKU