THE BIG PICTURE: Myanmar military and international community on collision course following coup

On February 1, 2021, in response to the military (Tatmadaw) takeover of the Burmese government and the detention of political leaders, including State Counsellor Aung San Suu Kyi, and President Win Myint, President Joseph R. Biden Jr. issued a statement denouncing the coup in Myanmar and urging the “international community to come together” to “support the restoration of democracy and the rule of law, as well as to hold accountable those responsible for overturning Burma’s democratic transition”.

Although Aung San Suu Kyi’s National League for Democracy (NLD) party boycotted the 2010 elections – Thein Stein, a former general and leader of the Union Solidarity and Development Party (USDP), would rule until 2016 – the Burmese government began a cautious transition to democracy in 2011. After “a long period of economic stagnation following a 1962 military takeover,” the government was also wary of Chinese influence. The regime’s “credibility” further deteriorated after its “woeful response to Cyclone Nargis” in 2008.

A shift towards democracy may have been one reason that “prompted the U.S. and European Union to lift sanctions.” Another is that for the West, Myanmar is strategically important: “as the sole land bridge between two regional giants – India and China – Myanmar has the potential to tap into global supply chains at a time when western businesses are more wary of Beijing,” Bloomberg reported.

Aung San Suu Kyi 
Aung San Suu Kyi

Following her election to the legislature, or Hluttaw, in the 2012 by-elections, Aung San Suu Kyi would be elected president in 2015; the NLD would win “a majority in both houses of parliament”. Then in November 2020, the NLD won “83% of the elected seats” while “the “USDP got just 7%” – now “even with the military’s constitutionally allocated 25 percent of parliamentary seats, Aung San Suu Kyi was getting perilously close to having the three-quarters of total seats needed to seek a referendum to amend the constitution and strip it of provisions that enshrine the military’s political role.” (The Diplomat).

Echoing U.S. presidential baseless election fraud claims, there were repeated allegations of electoral fraud, which the Burmese electoral commission denied. On January 28, 2021, the “army demanded that the new session of parliament…be delayed while a nationwide recount of the vote took place.” Following the government’s refusal and a weekend meeting of parliamentarians in Naypyidaw, the nation’s capital, the military placed “hundreds of politicians from the [NLD]…under house arrest,” as well as “rounded up chief ministers from all the country’s 14 states” and a number of civil society members (The Economist).  

On January 31, the Myanmar military also declared a state of emergency, justifying its decision based on unfounded claims of “terrible fraud” in the November elections. The 2008 constitution gives the military the power to assume control of the government during a state of emergency.

On Monday, February 8, “Myanmar declared martial law in its biggest cities…following a third day of anti-coup demonstrations, imposing an overnight curfew and banning gatherings of more than five people, ” Bloomberg reported. The regime, which has “curtailed freedom of expression on social media, repeatedly cut off phone and internet connections,” has also used “a water cannon on crowds and issu[ed] the threat of using live ammunition”.

The military coup has set off what are considered to be the largest protests in Myanmar since 2007 and by some accounts “the largest protests in a generation”. People across all walks of life have joined protests or engaged in the nightly “bang[ing] of pots and pans” – the entire staff at the “Ministry of Welfare” has apparently resigned as well.

Despite fears that the army will use violence to crackdown similar to 1988 – the 8888 Uprising and 2007 – the Saffron Revolution, the fact that “Young people, in particular, are more educated, organized and connected than…in 2007,” and some people, including an activist who said he would “take up arms” if non-violent means fail, the effect of military threats and actions to discourage protests remains uncertain. However, two people have reportedly been “shot with what seems to have been live ammunition; one, Mya Thwe Thwe Khine, is on life support”.

The International Community Responds

On Wednesday, February 10, President Biden announced new sanctions “freezing Myanmar assets in the United States and imposing sanctions against “military leaders and close family members” including “the $1 billion fund held in the United States” as well as “export controls”. These measures notwithstanding, President Biden also said the U.S. would be “maintaining our support for healthcare, civil society groups…that benefit the people of Burma directly”. Today, he issued an Executive Order “blocking property” and “suspend[ing] entry into the United States of any noncitizen determined to meet one or more of the above criteria”.

The UN Security Council, February 4, issued a statement, opposing the coup and included additional language on addressing “the crisis in Rakhine State” – a reference to the violence perpetrated against the Rohingya and the forcing of roughly 700,000 (more than 80% of the state’s population) to flee to neighboring Bangladesh since 2017 – and protecting the “sovereignty,” “territorial integrity,” and “unity of Myanmar”.

Regarding the Rohingya situation, a 2018 Amnesty International report has called for cases against Myanmar’s “military Commander-in Chief, Senior General Min Aung Hlaing, and 12 other named individuals” to be referred to the International Criminal Court (ICC). Although it does not have jurisdiction in Myanmar, the ICC opened an investigation that “will focus on [human rights] violations committed in part on Bangladeshi territory” in November 2019 (Bangladesh is a State party to the Rome Statute). The Gambia, a West African nation and 95% Muslim, had previously taken legal action through the International Court of Justice (ICJ).

On Friday, February 12, The Human Rights Council, a UN body, will hold a special session on ‘the human rights implications of the crisis in Myanmar’ after the U.K. and EU issued a joint request for which “45 States” support.

Despite these swift international responses, the central question that remains is this: what impact could the U.S. and the greater international community expect to have, or would be willing to have, on overturning the coup in Myanmar and how might the situation eventually play out?

To start, the responses to the imposition of U.S. sanctions have been mixed. Van Tran, Ph.D., in the Southeast Asia Insights forum at the Brookings Institution, wrote that the “use of sanctions has not and likely won’t propel Myanmar’s military dictators toward democracy. Instead, it has been ordinary people whole fall victim to their economic impact”. Not only could sanctions fail to influence the military, Dr, Tran writes, they “will only diminish its [The West’s] importance and create a vacuum to be filled by Myanmar’s willing economic partners”.  Skepticism of “a policy of isolation” could even come from a member of President Biden’s own National Security Council: “Kurt Campbell, who…will argue that engagement with Myanmar is the only hope of getting the democratic process back on track” (The Economist).In a different article about Myanmar, The Economist wrote that the “sanctions on coup leaders is another blow to the generals,”suggesting these new sanctions could have an impact.

In addition to the risks posed by sanctions, there is also evidence that a unified international response is faltering: the British, in a “confidential U.K. foreign office assessment,” described the “military coup in Myanmar as having “gone past the point of no return,” which Bloomberg stated was “a sign that major democracies have a limited ability to influence the events unfolding inside [Myanmar]”.

China, although tacitly in favor of the UN Security Council message has called itself a “friendly neighbor” to Myanmar – meaning to its government – and its state media described the coup “as no more than a major cabinet reshuffle”. As part of its Belt and Road Initiative, and more specifically its “China-Myanmar Economic Corridor,” China has invested heavily in Burmese infrastructure projects. China has become Myanmar’s “most important trading partner” after its campaign of violence against the Rohingya saw the decline in foreign investment that had been rising since 2015. Protesters, however, have appealed to President Xi Jinping directly to withdraw its support for the Burmese “junta”.

How does the Burmese junta see things?

Even with the NLD ever closer to the ability to change the constitution, it is not clear why the military felt so threated. The constitution grants nominal powers to civilians, but it gives the military authority over “state security” and “an effective veto over all constitutional change”. Perhaps the culprit is General Min Aung Hlaing himself. The Economist noted that he had been “due to retire from the armed services this coming July and appears to have harbored hopes of becoming president”. In addition to his own ambitions, it seems he misjudged the support for Aung San Suu Kyi and the NLD in the November election.

In their assessments of the Tatmadaw regime’s behavior, some commenters have suggested the General will follow the “playbook” of the Thai regime: Reuters reported on Wednesday that the General had sent a letter to the Thai prime minister “asking for help to support democracy.” But copying the Thai government would mean a complete restructuring of the legislature and the drafting of a new a constitution; it would also contradict the Burmese military’s claim of handing power back to civilians within a year – the Thai military  “promised to hold democratic elections within two years, they were delayed for almost five years” (The Diplomat).

Although seen as relatively less legitimate than the Thai military and with a history of “brutality,” the Tatmadaw could employ a more subtle strategy to win favor and maintain its power: by showing that it can govern more effectively than the NLD, particularly through “battling covid-19, boosting the economy and brokering peace with insurgents”. The aforementioned U.K. assessment also stated that the Burmese regime would “seek to mobilize the vote by appealing to Buddhist nationalist sentiment”. This would suggest that the Tatmadaw believes it would not only be forgiven for the coup but that its rule would eventually be legitimized. If armed groups such as the Kachin Independence Army were to threaten the regime, the “more intense fighting could offer a pretext for extending the state of emergency”. Avinash Paliwal, of the School of Oriental and African Studies in London speaking to The Economist, said the coup is in fact ‘a precursor to a much more aggressive [military] approach’.

In the meantime, the Myanmar military could take a number of steps to shore up its control. It has already announced the “the formation of a new Union Election Commission to investigate alleged voter fraud,” which it could then use to “get to work at figuring out how to rig the system,” including by “eliminating the first past the post voting system” and “creat[ing] a party list system, which will allow them [the military] to allocate seats” (The Diplomat).

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