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Military coup in Myanmar – responses in geopolitical context

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By Matthias E. Leitner.

The recent military coup in Myanmar has baffled many observers as unresolved tension from the country’s long military rule have resurfaced just after a landslide victory of the NLD party led by Aung San Suu Kyi. International reactions run a risk of repeating a formula employed against previous juntas while the ground has shifted since the opening of Myanmar to the wider world in 2011. The stakes are high for preventing the country from becoming ungovernable and locked in civil-military confrontation during its most acute constitutional crisis in decades.

Assessing Myanmar’s geopolitical position in Southeast Asia holds the key to moderating the behavior of political actors and reorienting conflict towards global challenges faced by the ASEAN regional group of states and the international community. A democracy still need to take root in Myanmar and requires long-term solid commitment from partners through dialogue. Despite growing mass protest, a new cycle of violence is not a foregone conclusion. ASEAN and EU have a meaningful role to play in inter-regional trilateral cooperation while staying conscious of China’s significant economic and strategic interests in the country. Just as the larger US-China relationship is entering a new phase of systemic competition and strategic partial re-engagements, promoting the return to normalcy and sound civil-military relations in Myanmar is highly desirable. This can put the country on a more solid democratic path for solidarity in tackling global challenges, including migrations and climate change.

Current Dynamics- Mobilization of Myanmar Actors and International Response 

Civil society in Myanmar was initially stunned by the coup of 1 February which established a one-year state of emergency in preparation for a re-run of the November 2020 elections. NLD leader Aung San Suu Kyi and other officials were detained; additional charges were formulated in mid-February and her court hearing was postponed. Most of the detained regional and state ministers were released within days but Aung San Suu Kyi remained under house arrest and a new round of arrests targeted hundreds of civilians[2].

Within a few days, mass protests spread from Yangon to the capital Naypyidaw and other urban centers. Over 100,000 persons joined the protests in Yangon, where Buddhist monks often led the demonstrations. Work stoppages were organized in a widening campaign of civil disobedience[3]; only the night-time curfew was generally respected. The Army has warned striking civil servants to return to work and a dedicated hotline was set up to report government employees joining demonstrations.

The military appeared to take a harder line against the protests from 15 February onwards. Tanks and military vehicles went into position as crowds were dispersed with rubber bullets and tear gas at certain flash points[4], where one person was killed. Internet services were shut down at night several times and the telecom operators as well as major social media platforms ceased to function. At short notice, the junta was also preparing a restrictive new cyber security law.[5] Yangon International Airport had earlier been closed briefly until regional flights resumed and the military has restarted domestic flight connections to provincial destination which were suspended due to COVID-19.  

International response was swift, and the EU as well as western capitals issued declarations against the coup. On the heels of a G 7 Foreign Ministers Statement of 3 February condemning the coup and calling for the release of detainees, EU, UK, Canada and 11 other Embassies in Myanmar released a joint call to the military to refrain from violence against protesters. The diplomats expressed support to civilian freedoms in Myanmar as “the world was watching”.

The US led international reactions and follow-through measures as President Biden highlighted the Myanmar coup in his first major foreign policy speech at the U.S. State Department on 4 February where he warned that the junta would be held accountable. In the week of 8 February, he issued an executive order to freeze assets held by military leaders and the U.S. Treasury sanctioned 10 individuals and three entities connected with the Myanmar junta leaders. New Zealand went furthest in punitive steps, imposing a travel ban on the Myanmar junta and stopping all aid that could benefit them as well as suspending all military and high-level political contact with the country.

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. Yet the Council avoided a condemnation of the coup and instead demanded that the constitutional order should be respected.  Ironically, it was Myanmar’s former colonial power (the UK) who presided over the Security Council session. 

UN SG Guterres was frank in denouncing the coup as “absolutely unacceptable”, noting firm intention to reverse the coup. The UN has repeatedly called for Aung San Suu Kyi’s release. At the end of last week, The UN Human Rights Council in Geneva held a special session on the human rights implications of the crisis in Myanmar, with a focus on arbitrary detentions. The UN also urged the junta to allow the Secretary-General’s Special Envoy on Myanmar, Swiss diplomat Christine Schraner Burgener, to visit Myanmar and assess the situation.

Democratic Pause or Rollback of Reforms?

The 1 February military coup in Myanmar 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 some of them to international prosecution after retirement. 

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 that 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[6]. 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 violent repression like in the 2007 “Saffron Revolution” 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’s family ties 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 minority Muslim residents[7] led to a huge population exodus in 2016/2017 across 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. 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[8]. Official claims from the military that most rebel groups were pacified and cooperating started to ring hollow. 

These were ominous signs that the military was asserting itself as in previous decades. In the wake of the coup, return to open warfare with ethnic rebel movements is seen as one of the serious possible aftershocks. 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.  

Receding Thailand Paradigm and Geopolitical Weight of China

As mass protests are gathering speed in Myanmar, a Thailand paradigm is becoming less likely for early roll-back of the coup and return to normalcy. Thailand in Myanmar’s immediate neighborhood hosts many refugees from Myanmar in camps, mostly from the Karen, Karenni and Shan ethnic groups. Thailand has its own long tradition in enlisting military support for the monarchy against ambitious reforms under civilian rule.        
The combination of politico-military backing for economic openness and nationalism centered on the Crown seen in Thailand holds some appeal for the latest face of transition in Myanmar, although it would do little to moderate the junta’s behavior in the short run. Demands for constitutional monarchy from a grass-roots movement led by young activists in Thailand are a new phenomenon[9]. These protests have remained largely peaceful with some ingenuity in social organizing and symbolism on display.

In this context, it is notable that Thai Prime Minister Prayuth Chan-ocha, a retired general (and military coup leader coming to power in 2014), reportedly received a letter from Myanmar’s junta leader, asking for Thailand’s support for “the democracy in Myanmar.”  Similar to the many economic and investment ties between Thailand and Myanmar, other regional 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 plenty of land and other real estate assets in the Yangon area, despite a prohibition on sales to foreign buyers. China’s ambassador in Myanmar stated publicly that China was interested in friendly relations with the NLD leaders and the military; he explained that the current situation was not what China wanted to see”.

China’s President Xi Yiping undertook a milestone visit to Myanmar in January 2020, where he signed 33 agreements and bilateral memoranda. Myanmar’s strategic value in these schemes was recently underscored by the visit of China’s Foreign Minister Wang Yi in mid-January 2021. He was the most senior 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, which is also one of China’s concerns should the situation spiral out of control.

Role of ASEAN and EU: Joining Forces and Preparing for Global Challenges

Regional reactions to the coup in Myanmar were muted, with the notable exception of Singapore and to some extent Malaysia as well as Indonesia. The two latter countries have suggested convening a special ASEAN meeting on the situation in Myanmar. 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 the consensus principle historically prevails in ASEAN[10]; a more confrontational approach was shunned even over the forced displacement from Rakhine State in favor of regional unity. Accordingly in 2021, the current ASEAN chair Brunei appealed for respect of 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”.[11] 

What has been missing is strong 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 an arms embargo. Since 2014, the EU has granted Myanmar almost 700 million EUR in support through duty-free and quota-free access available for development countries, covering all products except arms and ammunition. According to senior EU officials, these resource streams could be up for discussion at a planned EU review meeting on 22 February.

In the EU diplomatic and cooperation toolbox, inter-regional dialogue is well established. Concerning ASEAN, the EU sees the two regional blocks as “natural partners”. Starting in 2020, a five-year initiative for ASEAN- EU dialogue is launched under the heading “Enhanced Regional EU-ASEAN Dialogue Instrument” (E-READI). The multi-sector project is handled through highly experienced implementing partners e.g. GIZ Germany with Indonesia. With the objective of enhancing regional integration for delivery of equitable and sustainable economic growth and enhanced social opportunities, this instrument has ample space for configuring sectoral policy dialogues for Myanmar’s specific situation. 

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 of 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 of great importance 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 and to realize ambitious emissions targets by 2030. Myanmar had already shown promising initiative in flattening the curve of COVID-19 infections during 2020[12]. The country undertook concerted local sensitization campaigns, e.g. in the “Paung Sie” Facility joint partnership with 50 civil society partners and imposed 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 possible commonality with the military. According to the OECD States of Fragility Report of September 2020, Myanmar is grouped with a dozen other fragile states on the more stable end of the fragility spectrum. Greater turmoil and military repression could easily cancel out such gains, as income-based poverty was increasing from 16 to 63 per cent under the Pandemic impact between January 2020 and September 2020. Some analysts see the current crisis and its COVID-19 risks as lever to introduce forward-looking reforms and make a fragile nation without a social safety and an industrial policy net more resilient.

Myanmar’s Geopolitical and Global Pivot

While global US- China relations are undergoing a rebalancing, Myanmar offers a convenient middle ground for the global powers to work with emerging middle powers and regional alliances such as EU and ASEAN. The Myanmar case could promote a more coalitional, collaborative approach in post-Pandemic multilateralism. It should not be forgotten that an open, fully fledged democratic Myanmar next door to China will remain an actor to watch for China, even though the emerging superpower is becoming more assertive in the ASEAN and global arenas. As the 2020 ASEAN Survey barometer of public opinion about trends in Southeast Asia has revealed a high degree of expectation that ASEAN should evolve from a ‘talk shop’ model to have a more tangible role in managing issues of common concern in Southeast Asia[13]. Conversely, this survey showed lingering mistrust in Chinese intentions which is currently growing in Myanmar over intervention fears. 

In this wider perspective, the world’s reaction 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 for situational awareness and wield sanctions tools judiciously, with safeguards against damaging the livelihoods of populations that have already been hard hit by the Pandemic. There is a risk that more punitive blanket approaches could drive Myanmar deeper into the Chinese sphere of influence once again and reinforce confrontational global power relations.                

About the author:

Matthias E. Leitner – Picture by IFIMES

Matthias E. Leitner has served in international peace and security since 1997, mainly in UN and regional peace operations across Africa and in Southeast Asia/Myanmar as well as the Middle East. His specialization is in the Horn of Africa/IGAD Region and inter-regional cooperation as well as cross-learning including COVID-19 resilience. His academic background from Bonn and Oxford Universities is in languages, history and international law.

Published by IFIMES – The views expressed in this article are the author’s own and do not necessarily reflect IFIMES official position.

Ljubljana/Washington/Berlin, 22 February 2021

[1] IFIMES – International Institute for Middle East and Balkan Studies, based in Ljubljana, Slovenia, has Special Consultative status at ECOSOC/UN, New York, since 2018.
[2] Some 400 persons have been arrested since the coup, according to the monitoring group Assistance Association for Political Prisoners.
[3] Neighborhood watch groups were organized to warn of impending arrests, according to media reports.
[4] Protests were quashed in northern Myitkyinya and around the Myanmar Economic Bank in Mandalay as well as at a local police station in Naypyitaw and in the post city of Mawlamyine. 
[5] Internet Service Providers would be required to store user data for several years and grant access to government authorities on company premises. The law also requires online service providers to remove any speech, text, images or videos that disrupt unity or damage stability.
[6] Myanmar Confronts New Uncertainties, China Daily, Global Weekly Edition (5-11 February 2021).
[7] The group name “Rohingya” is anathema to the Myanmar Bamar ruling class which allowed marginalization and exclusion, making Muslim minority populations stateless and confining them to large IDP camps.
[8] Its secretariat services were formally incorporated into a National Reconciliation and Peace Center (NRPC). Less attention was paid to confidence building through innovative dialogues then in previous years.
[9] See: Chachavalpongpun, Pavin (ed.), Coup, King, Crisis: A Critical Interregnum in Thailand. Yale University Press. New Haven, December 2020. The editor is a prominent overseas Thai critic and examines Thailand’s political transition from 2014 to 2019 through a series of essays by 14 Asian studies scholars.
[10] There is no punitive, sanctions-based mechanism as in ECOWAS for West African States, despite an obligation to respect the ASEAN Charter.
[11] See: ASEAN Statement of 1 February 2020.
[12] As of late January 2021, Rakhine State emerged as a key epicenter, in addition to Yangon Region which has seen the largest number of cases. As of November, the Ministry of Health and Sports was reporting more than 80,000 cases and 1,750 fatalities; latest figures quoted in media are trending higher at ca. 141,000 infections and over 3,000 deaths.
[13] See Survey Report Highlights, p.4. Almost 70% of respondents stated ASEAN should engage more and deliver tangible results for its citizens. Almost 50% felt that ASEAN should collectively strive to avoid entanglements with major powers and fend off pressure from the U.S. and China (Tang, S. et al, The State of Southeast Asia: 2020. Yusof Ishaq Institute-ISEAS Singapore 2020).

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