By Matthias E. Leitner
Five months into the military coup of 1 February, Myanmar is on an increasingly fragile trajectory with clear signs of conflict escalation. World attention tapered off after the first few weeks and shifted to other hot spots, including in the Middle East. Regional ASEAN diplomacy and western sanctions pressure have failed to provide a breakthrough while influential neighbouring countries are locked in competition and preoccupied with the COVID-19 Pandemic.
The weakened multilateral system seems unable to respond decisively to growing mass protests and violent repression by the military. Basic levels of protection for civilians and essential services have been eroded amid a resourging COVID-19 Pandemic.
National cohesion in Myanmar has come under severe pressure. Although the country has weathered low-intensity conflicts over the years and state disintegration is a remote scenario, regional stability hinges on peace and prosperity in Myanmar which is located between Chinese and Indian spheres of influence. Democratic transition has remained incomplete in Myanmar since 2011. Inclusive civic dialogue can help reduce tensions through leveraging communications technology for digital grass-roots engagement, especially with Myanmar’s youth.
This might restore a modicum of calm and provide a conducive environment for peace talks. International friends of Myanmar and ASEAN states are well placed to provide critical support, in line with ASEAN commitments. Civic digital dialogue could also boost human capital for addressing longer-term challenges, including the impact of climate change and the Pandemic.
Evolving Conflict Dynamics- Violence Expands from the Center to the Periphery
While renowned National League for Democracy (NLD) party leader Aung San Suu Kyi remained under house arrest, charges of corruption were formalized in June concerning a charitable foundation, in addition to alleged breaches of COVID-19 protocol and communications regulations. After some delay, a court hearing was held on 26 May. Meanwhile, the number of detained civilians grew over tenfold from the first weeks of mass protests to 6,000. On 30 June, the government released 2,300 detainees nationwide, including media and NGO workers who had not committed violent acts. The junta prepared indictments against protesters and 64 persons received death sentences as reported in media in early June.
Some 211,000 persons were internally displaced, according to recent UNHCR figures and the death toll neared 900 persons in late June, according to NGO observer groups. Since the beginning of 2021, the civilian casualties rate in Myanmar is among the highest worldwide, second only to conflicts in Ethiopia and Nigeria. Businesses were severely affected, and several factories were closed; several large international firms divested from Myanmar or are pausing investments. After a general strike in February, anti-junta protests continued in northern Kachin State, southern Dawei, Sagaing region and in the commercial capital Yangon.
A Committee representing the disbanded parliament (CRPH) was formed and a “National Unity Government” (NUG) established in April. The shadow government issued a proclamation for the release of all political prisoners, return of the armed forces to the barracks, ending the violence and accountability for those responsible for atrocities after the coup. The NUG also pledged remedial action for Myanmar’s Rohingya Muslim minority and their rights in Rakhine state of Myanmar where over 100,000 persons had fled to safety in Bangladesh in the 2017 military crackdown against suspected terrorists.
By the end of June, military repression continued unabated. Weapons of war were used against demonstrators and neighbourhood vigilante groups loyal to the authorities targeted protesters. Internet services were frequently blocked since April as the military rolled out a restrictive new cyber security law. The Facebook social media platform which was used by half of the country’s population as ubiquitous news source and messaging service was shut down. independent media outlets were shut down or fined, and over 90 journalists imprisoned. Relatively few defections from the armed forces have occurred, mostly from lower ranking navy and air force members as well as units constituted with former rebels in 2015. Some reports suggest that soldiers melted away to join the Civil Disobedience Movement in an estimated 800 total of cases but it remains unclear how many took up arms again.
In another more serious development, some of the ethnic minority militias in Myanmar’s border areas with long-running insurgencies against the central government have started to mobilize. There were reports that urban dissenters were joining their ranks and new ‘civilian armies’ were constituted as offshoots of the Civil Defense Movement while other protesters just sought temporary shelter among militias. Several of these groups -including the Kachin in the north and the Karen in the east- publicly denounced the coup and stated they would defend protesters in the territory they control. Other ethnic militias appeared to be sitting on the fence about fighting in urban areas. Experts believe that the territorial ethnic armies have widely diverging military capabilities and are unlikely to mount a serious challenge to the armed forces. However, ethnic militia are a possible factor in pan-ethnic solidarity supporting talks and might become ‘king makers’ in the event of a rift inside the Myanmar military forces.
On 22 June, armed demonstrators of the ‘Mandalay PDF’ group engaged armed forces in a sustained urban firefight at Myanmar’s second largest city. In areas bordering Thailand, Karen state saw intensified armed clashes in May when over 100,000 persons were displaced and some sought temporary safety in Thailand. Confrontations were also reported from Chin state bordering India and from northern Kachin and Shan states. Well-informed observers warned about a trend towards generalized revolt. unless regional or international initiatives can manage to stem the escalation. The country may have come close to becoming ungovernable and some analysts warn of impending state collapse and prolonged civil war as in the case of Syria.
International Response Patterns- Sanctions and Regional Diplomacy
The UN Security Council discussed the situation in Myanmar three times since the coup and issued a presidential statement on 10 March. The Council repeatedly called for restraint and restoring democratic transition in Myanmar but its closed meeting on 18 June 2021 fell short of deciding on an arms embargo. The Council demanded that the constitutional order should be respected but did not condemn the military coup outright, due to the position of China and Russia that defended national sovereignty. China publicly rejected sanctions as “inappropriate intervention” on 3 July during the 9th World Peace Forum held in Beijing. Chinese Foreign Minister Wang Yi stated that the primary goal was to help Myanmar find a political solution as soon as possible through dialogue and consultation.
The UN Generally Assembly (GA) passed a first non-binding resolution on Myanmar on 18 June, which condemned the coup and called for a stop in the flow of arms to the country and the immediate release of Aung San Suu Kyi, President Win Myint and other senior civilian officials. The UN Secretary-General reiterated his call for the release of Aung San Suu Kyi on 1 July following mass releases of detainees in Myanmar. He also expressed deep concern over continued intimidation and violence as well as arbitrary arrests. In early July, the UN High Commissioner for Human Rights warned of political crisis in Myanmar evolving into a “multi-dimensional human rights catastrophe” with potential for massive insecurity and fallout in the region. The SG’s Special Envoy on Myanmar, Swiss diplomat Christine Schraner Burgener, visited neighboring states of Myanmar but was not permitted to enter the country.
Outside the UN, international responses featured moral appeals, public condemnation and the use of targeted sanctions. The G7 Foreign and Development Ministers Statement of 5 May roundly condemned the coup and called for immediate cessation of violence; the G7 pledged support to ASEAN efforts in conflict resolution. In mid-May, US, UK and Canada imposed a new round of coordinated sanctions which were expanded from a dozen military figures to state enterprises known as significant income earners (gems and timber industries). In early July, the US led additional sanctions measures against 22 members of the regime and close relatives, also targeting three Chinese companies for providing support to the Myanmar regime through business dealings with the sanctioned Myanmar Economic Holdings Limited.
EU sanctions were expanded to include public timber companies from Myanmar, aligning with earlier UK measures. The US and UK placed sanctions on the State Administration Council (SAC), the junta’s governing body while the EU placed sanctions on the Myanmar War Veterans Organization, due to its close connection with the Armed Forces. Japan warned in mid-May that assistance to Myanmar could be frozen beyond a halt of new aid programs decided in February, seeking to use its considerable leverage as a top donor for Myanmar. Canada said it imposed additional sanctions on individuals and entities tied to the Myanmar armed forces, indicating it was prepared to take further steps. New Zealand imposed a travel ban on the Myanmar junta and stopped all aid that could benefit them; effectively suspending all military and high-level political contacts with the country.
Commander-in-Chief of Myanmar’s armed forces Senior General Min Aung Hlaing remained the de-facto leader of the country. Apart from minor changes in the SAC, the junta government stayed in place. Experts assess that the army leader has no intention to curb Myanmar’s economic progress. Unlike during previous military rule in Myanmar in the 1980s, a semi-civilian composition of the new cabinet in the Supreme Administrative Council (SAC) shows that the military is prepared to ride out international pressure and pursue national development. However, analysts based in the region see a risk of Myanmar backsliding several decades and reversing gains from the democratic transition.
ASEAN Regional Leverage vs. Geopolitical Interests
Early regional reactions to the coup in Myanmar were muted, with the notable exception of Singapore, Malaysia and Indonesia. Following the ASEAN consensus principle, current ASEAN Chair Brunei appealed for respect of ASEAN’s principles of rule of law, democracy and human rights.
The regional block tried to engage the junta during the 24 April ASEAN Leaders Meeting which the Burmese coup leader, Senior Gen. Min Aung Hlaing attended. Yet he subsequently backtracked stating that stability was an essential precondition for ASEAN peace talks and implementing the ASEAN Five-Point Consensus from the summit. ASEAN followed up with a high-level mission to Yangon in early June to meet the junta leader again and seek his views on a list of nominees for an ASEAN special envoy for Myanmar agreed among ASEAN member states.
The junta’s foreign minister participated in a special ASEAN-China Foreign Minister’s meeting in Chongqing in early June, amid speculations that China was warming up to the military leadership in Myanmar. Chinese officials had issued veiled criticism in the early phase of the coup while parallel Chinese linkages were forged with the civilian NUG. A tuning point occurred in mid-March when protesters injured Chinese workers at a Yangon factory complex which was damaged and looted. In a scenario of widespread instability and key infrastructure under threat, China might resort to pressure NUG and the junta into a compromise, according to regional experts; some analysts point to a recent Chinese troop concentration at the important border town of Jiegao.
China’s southern Yunnan province borders Myanmar where Chin state became one of the recent flashpoints in violence. The area is important for China’s transcontinental Belt and Road Initiative (BRI), through a China-Myanmar Economic Corridor (CMEC). The plan features a high-speed train link from China to the Indian Ocean, alongside gas pipeline projects to Myanmar coastal areas, as well as the Muse-Mandalay highway. China has also pursued a mega-hydro project north of Myitkyina which was stalled in 2011 over environmental concerns and developed an industrial park for the town. In addition, Chinese investors have snapped estate and land in the Yangon area, despite restrictive rules.
China’s President Xi Yiping undertook a milestone visit to Myanmar in January 2020, where he signed 33 agreements. Myanmar’s strategic value in these schemes was recently underscored by the visit of China’s Foreign Minister Wang Yi in mid-January 2021 as senior-most foreign official to arrive since November’s election. In military cooperation, China as a traditional ally has taken a relatively low-key approach with Myanmar. Russia appeared more eager to capitalize on arms cooperation with senior visits demonstrating that Moscow is not beholden to western sanctions policies.
Similar to the many economic and investment ties between Thailand and Myanmar, other regional partners have most likely adopted a “wait and see” approach before gradually re-engaging with the junta-led government. However, Thailand voiced concerns of spillover from the violence in Myanmar, after refugees had crossed the long shared border; Thailand considers itself as a ‘front line state’ and has recalled its “quiet and discreet diplomacy” efforts underway.
India as Myanmar’s northwestern neighbor already hosts many refugees from the Christian Chin minority. 15,000 refugees have arrived in northeastern Indian states of Mizoram and Manipur since the coup, according to UNHCR figures. These arrivals remain displaced and are hosted by local communities. Larger waves of refugees from Myanmar would affect the delicate local political and security environment. Myanmar’s military has at times coordinated with Indian security forces to control extremists and “geopolitical intricacy” overrides India’s stand on the current crisis.
Similarly, China does not want to see spillover from Myanmar tensions upset its southern industrialization schemes. It was India that delivered the first 1.5 mln doses of COVID-19 vaccines to Myanmar in mid-January when China’s global vaccine diplomacy took shape. Yet both powerful neighbors of Myanmar are unlikely to come to an understanding how to prevent a worst-case scenario, given their geopolitical antagonisms in the wake of recent US and Quad countries cooperation.
Configuring Innovative Dialogue for 21st Century- Digital Engagement with Myanmar Conflict Parties
In view of the high stakes from ongoing violence and the risk of serious escalation, the time may have come for an alternative approach in Myanmar peace support. Assisted by new technology, digital dialogue at the grass-roots level could provide an opportunity for reflection and connect segments of the population and conflict parties. Such innovative dialogue can also tap into Myanmar’s human capital, especially youth who tend to be tech-savvy and eager to express their views. ASEAN’s supportive and caring posture expressed in its 24 April Leader’s Meeting Communique lays out ASAEAN regional solidarity in a people-centered approach rather than prescriptive intervention. ASEAN is also well placed for assisting with required technology from its industrialized members and influential countries in Asia.
Newly boosted by the global switch to digital in the COVID-19 Pandemic, state-of -the-art communication technology and tools exist to connect hundreds of participants in online dialogue sessions. UN peace missions in Yemen, Syria and Libya have utilized such digital outreach to enrich ongoing negotiations and tapped into AI solutions for evaluating feedback. The work of senior negotiators might become more hybrid with online inputs and analysis, although scholars note a “missing sense of peace” in virtual interactions. On the other hand, benefits exist from greater inclusion, shorter iterative meetings, and equality in interaction. Significant peace constituencies including women, youth and minorities can be included online from the very start than in most traditional mediations.
Myanmar has fertile ground for digital grass-roots dialogue. Younger citizens, including in conflict areas have shown great skill in networked cooperation, providing practical livelihoods advice and psychosocial support for years. In view of restrictions from the junta, protesters have resorted to virtual private network (VPN) solutions to ensure connectivity. Some younger officials and members of the security apparatus may also participate in a “sovereignty enhancing” dialogue aimed at better governance and reforms. The technological challenges including interference from authorities are not insurmountable.
Accompaniment could be provided via inter-regional cooperation between ASEAN and the EU, which remains under-utilized, despite strong shared business interests. The multi-sector dialogue template (“Enhanced Regional EU-ASEAN Dialogue Instrument” – E-READI) has ample room for configuring the required scaling effects in technical assistance in sectoral policy dialogues concerning Myanmar’s specific situation. Notably, Facebook and Instagram banned Myanmar’s military and military-controlled state media in late February, citing “exceptionally severe human rights abuses and the clear risk of future military-initiated violence in Myanmar”.
Pivot to a New Generation Compact in Myanmar- Tackling Global Challenges
Innovative digital dialogue as an early confidence building process can provide a platform for addressing center-periphery relations in Myanmar which lie at the core of many minority grievances. Myanmar could start developing its “new generational compact” including on regional autonomy and decentralization. The country never managed to forge a “Second Panglong Agreement” after independence and the death of General Aung San in 1948.
Social cohesion and enabling social capital for addressing global challenges of climate change and Pandemic resilience are urgent for Myanmar. The devastating Cyclone Nargis in 2008 showed the country’s vulnerability to extreme weather events in low-lying coastal areas. Myanmar’s Pandemic response also requires joint mobilization, due to rising infection levels nearing peaks of last October. Medical staff were instrumental in launching the Civil Disobedience Movement; work stoppages and insecurity have affected the health sector where recent new COVID-19 restrictions are hampering humanitarian access and response. The impact has been dramatic in interrupting remote outreach on public health prevention and counseling of victims of gender-based violence.
In the absence of consensus among superpowers to find a joint formula for lending ASEAN political efforts additional clout, or tactical convergence between the US and China for stabilizing Myanmar jointly as a middle ground, innovative civic dialogue should be seriously considered. More punitive approaches may end up driving the beleaguered country deeper into the arms of China and exacerbate violent conflict. Grass-roots engagement with critical peace constituencies in Myanmar could prevent transforming the current crisis into a proxy fight between global players and second tier regional powers, including India which has asserted itself in border tensions with China and as part of the US-led Quad group of states to hedge against China’s growing influence in ASEAN and APEC Regions.
About the author:
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.
This article reflex the author’s views and it has been published first by IFIMES.