The 1 February 2021 coup d’état by Myanmar’s military (Tatmadaw), has been widely condemned by all the world’s democratic leaders, human rights activists and genuine friends of the people of Myanmar around the globe. In an unusual manner for the world’s top diplomat, UN Secretary-General Antonio Guterres has gone so far as to urge the world community to make sure that Myanmar’s military coup fails.
Like many other world leaders, he urged the military leadership to respect the will of the people of Myanmar as expressed in the 8 November 2020 general elections that gave Aung San Suu Kyi’s National League for Democracy (NLD) Party a resounding 83 % of the popular vote. Guterres called the reversal of those elections “absolutely unacceptable”.
Notwithstanding the Secretary-General’s strong call, the most powerful organ of the UN, the Security Council, issued a mild statement that failed to condemn the coup because of strong objection by China, a veto-wielding member of the Council with significant economic interests in Myanmar. Reflecting the Beijing government’s views, China’s state news agency Xinhua referred to the military coup simply as a “major Cabinet reshuffle”.
Given the potential veto by China and Russia (both permanent members of the Security Council that sell huge quantities of arms to Tatmadaw), it is unlikely that the Council will muster the courage or the unanimity needed to intervene or impose stern sanctions against the military junta.
However, even an indirect condemnation of the coup and a call for restoration of democratic institutions and respect for people’s human rights sends a clear signal of solidarity of the international community to the people of Myanmar to fight for their rights.
Donald Trump’s impact
The ostensible reason for the Tatmadaw’s putsch is their objection to apparent electoral irregularities in the November 2020 elections in which the military-backed Union Solidarity and Development Party (USDP) suffered a humiliating defeat.
Coincidentally, the Tatmadaw’s charges of massive electoral fraud in Myanmar sound very similar to those of the former US President Donald Trump’s discredited claims of similar electoral fraud in the US presidential election. Indeed, the Trump administration’s cuddling of authoritarian regimes may have given some encouragement to the Burmese junta.
The junta was certainly aware that its power grab would be condemned by the new Biden administration in the US, the European Union and other democratic governments, and human rights groups around the world. But knowing it can count on strong support of China and Russia,
and tacit approval or acquiescence of its ASEAN neighbors and India too, seems to have given it the confidence that it can afford to withstand the opprobrium by the rest of the world.
The fact that Aung San Suu Kyi’s international stature has greatly diminished in recent years was probably another factor in the military’s calculation to dare to overthrow her.
However, it is difficult to fathom what Tatmadaw’s long-term calculations and strategy are. For an army that is despised by a large majority of the people of Myanmar, because of its decades of oppression and corruption that has gravely retarded the country’s development, it already enjoys a very favorable position under the current power-sharing arrangement with Suu Kyi.
It can appoint 25 percent of the members of parliament. It controls three of the most powerful government ministries in charge of national security. It is allowed to carry out very lucrative business ventures that has made many army generals among the richest people in the country.
The current power-sharing arrangement is such that if the elected government fails, the blame would go largely to its leader Aung San Suu Kyi, but if it succeeds the Tatmadaw too could claim some credit and brag that the Myanmar model of power-sharing works!
It is, therefore, baffling to figure out why the military would give up such a sweet-heart deal in pursuit of an uncertain future knowing that the putsch would push the country into the ranks of a pariah regime once again.
The speculation is that either the Tatmadaw leadership was fearful of the NLD government clipping its current prerogatives by attempting to amend the army-imposed constitution or more likely the top General Min Aung Hlaing’s inflated personal ambitions led him to make this pre-emptive strike.
Outfoxing each other
A decade ago, Tatmadaw and Aung San Suu Kyi negotiated a power-sharing deal. After Suu Kyi’s NLD Party scored a sweeping victory in the 2015 elections, Myanmar became the democratic darling of the world. It heralded the end of Myanmar’s international isolation, the blossoming of a relatively free media, as well as an explosion of social media.
Young Burmese flocked to the Facebook, Instagram and Twitter, followed by their elders soon afterwards. Tourism started flourishing. Foreign investment, particularly from neighboring ASEAN countries, and especially, China boomed.
International media and NGOs, banned during the military regime, flocked to Myanmar. And UN agencies severely constrained by highly restricted mandate and shortage of funding because of sanctions against the military regime by Western donors got a new lease of life and expanded their operations.
But the euphoria of Myanmar’s transition away from military rule to a seemingly liberal democracy was premature and exaggerated. It was more wishful and hopeful than the ground realities justified.
In the power-sharing deal she entered with Tatmadaw in 2011, Suu Kyi tentatively accepted the 2008 Constitution drafted by the military with a view to perpetuating its dominance on all key issues of “national security” under the garb of a pro-forma electoral democracy.
With her confidence in securing overwhelming election victory, Suu Kyi’s calculation was that she will be able to outfox the Tatmadaw and amend the constitution to weaken or eliminate the military’s power, and strengthen genuine democracy.
But it appears that the Tatmadaw actually outfoxed Suu Kyi. It even got her, a Nobel Peace Prize laureate, to condone the military’s ethnic cleansing and genocidal oppression of the Rohingya Muslims and to cuddle Burman Buddhist xenophobia.
To the consternation of the international community, but continuing adulation of the ethnic Burman population, it turned out that as a politician Suu Kyi and Tatmadaw shared many common Bamar ethno-nationalist sentiments and deeply held prejudices against most non-Bamar ethnic communities, particularly the Rohingya Muslims, questioning their status as equal and patriotic citizens of Myanmar.
Forming and Spurning the Kofi Annan Commission
Stung by international criticism of Tatmadaw’s brutal oppression of the Rohingyas, and as a face-saving gesture, in 2016 Suu Kyi formed an international Advisory Commission on Rakhine State headed by former UN Secretary-General Kofi Annan to propose measures to ensure the social and economic well-being of both the Buddhist, the Muslim and other ethnic communities in Myanmar’s conflict-ravaged regions.
In my view, this Commission came up with the best possible recommendations and a roadmap for not only Rakhine state but to ensure a sustainable, democratic, prosperous and equitable multi-ethnic future for all of Myanmar. But Suu Kyi essentially cold-shouldered Annan’s recommendations, perhaps fearing that the military would never accept them.
Inspired and disappointed by Suu Kyi
As a senior UNICEF official in the 1990s and 2000s, I had the opportunity to meet and interact with Suu Kyi as well as several senior Burmese military leaders, including the seemingly progressive General Thein Sein when he was the powerful Secretary-1 of the State Peace and Development Committee (SPDC) who later became Prime Minister and the first “elected” “civilian” President of Myanmar. He was the one who negotiated the power sharing deal with Suu Kyi in 2010.
I recall Suu Kyi, being an articulate and inspiring personality. Very strong-minded and stubborn at times, she presented herself as a staunch defender of democracy and human rights in Myanmar and globally. Her advocacy of a Gandhian non-violent civil disobedience and her reputation as a Mandela-like prisoner of conscience over a prolonged period, led to her winning the Nobel Peace Prize in 1991.
But like many of her previous admirers, including her fellow Nobel Prize laureates, I became deeply disappointed by her politically-calculated alliance with the military when she defended the indefensible ethnic cleansing of Myanmar’s Rohingya Muslim community at the International Court of Justice in the Hague.
Although Suu Kyi’s international stature as an icon of democracy and human rights has suffered irredeemably, she continues to be immensely popular domestically. If anybody can potentially tame Myanmar’s powerful Tatmadaw, it still continues to be Aung San Suu Kyi, given both her undiminished domestic popularity and her father General Aung San’s nationalist credentials and legacy.
Thus, despite all her flaws, I believe the international community has no choice but to support the restoration of democratic process in Myanmar led, in the near-term, by Suu Kyi and her NLD party.
The possible ways forward
However, in the longer term, both the people of Myanmar and the international community ought to internalize three important lessons from the Burmese conundrum of the past six decades: a) not to rely on the leadership of one individual, no matter how charismatic, b) the necessity of delegitimizing the privileged political role of Myanmar’s military, and c) looking beyond the necessary restoration of electoral democracy to a laser-like focus on tackling a range of issues that have perpetuated poverty, inequality and violent conflicts in this immensely resource-rich country that remains one of the poorest in the region.
Nobody believes the military’s promise that it will organize new elections in a year’s time and hand-over power to a newly-elected government. If free and fair elections are held, the military and its puppet party, the USDP, are likely to fare even worse than in the November 2020 general elections.
The junta maybe able to prolong its rule in the short-term by organizing sham elections and increased repression, but the durability of such a regime is questionable. We are already beginning to see the sprouting of a courageous campaign of civil disobedience in various forms, which is only likely to accelerate over time.
We can expect Tatmadaw to unleash harsh repression using all the tools and tricks in the authoritarians’ toolbox, starting with shutting down the internet and the social media. But there is no conceivable scenario under which the Tatmadaw can solve Myanmar’s entrenched problems and endear itself to a restive population.
In this day and age, harsh repression alone cannot ensure political stability. Even the military regime’s backers like China and most of the ASEAN countries that treasure political stability over democratic norms, are likely to abandon their active or tacit support of the junta, once they realize that a regime deeply despised by the populace and incapable of delivering sustainable development cannot ensure lasting stability and tranquility.
It is clear that the military has grossly misjudged the mood of the Burmese youth. Having tasted democracy and an open society during the past decade, Myanmar’s digitally savvy youth, like those of many other countries, are now so well-connected with their counterparts around the world, so well aware of their rights and their potential, so determined to pursue a prosperous future, that they will find many creative ways to outfox the military’s shenanigans.
Among the best proposals for a way forward is a solemn appeal by a wise and thoughtful religious leader, Cardinal Charles Maung Bo, Archbishop of Yangon, President of the Federation of Asian Bishops’ Conference, and a Co-President of Religions for Peace International.
He made a strong case for “demilitarizing Myanmar”, warning even before the latest coup: “History teaches us, diplomats and peacemakers know, that there is never going to be a military solution to a political conflict. Pursuing military solutions leads only to endless war and endless misery”.
Following the coup, the Cardinal issued an urgent message addressed to the people of Myanmar; its civilian leaders, including Aung San Suu Kyi; to the Myanmar military, and the international community.
The message calls for the people to stay calm, avoid violence, but pursue their goals peacefully.
The Bishop chastises the military for its empty promises and urges the junta to respect people’s rights as expressed through their elected representatives, writers, activists, and especially Myanmar’s youth. He urges Suu Kyi and the NLD leaders to continue dialogue and with Tatmadaw to overcome the new challenges created by the latest coup.
To the International community, the Bishop cautions how sanctions in the past brought few results, and to avoid measures that risk collapsing the economy and throwing millions into poverty.
I tend to agree with the Bishop that general sanctions are a blunt instrument that hurt ordinary people while the rich and the powerful find many ways to evade them. However, I believe there is room and need for tough but very specifically and narrowly targeted sanctions against the key perpetrators and enforcers of the military putsch and their business interests, while meticulously sparing the ordinary people.
The international community would be wise to follow the Burmese historian Thant Myint-U’s advice to avoid a narrow focus on political change and help ensure the protection of ordinary people’s lives and livelihoods as part of any international action to thwart the military coup.
“Myanmar needs a fresh path to democracy” he says, “Free and fair elections (and respect for the results) are essential. But also essential is the transformation of a society shaped by decades of dictatorship, international isolation, brutal armed conflict, racial and religious discrimination, extreme poverty and widening inequality”.
In a world struggling to recover from the ravages of the COVID pandemic, and many other epochal crises, the plight of the people of Myanmar may not get the full attention it deserves. But let us hope that the sentiments of global solidarity will inspire them to regain their inalienable human rights and dignity.
Kul Chandra Gautam, a Nepali diplomat, is a former Assistant Secretary-General of the UN and Deputy Executive Director of UNICEF. He is also the author of the recently-published “Global Citizen from Gulmi: My Journey from the Hills of Nepal to the Halls of the United Nations”
By arrangement with Inter Press Service (IPS)