from Asia Unbound

Myanmar: Asia’s Orphaned Cinderella

Six months after a military coup, Myanmar remains orphaned both by regional powers and the West.
Myanmar's military ruler Min Aung Hlaing presides over an army parade on Armed Forces Day in Naypyitaw, Myanmar, on March 27, 2021.
Myanmar's military ruler Min Aung Hlaing presides over an army parade on Armed Forces Day in Naypyitaw, Myanmar, on March 27, 2021. Stringer/Reuters

Six months after the coup d’état of February 1 that occurred the same day of the inauguration of a new parliament, the tragedy of what appears could be a long-running civil war remains a distinct possibility in Myanmar today. Nevertheless, the term “civil war” itself is inappropriate. Rather Myanmar today resembles Europe during the Nazi occupation. While the sense of occupation by a foreign force had always existed in the ethnic minority areas with their insurgent organizations, there is a sense today that this is also the case in the Bamar heartland. The occupying army is Myanmar’s own national army (the Tatmadaw) which, from its foundation, has largely functioned as an autonomous state within a state. Those civilians who support the military, such as the members of the largely proxy party of the military, the Union Solidary and Development Party (USDP), are treated as collaborators.

Seen even from the conventional paradigm of a military coup, replacing a democratically elected government, the reaction of the world, and above all the West, is disappointing. Yet, once we change perspective to conceive of Myanmar as an occupied country then the reaction of the world is simply irresponsible. To use a metaphor, Myanmar today is an international orphan. This is not to say, to pursue the analogy, it does not have a family. This “family,” in our view, can be divided into three: the kindly, but unengaged, aunts, the self-serving and self-indulgent uncles, and the feckless and fractious cousins.

1) The kindly, unengaged aunts

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The first group, of kindly but unengaged aunts, is a caricature of the United States, the European Union, and the United Kingdom. Other countries, particularly the other three members of the Quad—Australia, India and Japan—can be considered part of this grouping. Certainly, they rapidly condemned the coup and, in some cases, introduced targeted sanctions against the generals and their immediate families. These were later reinforced to include military-linked conglomerates. Yet their actions have fallen short of their self-proclaimed stance as defenders of liberal democracy and human rights.

This is even more disconcerting as in recent years their political leaderships have heralded a pivot towards the Indo-Pacific with the aim, declared in various official strategy papers, of promoting democracy and confronting autocracy. By not making Myanmar a priority concern in their Indo-Pacific posturing they have revealed the emptiness of these pompous declarations. Is there any post-coup situation in the world today of any greater moral clarity?

The failure of the Australian government to even introduce a basic system of targeted sanctions is puzzling. Cynically, in the context of China-Australia tensions, doing so would send a clear message to Beijing on the unacceptability of its support for authoritarian regimes, while not being seen to directly criticize China itself. The Morrison government’s hesitancy to even provide permanent resident status to the three thousand or so Burmese students in Australia represents a repudiation of Canberra’s principled bipartisan middle power tradition dating back to Dr. Evatt.

On the contrary the attitude of the government of Narendra Modi in India is understandable in the light of his own autocratic ethno-nationalist agenda. However, it represents the betrayal of the Nehru tradition in foreign policy and, in realpolitik terms, is counterproductive given the continuing aggravation in China-India relations. Is it really in Delhi’s interest to see Mizoram and Manipur destabilized through a further influx of Myanmar refugees? In the context of China-India hostility is it in Delhi’s interest to see Beijing providing recognition, and carving out new economic benefits, with the Myanmar junta? It is puzzling why India’s vaunted Look East Policy does not begin with its closest eastern neighbor but, so far, the Indian government has even prevented the Quad from making a clear statement on the release of political prisoners.

India abstained in the June 18 vote in the UN General Assembly demanding an arms embargo and the release of political prisoners, unlike the other three Quad members who voted yes. Yet for Quad members, with their main objective of constraining China, Myanmar is of secondary importance. This, once again, is amazingly short-sighted: constraining, but also cooperating, with China for mutual benefit, begins in Myanmar.

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The position of the Joe Biden administration is also puzzling. Its overwhelming priority is the strengthening and reinvigorating of alliances in Europe and in the Indo-Pacific, to both constrain China and check Russia. Objectively drawing a redline in Myanmar would be a concrete way of achieving these multiple objectives but, alas, with the withdrawal from Afghanistan and other overriding issues, Myanmar is a low priority in the Washington beltway. Yet, unlike Afghanistan, Myanmar does not need U.S. and other Western efforts at state-building. The Burmese people have shown themselves over the last ten years as being quite capable of doing just that. In the present somber period, the pro-democracy movement is already planning the tomorrow of a federal, democratic, inclusive Burma that, at last, provides its minorities with the rights they deserve.

In Europe, as a result of Brexit, Myanmar no longer has a champion in the “Brussels bubble,” and even in the United Kingdom China’s turpitude in Hong Kong is the key Asian issue, alongside mercantilist policies to promote a Global Britain. Elsewhere in the European Parliament political representatives would rather spend their time making rhetorical points on the treatment of the Uyghurs and Hong Kong than come to the aid of the Myanmar people who overwhelmingly ask for their support. Yet once again support from members of the European Parliament would have an impact in pushing a lethargic European Commission and the European Council to stronger action.

How can this disinterest for the cause of Burmese democracy be explained? We would suggest that the close link in Western eyes between the person of Aung San Suu Kyi and Myanmar’s democratic trajectory has been a double-edged sword. When Suu Kyi was under house arrest and in opposition, she was perceived as incarnating the democratic aspirations of the Myanmar people and maintained these in the arena of public debate. However, when the democratic icon of the 1990s and 2000s fell from her pedestal due to both her autocratic demeanor and, above all, her defense of the Tatmadaw against charges of genocide in the International Criminal Court, concern with Myanmar evaporated. The orphan baby of Burmese democracy was thrown out, so to speak, with the bathwater of personality-centered politics and Western naivety.

Rather than acting decisively on Myanmar, the “kindly but unengaged aunts” have chosen to delegate the resolution of the Myanmar crisis to the “feckless and fractious cousins” of the Association of Southeast Asian Nations (ASEAN) discussed below. In Europe this appeals to the somewhat narcissistic encouragement of regional integration elsewhere as well as the hubris surrounding interregionalism. As the world’s most institutionalized regional entity, the EU has a rather optimistic view of its oldest regional partner, ASEAN. Yet, to date none of the mechanisms provided in this partnership—such as EU-ASEAN parliamentary dialogue or the ASEAN Strategic Partnership Agreement—have been activated.

2) The self-interested and self-indulgent uncles

The second part of the family is the self-interested and self-indulgent uncles, namely China and Russia. While it is debatable whether Beijing encouraged the coup, it is clear that since it has been most accommodating in providing recognition to the junta. China has legitimate security, especially energy security, interests in Myanmar and real concerns about instability on its southern borders. The paradox is that these would best be protected under a civilian administration supported by the people of Myanmar rather than by a Sinophobic and incompetent junta. Yet, as with Modi’s India, Beijing’s ideological blinkers on the benefits of authoritarianism has meant that China will not admit a military-controlled Myanmar is counter to its own interests.

Russian behavior in Myanmar, namely ensuring sales of its weaponry and promoting Putin’s autocratic agenda worldwide, is more perfidious and self-indulgent. Like in the Donbass and Belarus, Myanmar provides an occasion for Putin’s macho promotion of Russia as a great power. Having largely lost both Vietnam and now India to the West, Moscow is left with Naypyidaw and Vientiane as its last Southeast Asian playgrounds.

3) The feckless and fractious cousins

Finally, the third group is the feckless and fractious cousins, Myanmar’s Southeast Asian neighbors of ASEAN, on whom the world has bestowed responsibility to resolve the crisis. In our view, this misconceived sub-contracting is premised on the vague notion of ASEAN’s regional centrality. Yet, it is one thing to pay lip service to “ASEAN centrality” out of diplomatic politeness. It is another thing to actually believe that it can bring results. “Centrality” is a question of positioning and, indeed, by default ASEAN has been the core around which other regional bodies such as the East Asia Summit, the ASEAN Regional Forum, Asia-Pacific Economic Cooperation, the Regional Comprehensive Economic Partnership, etc. have been grafted. But “centrality” per se indicates nothing about capability or capacity, let alone political willingness.

At its emergency summit on April 24, and in the visit of two of its emissaries on June 5-7, as well as the ASEAN Foreign Ministers meeting and other ASEAN summits of last week, ASEAN has given legitimacy to the junta. This has occurred without any at least public contact with the democratically elected leaders of Myanmar. The appointment on August 3 of a compromise candidate, the Brunei Deputy Foreign Minister, Erywan Yusof, as ASEAN’s special envoy to Myanmar is hardly a cause for optimism. As well as lacking the gravitas and experience of Indonesia’s preferred candidate, Hassan Wirajuda, he comes from ASEAN’s smallest country and one with an authoritarian regime. Above all he is dependent on the goodwill of the junta to have unfettered access to Aung San Suu Kyi and other National League for Democracy (NLD) leaders. It is hard to see how an even-handed dialogue can be organized between the jailers and the jailed, as calls so far from some ASEAN members—Indonesia, Malaysia, and Singapore—for the release of political prisoners have gone unheeded.

ASEAN has been successful over fifty years in maintaining peace between its members. However, it has neither the “carrots” nor “the sticks” to bring about change within one of them. For example, under the 2008 ASEAN Charter there are no provisions for any member to be expelled. Above all, the sacrosanct—and self-serving—principle of non-interference will always negate the application of the seventh of the Charter’s purposes and principles: the strengthening of democracy and the promotion and protection of human rights and fundamental freedoms.

Moreover, not only is there a serious systemic issue, but there is also clearly a lack of political will to promote a return to democracy in Myanmar. The crude reality is that the majority of ASEAN members have authoritarian or semi-authoritarian regimes. What is the interest of the Thai master of coups, ex-general, now Prime Minister Prayuth Chan-ocha, in seeing the Burmese civil disobedience movement succeed? Would it not further encourage the irrepressible Thai members of the Milk Tea Alliance who periodically occupy the streets of Bangkok to continue denouncing a kindred patriarchal regime? Does the Politburo of the Vietnamese Communist Party really want to see its own netizens succeed in virtually challenging an authoritarian regime? As for Cambodian Prime Minister Hun Sen and Philippines President Rodrigo “Digong” Duterte, democratic values are the least of their concerns. Finally, ASEAN is chaired at the moment by the Sultanate of Brunei, the last remaining absolute monarchy in Southeast Asia.

The divisions within ASEAN came into focus during the non-binding vote in the UN General Assembly on June 18 last calling for an arms embargo and the release of political prisoners (item 34-A/75/L.85.Rev. 1). Six ASEAN countries voted yes: Indonesia, Malaysia, Myanmar itself, the Philippines, Singapore and Vietnam. The other four—Brunei, Cambodia, Laos and Thailand—abstained. Divisions of this kind within a regional entity based on the principle of consensus have only one result, namely procrastination and a degree of immobilism. This is otherwise known as the ASEAN Way.

Conclusions

When an orphan’s extended family fails lamentably, fortunately there is an alternative: turning to your friends. Sympathetic parliamentarians in the countries of the “kindly and unengaged aunts”—the U.S. Congress, the British Parliament, the French Senate, and the Australian Parliament—are pushing for more assertive action from their country’s respective executives. Civil society groups and democratically inclined politicians in Southeast Asia increasingly see the combat for Myanmar’s democracy as their own. In the West a vocal Burmese diaspora, advocacy groups, engaged academics and other supporters are militating to ensure that this orphan is not forgotten. It remains a moot point whether this will lead to concrete and tangible actions, such as the recognition of the National Unity Government, and whether international intervention of the basis of the Right to Protect will ensue.

A moment of truth will arrive on September 15 when the question of Myanmar’s representation at the UN comes up for a vote in the General Assembly Credentials Committee. In the meantime, the twin calamities of the violent repression since the coup and the ravages of the COVID-19 pandemic are testing, once again, the extraordinary resilience of the people of Myanmar.

David Camroux is an honorary senior research fellow and adjunct professor at Sciences Po (CERI), Paris.

Alex Aung Khant is a youth and political activist from Yangon, a member of the National League for Democracy, and a grandnephew of Aung San Suu Kyi.

An earlier version of this article was posted on New Mandala on July 16, 2021.