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Calls by Myanmar anti-coup protesters for international military intervention get louder

Masses in the country of 54 million have refused to submit to the military coup.PHOTO: EPA-EFE

As the carnage unfolded on Myanmar's streets on Sunday (Feb 28), one hashtag made its rounds on social media: #WeNeedR2PInMyanmar.

R2P refers to Responsibility to Protect, a principle adopted in the aftermath of the 1994 Rwandan genocide, that justifies the international community taking collective action if a state fails to protect its own population from mass atrocities like war crimes and ethnic cleansing. This action includes steps taken through humanitarian aid or diplomacy, or more forceful ones, as a last resort.

For many Myanmar anti-coup protesters carrying the bloodied bodies of their peers through the streets after dodging stun grenades, rubber bullets and live rounds, Responsibility to Protect meant only one thing - military intervention.

At least 18 people were killed on Sunday as the military regime that seized power in the Feb 1 coup cracked down on protesters across the country, in cities like Yangon, Mandalay and Dawei.

Anti-coup protesters’ calls like “We need US Army” that could easily be brushed off as youthful naivety immediately after the coup have now acquired a darker undertone.

"Up until the last couple of days, I didn't want military intervention," a young woman who spent her Sunday ferrying protesters to safety in her car told The Straits Times. "But now the situation has changed. Myanmar people are waiting impatiently for the United Nations (to implement) R2P."

So frenzied is this discussion online that some have even argued against Myanmar's ethnic armed groups clashing with the military in case it deterred foreign troops from setting foot on Myanmar soil.

According to the Global Centre for the Responsibility to Protect, which conducts research and advocacy on the issue, R2P has been invoked in more than 80 United Nations Security Council resolutions concerning the crisis in countries like Somalia and Syria.

Whether it might be invoked for Myanmar could depend on what happens at the special Asean foreign ministers meeting being planned for Tuesday (March 2).

While officially limited by its policy of non-interference, Asean, by virtue of its long-standing engagement with member state Myanmar, has one of the highest chances of forging some form of political negotiation within the country, analysts say.

Coup-maker and commander-in-chief Min Aung Hlaing, who now chairs an apex body called the State Administration Council (SAC), has detained ousted leader Aung San Suu Kyi and reinstated laws used to crush dissent in five decades of military rule prior to the country's democratic transition.

But the masses in the country of 54 million have refused to submit.

Lawmakers elected during the Nov 8 election, which was decried as fraudulent by Senior General Min Aung Hlaing, have regrouped under a body called the Committee Representing Pyidaungsu Hluttaw, or Myanmar’s parliament. It has appointed envoys and issued instructions for localities to establish their own administrations independent of the junta.

Civil servants have walked off their jobs and onto the streets.

To add to the humiliation, Myanmar's then ambassador to the United Nations Kyaw Moe Tun defected last Friday (Feb 26), denouncing the coup before the General Assembly and urging the UN to "use any means necessary to take action against the Myanmar military".

Political analyst Soe Myint Aung said the regime "began to feel threatened by the protests in the streets as well as the international challenge to its legitimacy. The violent crackdown as it happened (on Sunday) could be a sign of its vulnerability."

While protesters still turned out on the streets of Yangon, Dawei and Mandalay on Monday, their numbers appeared to have shrunk following Sunday’s military clampdown.

Yet the junta is now on a much weaker footing than it was three weeks ago, said Mr Soe Myint Aung.

As such, the regime could try to lean on Asean for recognition.

"The SAC will probably first try to get state- or elite-level legitimisation through Asean," he said. "If there is proper recognition on the part of Asean of the military regime, then the SAC can use its treatment of the dissident forces as bargaining chips."

Asean, say observers, needs to engage with the Myanmar military just enough to get an opening for future negotiations, but not so much as to legitimise the coup.

It is a venture that will be delicate and thankless – but absolutely vital.