Myanmar's street protesters need the world's help to restore democracy
Four weeks after he deposed Myanmar’s democratically elected government, General Min Aung Hlaing must be getting that sinking feeling. His carefully orchestrated retirement plan (he was due to retire in July this year, before leading the coup on 1 February) has faced sustained protests from the street and international condemnation, even from vocal members of the normally staid Association of South-east Asian Nations (Asean). The general has also over-played the army’s tried-and-tested strategy of deploying brutal firepower. The protesters are not backing down, and the time has come for the international community to call the general’s bluff and insist on the restoration of the National League for Democracy’s (NLD) rightful claim to power.
Achieving this will require an unusual degree of global cooperation and consensus, both in short supply at the moment. However, this may prove to be just the kind of global leadership that presidents Biden and Xi may wish to exercise, with the support of regional players Japan, India, Singapore and Indonesia.
During Myanmar’s previous periods of military rule, the country’s neighbours have either looked the other way (Asean, which held on to its stated policy of non-interference until some members decided to break ranks after the 1 February coup) or tacitly supported the generals (China notably) as they stripped a once rich country of mining resources and set back economic and political progress by decades. The army’s architecture of terror was built on the brazen belief that they could carry on their repression because the street could be easily silenced, and the impact of the international community’s outrage and sanctions was largely borne by ordinary people. By turning the clock back during successive decades of repression, the generals succeeded in making Myanmar one of the poorest countries in Asia.
Min Aung Hlaing’s calculus may have been something similar when he assumed charge in early February, but he and his fellow generals have made a major miscalculation. They underestimated the positive impact that a decade of democracy and economic liberalisation has had on the country’s 54 million citizens. Democracy, however flawed and tarnished it may be in Myanmar, has the notion of checks and balances, and the NLD’s historic election victory last year was a rude wake-up call for Min Aung Hlaing and his cohort, fearful that their power and privileges would only reduce over a period of time.
This historical context is useful because restoring democracy in Myanmar is very different from previous (and futile) international efforts to do the same elsewhere. For a start, international sanctions led by the Biden administration, however targeted they might be, will simply not work in the Myanmar context. Reducing the international travel and banking access of a small group of generals will embolden them further to shun the world and take the country back to the dark times of the 1960s and 1970s. There is another approach possible, which will require the US to work closely with China and prominent Asean members. The fact that leading lights of Asean, such as Indonesia and Singapore, have shunned contact with the new regime and are openly calling for dialogue and restoration of civilian rule should be a sign for Min Aung Hlaing that the game is up. Beijing could play a hugely constructive role by recognising that its long-term strategic interests are aligned with having a stable Myanmar on its borders.
How would such an international alliance work in practice? A possible model is the original six-party talks to negotiate and resolve the North Korean nuclear issue. Myanmar does not possess nuclear weapons and is not a geopolitical threat to its neighbours, as Kim Jong-un’s murderous regime surely is. This fact alone should reduce the potential for regional rivalries and jockeying, which have plagued the North Korean process from the start. As strategic competitors, the US and China should regard Myanmar as an early test of their ability to collaborate on areas of common global interest, while competing fiercely on issues such as trade and security. The involvement of other countries in the process would send a powerful signal of resolve by the international community.
Min Aung Hlaing and his minions should face consequences for the coup and the killings of peaceful protesters, a legal process that should be led by the democratic government. At the same time, any international intervention should include a settlement for the return of the estimated 1 million Rohingya refugees and for a fair process to resolve longstanding disputes with other ethnic minorities in the country, many of whom have taken to the jungle in the last few decades.
What about Aung San Suu Kyi herself? It is clear she enjoys broad public support and is regarded by many in Myanmar as the guardian of newfound democracy and economic freedoms. During her last stint as a guest of the army, Daw Suu, as she is known, become an icon of democracy through her stubborn resistance and refusal to bend to the will of the generals. Democracy has exposed a different side to the leader, who is revered at home and reviled in many parts of the world. She has proven to be a calculating politician and has doubled down on a strategy to diminish the suffocating influence of the generals in all aspects of Myanmar society. This is a worthy cause for which she received much initial international support, until she sacrificed Rohingya rights to prove her credentials as a Bamar nationalist. Should the international community come to Myanmar’s rescue, it will be interesting to see which Daw Suu will show up – the nationalist since 2011 or the defender of freedoms from an earlier phase.