We're Live Bangla Monday, September 27, 2021

Pulling Myanmar from the brink will be a fraught effort

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Protesters throw molotov cocktails in an attempt to block security forces in Yangon on March 16, 2021.PHOTO: NYTIMES

Molotov cocktails have been spotted on Myanmar streets as the military regime adopts battlefield tactics for use in urban Yangon.

With some 200 of their compatriots gunned down over the past month, people resisting the Feb 1 military coup are searching for and sharing information on incendiary devices like pressure cooker bombs and other weapons like slingshots.

In this fog of grief, anger and confusion fuelled by junta-mandated Internet blackouts, "negotiation" has become a dirty word. Protesters are bracing themselves for a lopsided showdown against an institution armed to its teeth.

Many people no longer entertain the idea of reinstating the tenuous power-sharing arrangement between the military and civilian politicians before Feb 1. They want the military out.

One sign pasted on a fence in Yangon last week warned families of military informers "they will be driven out of the ward and their lives are not guaranteed".

With little international appetite for a more forceful intervention, negotiation remains the only way for a resolution to the crisis in the country, say analysts. But any attempt, including external ones from big investors like China, will be a fraught and uphill effort.

"If China is really interested in protecting all its significant economic interests in Myanmar, its energies should now be focused on basically having a dialogue with the wider international community on finding where there can be possible entry points for mediation," says ISEAS - Yusof Ishak fellow Moe Thuzar. "Mediation is imperative, though the ground sentiment in Myanmar is really hardening on that as well."

It remains to be seen what kind of pomp the military can muster for its highly symbolic Armed Forces Day on March 27. It is trying to put out several fires at the same time.

Commander-in-chief Min Aung Hlaing is pressing ahead with his aim to prove that the Nov 8 election, which swept the National League for Democracy to power for the second time, is fraudulent. It has piled increasingly serious criminal charges against deposed NLD leader Aung San Suu Kyi that will rule her out of politics - if and when fresh elections are called after a one-year state of emergency.

His regime has pressed treason charges against key individuals appointed by the Committee Representing Pyidaungsu Hluttaw (CPRH), a group formed to act on behalf of the elected lawmakers thwarted from being sworn in.

CPRH has, in turn, declared the junta a terrorist group and given its blessings to the people to defend themselves.

A wide-ranging strike has paralysed the banking sector, stalled imports and exports, and throttled logistics networks. As a result, the cost of fuel in Myanmar has spiked 15 per cent nationwide since the coup, says the United Nations World Food Programme.

The regime's attempts to coerce banks to reopen have inadvertently raised fears of a run on the banks. In a leaked memo issued last week, it pressed the central bank to order private banks to resume operations or transfer their deposit accounts to state- or military-owned banks.

Foreign investors are on the edge after over 70 people were reportedly killed on Sunday (March 14), most of them in Yangon's industrial district of Hlaing Tharyar. That day, 32 Chinese-funded enterprises in Yangon suffered some US$37 million ($49.7 million) worth of damage, according to Chinese media. The declaration of martial law in Hlaing Tharyar sparked an exodus of workers, a further blow to the manufacturing sector.

Ms Moe Thuzar says: "The military seems to be in no position right now to protect the economic enterprises of investors, beyond taking measures such as we have seen in trying to establish what it perceives as control in the country."

Amid shrill anti-China sentiment stemming from the belief that Beijing was propping up the regime, Beijing was slammed again on Sunday after its embassy in Myanmar urged protection for Chinese lives and property without mentioning how many locals had been killed that same day.

University of Hong Kong political scientist Enze Han says China is caught in a bind.

"You have lots of things at stake and if you antagonise the military, the consequences for your interests can also be quite bad," he said. "Many Chinese investments in Myanmar are infrastructural and they do need the military's blessing for those projects to be maintained in a particular order."

On top of that, Chinese foreign policy has to balance competing and sometimes conflicting interests among ministries and powerful state-owned enterprises. The latter is often involved in energy and hydropower projects.

But Dr Han says China should be "more forceful" in its engagement with Myanmar's military. It is likely currently doing "lots of backdoor pressuring, on both the military as well as the NLD, to come into negotiation", he said.

It must be said that Myanmar has yet to fall into failed state territory. While the Kachin Independence Army, one of 20 armed ethnic groups, clashed with the military over the past week, most of the others have refrained from similar confrontation despite refusing to engage with the junta.

Some believe cooler heads within Myanmar's anti-coup movement - honed through years of clandestine operations under earlier decades of military rule - will eventually prevail.

Dr Jane Ferguson, an anthropologist from the Australian National University, says: "There are political parties and workplace organisations, unions, experienced civil society organisations and political organisers that are part of this. There are people who really know the language of political organisation and negotiation as well, so I am confident they would have the ability to negotiate."

Getting the military to the table is another matter altogether.