The way forward in Myanmar

There are several lessons to be learnt from the country’s tortuous politics

Updated - February 05, 2021 01:20 am IST

Published - February 05, 2021 12:50 am IST

Myanmar military personnel stand guard at a checkpoint manned with an armoured vehicle in a road leading to the parliament building in capital Naypyitaw on February 2, 2021.

Myanmar military personnel stand guard at a checkpoint manned with an armoured vehicle in a road leading to the parliament building in capital Naypyitaw on February 2, 2021.

In May 2008, Cyclone Nargis struck Myanmar, causing at least 138,000 deaths and displacing 1.5 million people. Surprisingly, the government announced a pre-scheduled referendum on the military-scripted constitution around the same time.

Amid limited communication channels available to reach out to Myanmar generals, there were calls for international military intervention to secure access to relief as the Myanmar military refused to allow foreign aid. It took several rounds of diplomacy from various members of the international community to gain access. This sums up the zeitgeist of Myanmar generals and the dilemma before the international community of isolating a country riven with mass-scale poverty and ethnic strife.

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There are indeed some common lessons for the international community to avoid making mistakes made in the past. One, the developments in Myanmar will invariably bring back the old debate around the prudence of sanctions. The coup in Myanmar coincided with the first month of the Biden administration in the U.S., which has promised to bring back the values of democracy and respect for human rights to the core of the U.S. foreign policy. Notwithstanding the western sanctions before 2010, China, Thailand and Singapore were the key trading partners of Myanmar. The present reality is no different. Singapore was reportedly the largest foreign investor in Myanmar in 2020, accounting for 34% of the overall approved investment. Given that the military has been able to economically withstand sanctions by striking deals with Asian countries in the past, sanctions are unlikely to bring any major political change. The limited European trade with Myanmar that started after 2010 benefits the poor — the European Union’s ‘Everything But Arms’ scheme targets the poor in Myanmar’s garment industry. The scheme allows the world’s least-developed countries, such as Myanmar, to export most goods to the EU free of duties.

Two, the old debate around the need for accountability for crimes against humanity will resurface. As political changes got underway in 2010, many generals, such as Than Shwe, who was the de-facto head of Myanmar from 1992 to 2011 and was on the radar of the international community for perpetuating a regime of human rights abuses, quietly vanished from the scene. This bred a culture of impunity. During the 2017 Rohingya crisis, senior military officials brazenly exploited social media to mobilise public support for brutality against Rohingyas.

China’s influence

Three, a critical international player in Myanmar is China. China has appointed specific envoys for Asian affairs, who are de-facto working on Myanmar-related issues since 2013. The international community, particularly the West, has to factor in China’s multi-layered influence on Myanmar.

The Hindu In Focus Podcast | The military coup in Myanmar and its geopolitical implications

Four, many international mechanisms comprising Western and Asian countries that were formed to coordinate strategies on Myanmar were disbanded after the 2015 election. That the changes in Myanmar were irreversible was the standard thinking. Relevant actors should be brought on a common platform by reviving past mechanisms.

Five, the expectation that Myanmar will see a nationwide protest against the Tatmadaw after the coup should be examined with the geographical extent of Bamar, Myanmar’s largest ethnic group, who support the National League for Democracy. The minorities in the country form around 35% of the population. In the current scenario, the military will continue to exploit ethnic and religious fault lines. Engagement with domestic stakeholders, including ethnic minorities, especially from the north, should be pursued by the international community.

No one possesses a magic wand of solutions. But there is one consistent lesson, that no change is irreversible, particularly in a context where military leadership scripted the meaning of democracy, and domestic forces and geopolitics continuously fail to deter its actions and impulses to rule.

The author was a member of the UN Secretary-General’s Good offices on Myanmar

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