Five Hard Truths About Myanmar
Myanmar (then called Burma) became independent in 1948. In 1962, General Ne Win seized power in a coup. Thereafter, until 2011, Myanmar was under the rule of the Tatmadaw, as the Myanmar military is called.
For much of this half century of military rule, Myanmar isolated itself from the rest of the world. Pursuing the so-called ‘Burmese Way to Socialism’, Myanmar shunned both Cold War blocs, even withdrawing from the Non-Aligned Movement. The world, and in particular the West, by which I mean the US, Canada and Europe, returned the compliment by largely ignoring Myanmar. The country descended into economic ruin and irrelevance.
It was only after 1988, when student demonstrations against military rule precipitated a bloody crackdown in which an estimated four to five thousand demonstrators were killed that the West began to take notice of Myanmar. The timing could not have been worse. The Cold War was winding down. In the Soviet Union, Gorbachev had taken over and was pursuing perestroika, an implicit admission of the failure of the Soviet system. The West was feeling triumphant – an attitude that soon morphed into hubris.
The West approached Myanmar through a misplaced sense of moral superiority, rather than through strategic calculation. Regarding Myanmar as strategically irrelevant, Western policies were hypocritical, self-indulgent, and did nothing to change the Tatmadaw’s behaviour. Western sanctions were often subject to carve-outs in areas where Western companies had interests, such as the energy sector. The policies of most Western countries were intended to make themselves look and feel good, rather than do good. (Nothing epitomized this Western attitude more than the absurd insistence on calling the country ‘Burma’ – as if a country had no right to name itself. True, it was only in 1989 that the Tatmadaw changed ‘Burma’ to the Republic of the Union of Myanmar. But this is the official name recognized by the United Nations. To pretend otherwise is only to betray self-indulgence and an inflated sense of self-importance. It succeeds only in irritating the Tatmadaw without changing its behaviour.)
The West approached Myanmar through a misplaced sense of moral superiority, rather than through strategic calculation.
On February 1st of this year, the world woke up to find that the Tatmadaw had again launched a coup against the elected government of Aung San Suu Kyi. After the initial shock, many felt a sense of déjà vu. Then and now, the situation in Myanmar is a congenial backdrop for poseurs around the world who enjoy striking sanctimonious attitudes – brave because safely beyond the reach of the Tatmadaw. Such people are beyond reason. But in the hope that, this time, policymakers in the US, Canada and Europe wish actually to do good rather than just feel good, here are five hard truths about Myanmar.
On February 1st of this year, the world woke up to find that the Tatmadaw had again launched a coup against the elected government of Aung San Suu Kyi. After the initial shock, many felt a sense of déjà vu.
First, an accurate appreciation of the strategic context must be the basis of policy goals
Rivalry between the US and its allies and partners and China is now the central strategic reality of international relations. In 1988, the West harboured the delusion that there was no alternative to its system and that all countries – China included – would sooner or later converge to some variant of its system. It thus fundamentally misread the strategic context and pursued policies that only pushed the Tatmadaw into China’s embrace without any effect on the Tatmadaw’s internal behaviour.
Authoritarian though both may be, there is no natural affinity between the Tatmadaw and China. Since independence, the Tatmadaw has continually fought against various insurgencies. The Communist Party of Burma, supported by China, was the immediate post-independence threat. Despite numerous ceasefires, insurgencies by ethnic minorities are still a real and present danger. Many of these insurgencies are still armed or otherwise directly or indirectly supported by China. The Tatmadaw deeply distrusts China – indeed, key reason for its experiment with constitutional civilian rule was to broaden its strategic options.
Authoritarian though both may be, there is no natural affinity between the Tatmadaw and China.
China was as surprised as any other country by the recent coup. Its attitude towards the State Administration Council (SAC), as the junta calls itself, has been correct but cool. China values stability and predictability in relations, and the situation in Myanmar is now unstable and dangerously unpredictable. Beijing had spent much effort cultivating – successfully – the deposed civilian government. The anti-military demonstrations have taken on an anti-Chinese slant. Beijing is nevertheless coldly pragmatic. Unburdened by illusions about value promotion being the most important goal of foreign policy, it will go further than the West to accommodate the SAC in order to protect Chinese interests and seek strategic advantage.
The restoration of ‘democracy’ – as the West understands that protean term – should therefore not be the goal of Western policies vis-à-vis Myanmar. That will not only be strongly resisted by the Tatmadaw. ASEAN, too, will be ambivalent, given the diversity of the political systems of its members. Even America’s Indo-Pacific allies and partners like Japan, Australia and India – all democracies – will be unenthusiastic about an approach that could hand China an advantage. Instead, the goal should be restoration of some form or semblance of civilian and constitutional rule. This is not the same thing as the restoration of ‘democracy’.
The Tatmadaw has said that it will hold new elections after a year, and hand over power to whomever wins them. The deadline will probably not be kept. And when elections are eventually held, it is unlikely that they will be ‘free and fair’, as the West understands those terms. But even under civilian rule, Myanmar was far from a perfect ‘democracy’, as the constitution built in a privileged political role for the military. As such, the least bad options for Western policy are to aim for new elections and near-term civilian rule, rather than to push for ‘democracy’. These least-bad options hold out the possibility that Western goals can intersect with those of the Tatmadaw. Moreover, this approach will be supported by ASEAN, America’s Indo-Pacific allies and partners, and perhaps even by China.
Second, the Tatmadaw is not just the problem, but an irreplaceable part of any solution
The Tatmadaw’s origins are in the Imperial Japanese Army. It is the only military force in the world that has been in continuous combat for more than 70 years since independence. This has instilled a culture of unquestioning obedience to superiors and extreme brutality. Furthermore, the Tatmadaw is very largely a self-referencing and highly privileged state-within-the-state, with even ordinary soldiers and their families leading lives far removed from other Myanmarese. If ordered to shoot at civilians, they will do so, and already have done so. Indeed, appalling though its behaviour may be to everyone else on the outside, the Tatmadaw has thus far, by its own standards, been restrained in dealing with the demonstrations.
Myanmar officially recognizes 135 ethnic minorities. Several of these ethnic minorities have taken up arms against the Myanmarese state since independence. The Tatmadaw’s claim that it is entitled to a political role because it has held the state together is not without basis. Recently, some armed ethnic minority groups have issued vaguely worded statements that could be interpreted as support for the anti-military demonstrators. These groups have their own agendas. If the Tatmadaw is seriously weakened, splits or, worst of all, is somehow dismantled, Myanmar could fragment and descend into civil war and chaos. We already have the sobering examples of Iraq, Syria, and Libya before us. The destabilizing effects of such a scenario would not be confined within Myanmar’s borders. (Let us remember that there are, in camps in Thailand, still a million or so refugees and their descendants from 1988.)
If the Tatmadaw is seriously weakened, splits or, worst of all, is somehow dismantled, Myanmar could fragment and descend into civil war and chaos.
Beyond maintaining Myanmar’s territorial integrity, after half a century of military rule, the Tatmadaw is the best functioning institution in Myanmar. Previous governments had only begun to rebuild civilian institutions. We should not idealize the civilian institutions, even as we try to build their capabilities. Restoring these institutions will take a long time. After 50 years, these institutions had atrophied and decayed. They were weak, inefficient and as corrupt as the military. Their condition will not magically change overnight if civilian rule is restored.
For the foreseeable future, governing Myanmar without the participation of the military is simply not a practical proposition. The Tatmadaw has always played a central role in the Myanmarese polity. In all but the most extreme scenarios – which are in no one’s interests – it will retain a central role after the current situation is resolved. The Tatmadaw’s institutional interests cannot be ignored if further bloodshed is to be minimized. Both sides must exercise restraint.
Third, Aung San Suu Kyi (ASSK) is not without responsibility for the current imbroglio
A friend of mine, an expert on Myanmar, once quipped that the problem with Myanmar is that it is ruled by a queen and a king, but they are not married to each other. ASSK and the Tatmadaw are too much alike in fundamental ways to make working together comfortable for either side. Both have a strong sense of entitlement to rule: ASSK because of her family lineage and the sacrifices that she has made; the Tatmadaw because of its vital role in holding Myanmar together. That both of their claims contain elements of truth makes compromise all the more difficult, and both see politics as a zero-sum game. This sense of entitlement inclines both ASSK and the Tatmadaw to regard ordinary Myanmarese as subjects, not citizens.
ASSK and the Tatmadaw are too much alike in fundamental ways to make working together comfortable for either side.
To the West, ASSK was an icon of democracy. But she led her party, the National League for Democracy (NLD), imperiously. This caused many talented members to leave, strengthening her personally, but weakening the NLD as a proper party. ASSK’s attitude toward the Rohingyas was no different from that of the Tatmadaw and almost all Bamar, the majority ethnic group. Her defence of the Tatmadaw at the Hague against charges of genocide made her immensely popular with her people, which probably increased the Tatmadaw’s jealousy and distrust of her. (It is a measure of Western naïveté that ASSK’s attitude toward the Rohingya shocked many in the West. It shocked no one familiar with Myanmar. To ASSK, democracy and human rights were much more instruments to gain power than values or ends in and of themselves. To the extent that they were values or ends, they were highly qualified values, and the Rohingya were clearly excluded.)
ASSK did little to assuage the Tatmadaw’s distrust. On the contrary, her reluctance to convene the National Defence and Security Council, which is constitutionally the highest executive authority and the formal means through which the Tatmadaw participates in the government, as well as her attempts to amend the constitution to allow herself to become president, must have increased the Tatmadaw’s distrust. As daughter of Aung San, the founder of the Tatmadaw, she must have understood its central role in Myanmar; indeed she once told a friend of mine that when she was a little girl, she wanted to be a general like her father. Ultimately, then, the differences between ASSK and the Tatmadaw are about power, not principle.
As State Counsellor, ASSK de facto already had all the powers of the head of state and government. The president was a non-entity. It is difficult to attribute her obsession to becoming president de jure as well as de facto to anything but a sense of entitlement. It seems clear, then, that the Tatmadaw now considers that the constitution under which ASSK won a landslide victory in the November 2020 elections gave her too much of an advantage, even if it was skewed in the Tatmadaw’s favour. The purpose of the criminal charges that the SAC has brought against ASSK, which include corruption and breach of the official secrets act, are intended to neuter her politically and bar her from again standing for elections. The Tatmadaw will not accept any solution that entails a return to the status quo ante after the November 2020 elections.
The price of holding any sort of new elections will be to jettison ASSK as a politician and instead secure assurances only about her personal safety. Myanmar’s neighbours – and perhaps even some in the West, who now understand that ASSK is not a saint – may be prepared to swallow this, but being jailed will not diminish ASSK’s popularity with the people, and may even enhance it. The impasse in Myanmar will thus be prolonged.
Fourth, sanctions do not work
Some two decades of sanctions after 1988 did nothing to change the Tatmadaw’s behaviour. Myanmar cannot really be isolated because it will always have a backdoor to China, a side-door to India, and ASEAN will not shun a neighbour. After 1988, ASEAN consistently told the West that blanket sanctions of the sort that the West deployed at the time and (unsuccessfully) tried to pressure ASEAN to support, would only hurt the people (not the Tatmadaw), and that isolating Myanmar would only erode Western influence and leave the Tatmadaw with no option but China. Of course, it was politically necessary for the West to respond in some way to the 1988 massacre. The sanctions served primarily to preserve Western amour propre and as a sop to domestic pressures. A friend of mine, who was at that time advising the foreign minister of a major Western power, told me that he had once asked his boss why ASEAN’s advice was not taken. The cynical reply was: “We’ll give this one to the NGOs.”
That insouciant attitude is no longer tenable in the new strategic context. It is still politically untenable for the West to do nothing. But thus far, at least, Western sanctions have been targeted at the Tatmadaw. And as it was already under sanctions over the Rohingya issue, this is only a marginal additional cost that it can live with. However, as the number of protestors killed mounts, so too will domestic pressures on Western government rise to do more. The Tatmadaw, for its part, clearly miscalculated the extent of popular resistance to the coup. But it will not bow to pressure. Additional sanctions will therefore only make it even more difficult for the Tatmadaw to climb down from the position that it has taken. And this brings me to the final hard truth.
The Tatmadaw, for its part, clearly miscalculated the extent of popular resistance to the coup. But it will not bow to pressure. Additional sanctions will only make it even more difficult for the Tatmadaw to climb down from the position that it has taken.
Fifth, however difficult it may be, governments must muster the political courage to be patient
The need for Western democratic governments to compose themselves in patience may be the hardest truth of all. This is particularly so in the age of social media, when the pressures of public opinion are immediate and constant, fed by real-time accounts of an unfolding crisis. We are perhaps fortunate that the imperatives of dealing with the Covid-19 pandemic are absorbing much of the West’s attention. And yet it is precisely under such circumstances of competing demands for attention that it more crucial than ever that policy be made on the basis of clinical calculations, rather than emotional response. No crisis is ever resolved before it is ripe for resolution. The clear conclusion to be drawn from the truths outlined herein is that the Myanmar crisis is far from ripe, and that is at a stage where precipitous action by external parties could be very dangerous.
This is where ASEAN comes in. On February 1st, a day after the coup, the Brunei chair quickly consulted other foreign ministers and put together a chair’s statement in record time. A month later, on March 2nd, Brunei convened an informal virtual ASEAN foreign ministers’ meeting and put out another chair’s statement. Anyone familiar with ASEAN would recognize these as not inconsequential achievements. Indonesia, too, has been active. Foreign minister Retno Marsudi has been indefatigable in consulting her colleagues, including Wunna Maung Lwin, whom the Tatmadaw has put in charge of foreign affairs.
Indonesian President Jokowi has proposed a special leaders’ meeting on Myanmar. Nothing should be taken for granted, but there already seems to be a general consensus in ASEAN on a leaders’ meeting. Even Myanmar has reportedly said that it will attend if it is held. The Brunei chair has suggested that the foreign ministers meet as a preliminary to a leaders’ meeting to work out the details. Expectations will be high and must be managed. If the leaders do meet, I expect that ASEAN’s many armchair critics will say that it achieved nothing – just as they already have over the two chair’s statements. Such criticisms are not entirely wrong, but beside the point. One never-openly-acknowledged-aspect of ASEAN’s ‘centrality’ is to act as an alibi.
Neither the US nor China really want to do more than they have already done on Myanmar. Both have other priorities, and are acutely aware of the strategic context of their rivalry. Neither wishes to do anything that could inadvertently give the other an advantage. Still, both could be pressed by domestic pressures into actions that they know to be strategically imprudent: the US because of the Tatmadaw’s growing human rights abuses; China because the demonstrations have taken an anti-Chinese turn.
Neither the US nor China really want to do more than they have already done on Myanmar. Both have other priorities, and are acutely aware of the strategic context of their rivalry. Neither wishes to do anything that could inadvertently give the other an advantage.
US Secretary of State Blinken has asked for a meeting with all 10 ASEAN members to discuss Myanmar, and Chinese Foreign Minister Wang Yi spoke to his Bruneian and Indonesian counterparts early in the crisis. He also recently met with the foreign ministers of Indonesia, Malaysia, the Philippines and Singapore in Fujian. Realistically, there is not very much that ASEAN – or any other country – can do at present to influence the course of events in Myanmar. All that the ASEAN leaders can do is discuss the situation and make another statement.
Having said this, as long as ASEAN gives the appearance of activity, other countries can let ASEAN take the lead in the name of its ‘centrality’. This staves off pressures to do more themselves or to take actions that could make an eventual return to at least a fig-leaf of constitutional rule in Myanmar more difficult than it already is; or, worse still, actions that could catalyze more killings because they embolden protesters with false hope of intervention on their side. A leaders’ meeting should be regarded as a step in ASEAN’s alibi diplomacy.
Having said this, as long as ASEAN gives the appearance of activity, other countries can let ASEAN take the lead in the name of its ‘centrality’.
Of course, activity as a substitute for action or as an alibi are legitimate diplomatic tactics. But such activity is not without risk. ASEAN must maintain a delicate balance. The leaders are ASEAN’s heaviest guns. Whatever they say or do should be strong enough to maintain ASEAN’s credibility as an effective alibi to prevent premature action, but not so tough as to alienate the Tatmadaw and foreclose the possibility of ASEAN playing a substantive role in the future – that is, when the Tatmadaw feels secure enough to move, and needs a ladder to climb down.
For its part, ASEAN can manage the risks and maintain such a balance provided its friends and dialogue partners understand the complexities, and refrain from the temptation to abuse the alibi ASEAN provides by placing unrealistic demands on it.