West must heed ASEAN’s pragmatism
The military coup in Myanmar has shone a glaring spotlight on how global power has shifted.
What, then, is to be done with the dictatorial Tatmadaw regime which deploys troops to murder civilians, including children, and is accused of genocide against an ethnic minority?
What, indeed, when the regime is supported by two autocratic powers, China and Russia, whose reach is far longer than a generation ago, when the world would instinctively look to Washington or Brussels for answers.
Myanmar has turned full circle from those heady days that began in November 2010, when the military released that icon of democracy, Aung San Suu Kyi, from her long years of house arrest.
Enveloped in a wave of optimism, Myanmar appeared to be on a steady trajectory towards becoming a stable and freer society.
At least, this was the narrative in Western corridors of power until 2017, with the eruption of the Rohingya ethnic cleansing. Aung San Suu Kyi’s refusal to fall in line with Western condemnation of the crisis followed. The dream of democracy finally shattered on February 1 when, with killings and arrests, the military took back its absolute power.
There are echoes here of the expectation that accompanied the break-up of the Soviet Union, which led to numerous conflicts and the end of Yugoslavia, with wars in Bosnia and Kosovo. So, too, with the misnamed Arab Spring, where hope was trounced by on-the-ground reality and bloodshed.
The next steps in Myanmar, therefore, need to be embedded in what is achievable, with goals best set within the region by the Association of Southeast Asian Nations. The consensus agreed at the end of last month included an end to violence, dialogue toward a solution ‘in the interests of all people’ and humanitarian assistance.
ASEAN has set itself a very low bar. Notably, it made no reference to support for the National Unity Government and release of prisoners like Aung San Suu Kyi. Both are significant points of reference for the West, whose governments and commentators have concentrated on harsher measures such as sanctions, war crimes, and multi-national monitoring or peace-keeping operations.
Both ends of this spectrum are fraught with challenges, but ASEAN’s is more realistic. The Western response is too similar to one of ten or 20 years ago, when the world was in a very different place.
Sanctions are legitimate and necessary. But they need to be wrapped in a wider package. The warning of war crimes might be welcomed by Western elites, but it is difficult to see how the conviction of a few generals, even if they went through, would translate into security for Myanmar’s 54 million people. In the same way, an international force, even if allowed in, could well end up a target itself.
Such measures also risk pushing Myanmar further into the Russian and Chinese camps, whose economies and weapons now offer an attractive alternative.
China’s entwinement with Myanmar is well documented. Russia’s is less known. Nikkei Asia reported that more than 6,000 officers currently serving in the Myanmar military have received science and engineering degrees in Russia. Moscow is also supplying more arms, as is Delhi, thus lessening Myanmar’s reliance on Beijing.
Russia’s deputy defence minister, Alexander Fomin, was a guest of honour at Myanmar’s Armed Forces Day on March 27, while troops were shooting street activists who had renamed it ‘Anti-Military Dictatorship Day’.
All of this shows up the new truth.
President Joe Biden has spoken about asserting American moral authority, but there is no appetite to intervene in a country that China views as its own backyard. And if it did, Myanmar would almost certainly become a proxy state in the growing Sino-American antagonism, causing further division and risking more conflict.
The largely homogenous Asian societies of South Korea and Taiwan took half a century to move from military rule to democracy. One wonders what chance there is for Myanmar, riddled as it is by ethnic divisions, corruption, and generals clinging to vested interests.
The West needs to listen more carefully to Southeast Asia. ASEAN’s short-term ambitions are about stopping people getting shot and keeping them fed and sheltered. They might not be racy or crowd-pleasing. They do not carry the razamataz of an election. Nor do they identify heroes and villains.
They might, however, help make Myanmar a safer place which, in the first instant, is what is needed most.