Forgotten Hell In Southeast Asia: How To Stop Repression And Civil War In Myanmar? – OpEd


Recently was marked the second anniversary of the coup in Myanmar. The military coup began on the morning of February 1, 2021, when the democratic government led by the National League for Democracy (NLD) was violently overthrown by the Myanmar military (Tatmadaw). Power was usurped by a military junta. Acting President Myint Swe declared a one-year state of emergency and announced that power had been transferred to the Commander-in-Chief of the Defense Services, Min Aung Hlaing, who became the leader of the junta. The new leader declared the results of the November 2020 general election invalid and expressed his intention to hold new elections after the end of the state of emergency.

The coup took place a day before Myanmar’s parliament was due to swear in members elected in the 2020 elections. The coup prevented it from happening. In the 2020 elections, the NLD won convincingly. Former President Win Myint and State Counselor Aung San Suu Kyi were detained along with ministers, their aides and members of parliament.

In the 21st century, a repressive dictatorship was introduced in Southeast Asia’s largest country by area with 54 million people, as if it were 1921 and not 2021. The military junta authorities sentenced Suu Kyi to 33 years in prison, violently cracked down on people’s protests against the coup, massively arrested journalists, and imprisoned political opponents. Several leading pro-democracy activists were executed, drawing condemnation from the United Nations and human rights groups. According to Myanmar’s independent non-profit Association for Aid to Political Prisoners (AAPP), junta authorities have killed at least 2,900 people in the past two years and arrested more than 17,500, most of whom are still in custody. And all this happened without much media and diplomatic fanfare, as if Myanmar was not part of the same planet. On the contrary, the country is located in a very important geopolitical area.

Historical continuity of violence

The Republic of the Union of Myanmar (formerly Burma) is located in the strategically important region of Southeast Asia. It borders China to the northeast, Laos and Thailand to the east, and India and Bangladesh to the northwest. It has access to the Andaman Sea and the Bay of Bengal, both of which belong to the Indian Ocean. The capital is the city of Naypyidaw, while the largest city is Yangon, which with its metropolitan area has more than seven million inhabitants. Myanmar is a member of the East Asia Summit, ASEAN, the Non-Aligned Movement and BIMSTEC, but is not a member of the British Commonwealth even though it was once a British colony. The country is very rich in natural resources, such as gems, oil, natural gas, teak and other minerals. It is also endowed with renewable energy: Myanmar has the highest solar energy potential compared to other countries in the Greater Mekong subregion.

Unfortunately, this is a country where internal conflicts have been going on for a long time. This is not uncommon for Southeast Asia. Neighboring Cambodia experienced three decades of civil war in the late 20th century. Myanmar has been the scene of ethnic civil wars for decades. Myanmar’s armed forces have been fighting various insurgent groups since independence. But these conflicts were low-tech, mostly involving ground troops in a never-ending battle for territory in disputed border regions. They often differed little from trench warfare at the beginning of the 20th century.

In 2012, in Kachin State – just after the air force received its first Mi-35 helicopter – the military made its first major use of air power against insurgents. Airstrikes have also been used in some other internal conflicts that took place during Myanmar’s 10-year democratic period, in the Shan and Rakhine states (the persecution of Rohingya Muslims). Essentially, the military ruled Myanmar for decades after gaining independence from UK in 1948, and dominated the country’s economy and politics even before the coup.

The chaos and lawlessness of the civil war

Two years after the coup, Myanmar, a poor country in Southeast Asia, is rocked by violence, lawlessness and instability. The coup was followed by a civil war. The economy has experienced a significant decline, food shortages are omnipresent as well as fuel and other basic necessities. Myanmar’s National Defense and Security Council recently approved a request by junta leader Min Aung Hlaing to extend the state of emergency for another six months. The authorities extend the state of emergency every six months and thus provide a legal basis for a military dictatorship. Deep in the jungle, rebel groups are fighting the military forces of the junta. Among the rebels are a handful of teenagers and students, whose lives and ambitions have been turned upside down by a civil war with no end in sight.

In the months since the coup, millions of citizens across Myanmar have engaged in protests, strikes and other forms of civil disobedience, unwilling to give up the freedoms recently won under democratic reforms that followed decades of brutal military rule. The authorities retaliated with a bloody crackdown in which civilians were killed in the streets, kidnapped in night raids and tortured in custody.

In addition to major military attacks against rebel forces, smaller battles are taking place almost every day between government forces and rebel groups that have emerged across the country, teaming up with long-established ethnic militias. Some of these rebel groups effectively control parts of Myanmar beyond the junta’s reach – and many are made up of young volunteers who have left behind families and friends for the future of their nation. Since the coup d’état in February 2021, the army has suffered heavy losses in road ambushes carried out by the People’s Defense Forces (PDF) – a volunteer militia formed after the junta crushed peaceful protests.

However, despite the best efforts of the rebels, it is a desperately unequal fight. After two years of conflict, their means and resources are dwindling. For example, footage from Myanmar’s eastern state of Kayah showing young people in uniform training in the mountains, making homemade ammunition in jungle workshops and storing bullets in coolers. These shots are in stark contrast to the powerful arsenal of tanks and warplanes the Tatmadaw possesses. Airstrikes by junta forces have become a new and deadly tactic in the civil war. The junta’s air force has grown to about 70 aircraft in recent years, mostly of Russian and Chinese manufacture. More than 600 airstrikes were carried out.

The international community is turning its head away from Myanmar

While millions of civilians in Myanmar struggle with the bleak post-coup reality, much of the world turns its head away and refuses to see the horrors of the country’s dictatorship and civil war. About 1.1 million people were displaced, more than 28,000 homes were destroyed, and thousands of people were killed. Although according to World Bank data, last year 40% of Myanmar’s population lived below the poverty line, which is not surprising since food and fuel prices have skyrocketed. However, little concrete aid to the democratic forces came from abroad.

In 2021, the European Parliament passed a law recognizing the opposition Government of National Unity (in exile) as “the only legitimate representative of the democratic wishes of the people of Myanmar”. The EU is one of the few international institutions that has done so. The National Unity Government is made up of representatives from the National League for Democracy (the party led by Suu Kyi), ethnic minority groups and various smaller parties. Although many foreign governments still consider Win Myint the president and Suu Kyi the foreign minister of Myanmar, it is interesting that Western military aid to the opposition did not follow, unlike the wholehearted military aid to Ukraine. By the way, the military junta declared this shadow government an illegal and terrorist organization.

Although the EU and other foreign governments have provided funding for humanitarian aid, aid remains limited. Groups like the Red Cross say their operations on the ground have been hampered by fighting and financial challenges. In a report from December, the UN Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs (OCHA) said that its plan for Myanmar was “drastically underfunded”, amounting to $290 million of the required $826 million. It is obvious that the centers of power deliberately “forgot” about the Myanmar crisis. Many analysts believe that the “Ukrainian model” of aid could be applied to Myanmar not in terms of arms imports, but in taking coordinated actions such as effective economic sanctions that target the junta’s source of income, weapons procurement and the raw materials used to make weapons inside the country. .

However, not everything is so dark for the opposition. The junta is in trouble. There are reports that the military controls less than half of the country and that its functioning is suffering from financial difficulties, partly thanks to the sanctions already in place. Of course, foreign aid is even more necessary so that the opposition forces can take the initiative on the battlefield and turn the situation around. The US, Canada, UK and Australia announced a new round of sanctions on the second anniversary of the coup, targeting members of the junta and entities linked to the junta.

Elections and government reconstruction – a potential turning point

Despite the unenviable state of chaos and disorder in which Myanmar finds itself, even if the battlefield is ignored, important political battles can be expected in the near future that could shape the future of Myanmar: either long-term military junta rule or a return. democracy. Namely, it is expected that the State Administration Council (the formal name of the junta) could undergo a name change. Furthermore, while Hlaing is expected to retain control, opposition media outlet Irrawaddy recently cited sources as saying that the junta intends to form a “transitional council” and that more powers will go to acting president Myint Swe (he was acting president for nine days in March 2018). It is possible that more civilians will come to power through the reconstruction of the government. In fact, it is very likely that Min Aung Hlaing could take on a symbolic role and more “civilian experts” enter the government. Certain politicians from other Southeast Asian countries are believed to be informing their counterparts in the Myanmar junta through secret channels that ASEAN could become much more favorable to the junta if the transitional council apparently became more civilian in nature.

The junta has announced that it will hold general elections this year in August and that it will respect every election result, although there is no realistic chance of allowing true democratic opponents to run, nor of conducting the election process in a free and fair manner. It will create a “genuine multi-party democratic system that thrives on discipline,” Hlaing announced last month. Although the state of emergency was recently extended for another six months, there is no doubt that the elections will be held sooner or later.

Numerous analysts almost consensually believe that whatever elections are held, they will primarily be a show for the international community to give the junta “democratic legitimacy” and will not represent an attempt by the junta to leave power in an elegant way. For example in the 1990 elections, the party supported by the military (Union of Solidarity and Development Party) lost the election and this was followed by military retaliation, and this is exactly what could happen this year. Junta leader Hlaing will be wary of a repeat of the 2010 situation when the Solidarity Union won, but a small number of former military generals continued to steer it in an unexpectedly reformist direction. Today, it is quite clear that the junta did not achieve its main goal of the coup: to seize power in the entire country within a month or two as planned.

The role of ASEAN

However, the real question is whether a less militarized “transitional council” supported by a fake election victory would be an acceptable change in the eyes of the international community? There are countries like Indonesia that see the solution precisely in formal (read: rigged) elections and the formation of a transitional government. In January, Indonesian Foreign Minister Retno Marsudi established the new office of the ASEAN Special Envoy for Myanmar. Statements by Luhut Panjaitan, Indonesia’s Minister of Maritime Affairs and Investments, suggest that this is the subject of discussions within the Indonesian government, which holds the ASEAN presidency this year. “There are so many military leaders at the head of the government, but if you are not qualified, why should you be president?” Luhut said during a discussion at the World Economic Forum in Davos, apparently referring to junta leader Hlaing. “Let someone else who is qualified run this country like what happened in Indonesia.”

The Transitional Council could be a technical ploy aimed at ASEAN to get the organization to accept the junta’s narrative of another episode of “democratic transition”, as many ASEAN states are desperate to remove the Myanmar issue from the agenda. However, states that are potentially prone to this scenario such as Indonesia and Malaysia will find it very difficult to break the desire of other member states to ignore what is happening in Myanmar. If ASEAN relents, it is difficult to expect the United States and the European Union to act alone against the government in Naypyidaw. Beijing is likely to accept the election results no matter what because the Chinese don’t care who rules any country as long as they can fulfill their economic interests. In any case, the Myanmar people will continue to resist, but will face even greater difficulties if ASEAN and Western democracies tacitly accept the junta’s token regime change.

The influence of the economy on the political battle

On the one hand, the democratic opposition is becoming more successful in diplomacy, has new ways to raise funds, and is likely to gain more internal support if the economy continues to collapse under the junta’s rule. Such a situation could trigger a greater degree of popular rebellion against the junta if rigged elections take place. On the other hand, the economy is not completely destroyed. Admittedly, the drop in GDP in the year of the coup in 2021 amounted to a whopping 18%. The IMF estimates Myanmar’s GDP growth at 2% in 2022 and forecasts growth of 3.3% in 2023.

Despite the predicted growth, the economy will be 13% weaker this year compared to 2019. The generals forced domestic companies to convert their foreign currency accounts into Myanmar kyat. Foreign companies that have not left the country in the past two years will probably not do so now, but the arrival of new investors is highly questionable. The only significant new investments in the near future that could be expected are those from China. Otherwise, Myanmar faced electricity shortages after the coup and joined Iran and North Korea on the financial terrorism blacklist of the international anti-money laundering body FATF.

What to do next?

The success of the Government of National Unity depends on its ability to cooperate with various armed ethnic groups, most of whom are indifferent to its agenda. The main opposition stream will be in even bigger trouble if the parties of some ethnic groups decide to compete in the elections under the auspices of the junta.

Looking closely at the Myanmar crisis, the final solution appears to be either a complete victory for the military junta or an opposition led by the Government of National Unity and rebel ethnic groups. It is evident that there is no return to the status quo before the coup. The opposition and the civil disobedience movement see the struggle as revolutionary, a battle between the forces of a tyrannical order and the forces of democratic peace. If the democratic forces win, the army must be reformed from the roots, the state must be federalized, national minorities must be protected, and everything must be done to ensure that no military or any other coup happens in the future. The military’s political power should definitely be revoked. Such changes would truly be revolutionary and bring peace, stability and prosperity to Myanmar.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *