April 2021

Alarming downward spiral risks turning Myanmar into another Syria

Article originally published in Nikkei Asia on Friday, 16 April, 2021. You can read the original article here.

Myanmar is in the grips of an alarming downward spiral.

The civilian death toll is mounting, with the Tatmadaw, as Myanmar's military is known, increasingly brazen in its use of lethal force to suppress peaceful protesters.

On Apr. 9 in Bago the military mounted a heavy assault on demonstrators. The day ended with reports of at least 83 people dead, one of the bloodiest days since the military seized power in Myanmar on Feb. 1.

The military reportedly dragged the killed and wounded into a pagoda compound and a school, in part to hide the monstrousness of their crimes. Pleas from monks to provide medical attention to the wounded were ignored. That same day, a military tribunal in Yangon sentenced 19 people to death for the killing of a single soldier.

The military regime already lacks legitimacy. It now appears to be losing control, resorting to growing violence and intimidation to subdue a civilian population whose spirit and resilience it has grossly underestimated.

In Australia's parliament earlier this week we heard from a large number of Myanmar community and diaspora representatives about the strength of civilian resistance underway in Myanmar. Ousted parliamentary representatives are regrouping and reorganizing under the banner of the Committee Representing Pyidaungsu Hluttaw, or CRPH.

The strength of the civil disobedience movement has brought the economy to a halt, with central bankers, civil servants and essential workers declining to show up for work or performing their tasks only fitfully.

Myanmar's currency, the kyat, has depreciated 14% since the coup. With high import demand and dependence on foreign capital inflows, prolonged political instability and accompanying investor uncertainty will cause the economy to deteriorate further.

Growing international pressure has prompted Japanese brewing giant Kirin Holdings to divest from Myanmar Economic Holdings, one of the Myanmar military's two main economic conglomerates. Woodside Petroleum has already put its operations in Myanmar on hold. Total, the French operator of the Yadana gas field which is a crucial source of foreign exchange for the military, will be next in the sights for consumer and activist groups.

All this is a far cry from 1988, when the military was able to overturn election results, quash internal opposition and consolidate control within a matter of months. This time the civil uprising has proved more sophisticated and resilient. Myanmar's younger generation in particular, those who have come of age in the past decade of Myanmar's relative liberty, are those fighting the hardest to protect such freedoms.

The Tatmadaw has been unable to consolidate its coup and is proving itself unable to assert control over and govern the country. Opposition is hardening, with speculation that Myanmar's ousted civilian leadership is in discussions with some of the local ethnic armed groups, who have long been in conflict with the Tatmadaw, to form a national unity government.

The actions of the Tatmadaw are repugnant in their own right. But they are also risking state collapse. If Myanmar is gripped by a protracted civil conflict and becomes ungovernable, the pull for neighboring powers to intervene to safeguard their interests will become almost irresistible, and we will be facing the prospect of a failed state, a new Syria, at the heart of Asia.

The Tatmadaw is notoriously impervious to outside pressure and influence. Sanctions and international condemnation can provide helpful moral support to the forces of civil resistance, and serve an important symbolic purpose, but they are unlikely by themselves to alter the trajectory of the military's behavior. The task for regional diplomacy is twofold.

First, to convince the Tatmadaw that they have bitten off more than they can chew. This means providing moral and other support to the CRPH, limiting the military's access to hard currency and the international financial system, and denying legitimacy to military rule in Myanmar.

Second, distasteful as it may seem, to provide the Tatmadaw with a face-saving exit from the imbroglio they have created. Association of Southeast Asian Nation member states should recognize that the credibility of their much-prized ASEAN-centrality is on the line. The rest of the world is looking to ASEAN to take the diplomatic lead and provide a pathway forward, one which we can all get behind and support.

ASEAN is the obvious body to open channels with the Tatmadaw and the CRPH and begin to negotiate a credible timetable for the restoration of civilian rule. China too has an important role to play. It shares a long land border with Myanmar, has extensive business interests in the country, and maintains strong relations with the ethnic armed organizations based along Myanmar's northern border. China's credentials as a major power and its claims to global leadership aspirations require that it play a role in resolving this crisis on its very doorstep.

When the civil uprising in Syria began, no one expected a protracted crisis. But eleven years later we have seen a conflict that has drawn in nearly every regional power, killed hundreds of thousands, displaced over one-half of Syria's population, and set standards of living back by a generation.

With the death toll from the coup already exceeding seven hundred, the Tatmadaw has exceeded Assad's pace of butchery when the uprising in Syria first began. It is an ominous sign, and one we cannot afford to ignore.