26
April 2021

Canberra can help bring Myanmar from brink of chaos

This article was originally published in the Australian Financial Review on 26 April, 2021. You can read the original article here.

In Jakarta over the weekend the 10-member Association of Southeast Asian States, or ASEAN, passed an important test of relevance and credibility.

In response to the Myanmar military coup of February 1, ASEAN leaders met with coup leader Min Aung Hlaing, demanded an immediate cessation of violence and appointed a special envoy.

Myanmar has been in the grips of an alarming downward spiral, with a military increasingly brazen in its use of lethal force to suppress peaceful protesters and a civilian death toll approaching 1000.

Already lacking legitimacy, the military appears to be losing control, resorting to growing violence and intimidation to subdue a civilian population whose spirit and resilience it has grossly underestimated.

Only a few months ago Myanmar was hailed as the coming success story of south-east Asia.

It is now on the brink of becoming, as The Economist cover described it, “Asia’s next failed state”.

In Australia’s Parliament this month we heard from a large number of Myanmar community and diaspora representatives about the strength of civilian resistance in Myanmar.

Ousted parliamentary representatives are regrouping and reorganising 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 per cent since the coup. With high imports and a 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 and Korean steel company Posco to cut ties with Myanmar Economic Holdings, one of the Myanmar military’s two main economic conglomerates.

Woodside Petroleum has put its operations in Myanmar on hold. Total, the French operator of the Yadana gas field, should be next.

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 proven more sophisticated and resilient. Myanmar’s younger generation, those who have come of age in the past decade of Myanmar’s relative freedoms, are those fighting hardest.

The Tatmadaw – the official name of the country’s armed forces – has been unable to consolidate its coup and opposition is hardening. 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 neighbouring powers to intervene will become almost irresistible.

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 are unlikely to alter the trajectory of the military’s behaviour, though they can provide helpful moral support to the forces of civil resistance.

Ultimately, it will be regional diplomacy that must do the heavy-lifting.

The task is two-fold. To convince the Tatmadaw that they have bitten off more than they can chew, and to provide Myanmar’s military leaders with a face-saving exit from the imbroglio they have created.

ASEAN must play the central role, as the regional body with the most influence.

Indonesia demonstrated leadership in convening an emergency meeting on Myanmar, and with its “Five Points of Consensus” adopted over the weekend has provided a framework for other countries, including Australia, to get behind.

In addition to demanding an immediate cessation of violence from Myanmar’s military, the appointment of an ASEAN special envoy should open channels with the Tatmadaw and the CRPH and begin to negotiate a credible timetable for the restoration of civilian rule.

China 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 organisations based along Myanmar’s northern border.

China’s credentials as a major power and its claims to global leadership aspirations demand that it play a role in resolving this crisis on its very doorstep.

Australia has been active with our regional diplomatic partners in encouraging a solution to this crisis, with Foreign Minister Marise Payne speaking to her counterparts more than 20 times in connection with this crisis.

Senior Australian officials have similarly been hitting the phones. And Myanmar was discussed when the leaders of Quad countries – Australia, the United States, Japan and India – met recently.