Myanmar has been badly shaken by incessant protestations since the military took power deposing democratically elected civilian leader Aung San Suu Kyi almost a month before. International condemnation is pouring on continuously and the most significant aspect of the turmoil is that the country’s ambassador to the United Nations broke ranks to make an emotional plea for action against the military junta. He pleaded in front of the UN General Assembly for strongest possible action from the international community to immediately end the military rule oppressing the innocent people and to restore democracy. Flashing the three-finger salute that has become a symbol of resistance against the junta, his appeal was met with applause in the chamber.
At nearby junction several rounds of stun grenades were fired and police arrested more than 140 people including least three journalists including an Associated Press photographer. More than 770 people have been arrested, charged and sentenced since the coup. At least five people have been killed since the putsch — four of them from injuries sustained at anti-coup demonstrations that saw security forces open fire on protesters.
The Myanmar’s military rulers say they have fired the country’s ambassador to the United Nations, a day after he called for help to remove the army from power and following it authorities have ramped up the use of force to suppress dissent, deploying tear gas, water cannon and rubber bullets to disperse some protests and the reports have emerged about the use of live rounds in isolated cases. Local reporters broadcast the chaotic scenes live on Facebook, including the moments when the shots rang out. The army has ordered internet blackouts and also banned social media platforms but demonstrations have continued daily. The coup has been widely condemned outside Myanmar, prompting sanctions against the military and other punitive moves.
The military has said one police officer has died while attempting to quell a protest. The junta has justified its seizure of power by alleging widespread electoral fraud in the November elections, which Suu Kyi’s party won in a landslide, and promised fresh polls in a year. Army chief General Min Aung Hlaing now holds unchecked power in Myanmar effectively halting the country’s 10-year experiment with democracy. He has long wielded significant political influence, successfully maintaining the power of the Tatmadaw – Myanmar’s military – even as the country moved towards democracy. The military believes that it has weathered rounds of international condemnation, justifying its power grab by alleging widespread fraud in November elections, which Suu Kyi’s party had swept.
Disparate strands of Myanmar society have united in protest at the coup, which ended a 10-year experiment with democracy as Suu Kyi was detained in a dawn raid. Protestors have been creative in showing dissent, with anti-coup tattoos and violinists performing revolutionary songs at demonstrations. Protesters applied thanaka — a traditional tree bark paste used as sunscreen — on their cheeks in the design of a three-finger salute, a symbol of resistance.
Uncertainty has grown over Suu Kyi’s whereabouts, as the independent Myanmar Now website on Friday quoted officials of her National League for Democracy (NLD) party as saying she had been moved this week from house arrest to an undisclosed location. Suu Kyi, who has not been publicly seen since she was detained, now faces two charges for having unregistered walkie-talkies in her residence and breaking coronavirus rules. While the Nobel laureate is expected to have a hearing on Monday, her lawyer has still not been able to make contact with her.
Protests have gathering pace across Myanmar and vast numbers of workers – from farmers, to railway workers, doctors and civil servants – have also gone on strike as part of a civil disobedience campaign that aims to paralyse the military junta. The military’s actions have been condemned by the UN secretary general, and provoked sanctions from the US and UK. Some companies have also ended business projects in the country as Australia’s Woodside Petroleum Ltd said it was cutting its presence in Myanmar over concern about rights violations. It had been widely condemned for previously suggesting the coup was “a transitionary issue” that it did not expect to affect its gas exploration work.
The unending rounds of protests show the scale of animosity towards the country’s military, which now faces the fallout of a nationwide strike. These events highlight the fragility of Myanmar’s political landscape but they have also prompted a reckoning with the shortcomings, if not worse, of western engagement in Myanmar, a decade on from the start of a transition away from authoritarian rule that saw Myanmar held aloft as a success story in liberal-democracy promotion and meaningful intervention in Asia. The 1 February coup triggered a course reversal from western governments and institutions. Praise for November’s democratic elections, which handed victory to Aung San Suu Kyi’s National League for Democracy party, has since turned to condemnation of the generals and promises of action to coax – if not force – them from power.
The US state department framed new sanctions as a means of promoting accountability and alluded to additional policy levers to be pulled to return Myanmar to democratic government. Though international condemnation appears credible but in their tenor, content and strategy, they are critically flawed. Statements from western governments and institutions that promise transformative action suggest that they not only have the ability to reverse the coup, but also that they have a nuanced understanding of Myanmar’s complex, often mysterious, internal power dynamics.
However, the reality is rather different. The influence once enjoyed by western nations in Myanmar has greatly diminished in recent years. A key moment came in 2016-17, when western nations responded to the military’s genocidal campaign against the Rohingya with brash rhetoric, targeted sanctions and UN mechanisms that were ill-suited for atrocity prevention. This had a demonstrably damaging effect on the crisis, backing the military into a corner such that it saw its only options as losing credibility at home or retaliating. Already narrow diplomatic inroads were closed off, and the generals moved closer to China and ASEAN countries that are indifferent about democratic processes. The strident tenor of condemnation in 2016-17 underestimated the military’s ability to manipulate the Myanmar public into interpreting western criticism as a threat to the country itself, thereby uniting the people against an external foe and spawning skepticism of western claims of atrocities.
The international outcry did nothing to halt the violence nor to deter the military from future campaigns against minority groups. The international reaction falls definitely short of desired results as additional sanctions have been targeted at a military already subject to sanctions. Yet as the coup demonstrates, these measures had done little to rein in their excesses. Apart from conveying a sense of inefficacy the international reaction also smacks of being automated lacking the effective bite to meet the unique needs of each crisis situation encouraging the authoritarian streak in many parts of the world. Though the best chance for Myanmar’s future rests on the momentum of its own people but if international support is to be meaningfully effective then it should bring credible and practical results. TW