Guest Column

Myanmar’s Neighbors Must Refuse to Engage With the Military Regime

By Aye Chan 21 June 2022

Since last year’s coup the conflict in Myanmar has escalated dramatically, exacerbated by the collapsing economy and humanitarian crisis. This is not the first time the Myanmar military has staged a coup and then failed monumentally in its efforts to govern the country. However, the efforts of the international community to seek a peaceful resolution have not brought any tangible progress, with the military regime failing to adhere to the Association of Southeast Asian Nations (ASEAN) peace plan, known as the Five-Point Consensus. Any well-meaning engagement with the junta only prolongs the current crisis by further emboldening the regime to act with impunity and to employ limitless brutality in its determination to hold on to power at all costs. Without concerted pressure on the Myanmar military from neighboring countries, the current conflict will only intensify.

Six decades of failed military rule   

The Myanmar military had all the power and opportunities to rule the country effectively for six decades from 1962, but only managed to fail the country. Objectively, they did make an initial effort to serve the country. In the military’s golden era, after independence, the first promise it made was to end the civil war that erupted in 1948. Then, having vowed to be the guardian of the country, in 1958 the military took its first steps on the political stage by replacing the elected government for two years. After providing stability, the military honorably returned power to the civilian government in 1960. That was the first and last time the military kept its promise to return to barracks after political interventions. Since General Ne Win’s coup in March 1962, it has never stepped down from the political stage.

In an effort to win the hearts and minds of the people, Ne Win cunningly adopted popular socialist principles and named his political party the Burma Socialist Programme Party (BSPP). However, the BSSP’s weak commitment to socialist ideals was exacerbated by entrenched corruption within the military, and led to the implosion of the Ne Win regime in 1988 as the Myanmar people grasped their opportunity and rallied for democratic reforms. But, sadly, the military took over again in 1989.

During the 1990s, the new junta swiftly departed from closed-door socialism and embraced the market economy. This was another attempt by the generals to adopt a popular development path, but also reflected its deep self-interest in retaining power. However, like its predecessor, the junta could not contain corruption and did not perform well. While Myanmar’s neighbors China and Thailand were opening their markets and lifting millions of their people out of poverty, the generals took the majority of Myanmar’s population into poverty. The generals blamed international sanctions for their economic failures, but still managed to accumulate immense wealth for themselves.

Politically, the generals were convinced that a Bamar Buddhist-centric ideology of ultra-nationalism would be the glue to bind the nation together and consolidate their grip on power. The once-revered nationalism that the original military had employed after independence was tarnished again by the military regime.

After all their failures, the military eventually tried to break from its notorious past and found a political exit with the political and economic reforms of the 2010s. The generals managed to convince Daw Aung San Suu Kyi and her supporters to bless their democratic reforms. Initial success led almost everyone to believe that Myanmar had finally found its own path to rejuvenate the country and rejoin the international community. But, while trying to reform, the military did not stop committing war crimes against ethnic minorities in the borderlands and failed to address entrenched institutionalized corruption.

But later on even Daw Aung San Suu Kyi’s image was tainted because of the military’s ongoing atrocities. The 2017 Rohingya crisis badly affected Myanmar’s image overseas. And by 2021, the military had presumably grown impatient and decided to consolidate its power further with another coup that led to them once again openly killing innocent people.

Over the last six decades, the military has never been able to govern the nation, no matter what widely-accepted ideologies it has employed.

Deepening public resentment of military rule

The military’s attempts at nation-building by experimenting with a spectrum of ideologies and policies only divided society and impoverished the country, while the military maintained its power and the generals enriched themselves. The misguided and exploitative use of those ideologies only made people feel closely associated with the military’s oppression. For the people, whether it was socialism, a market economy or even democracy, it was merely an apparatus used by the military to tighten their grip on power. And when the policies failed, the generals simply blamed the people for not cooperating.

Following the 2021 coup, the emergence of armed resistance to the regime did not happen overnight. Decades of living in poverty, entrenched corruption in the bureaucracy and deteriorating public services have deepened public resentment of the military. Only for a short period in the 2010s did people start to have hope that their lives were getting better and that their futures would be brighter. Since the coup, the junta’s indiscriminate brutality and atrocities have reversed all those hopes. It became crystal clear for the Myanmar people that they must end the military dictatorship once and for all. The increasing brutality of the regime only makes people more determined to fight hard for their lives and their futures.

What can the international community do? 

Like other countries in the region, Myanmar may also need a strong leader or a strong institution with a compelling ideology or narrative to hold its diverse peoples together. The Myanmar military tried to prove itself as such an institution and consistently failed. In the 1990s, when western governments isolated the then junta, China and ASEAN tried a different approach of letting the military regime integrate into the regional community in the hope that it would gradually change. But both China and ASEAN faced public outrage as friends of the oppressive military. This negative public sentiment eased only when the National League for Democracy government won the 2015 general election.

Currently, history seems to be circling back to this same point. It is important to note that the crimes the regime has committed since the coup already exceed its predecessors’ atrocities in the past decades. Consequently, any well-meaning engagement with the regime by regional governments or organizations will face much more intense public outrage and distrust than was expressed back in the 1990s.

For the international community, especially for China and ASEAN, military rule may be considered the natural or default setting in Myanmar. Neighboring governments may expect that the junta can still achieve economic development and stability, even if it does not receive popular support. This is what the current generals have been trying to convince their neighbors will happen, by employing its traditional delay and defuse strategy. However, decades of military failures on all fronts and its current brutality against its own citizens demonstrate the opposite. Without drastic institutional reforms, the generals and the military will never became worthy rulers of Myanmar.

The coup has already reversed all the progress made by the military’s much-celebrated democratic reforms of the 2010s, which could be considered the military’s only success in its history. Following the 2015 general election, with the leadership of Daw Aung San Suu Kyi, the people still accepted the power-sharing arrangement between the military and civilian government. That was a negotiated settlement which is what some international actors are suggesting now. But the military has already departed from that path and the political climate has changed drastically during the current crisis.

Without concerted pressure to convince the military to return to barracks, stay under full civilian control and dramatically reform itself, the military will only continue to create further chaos for the country. History has shown that it is the military that has been the source of instability and poverty for Myanmar for decades. Any international hopes of the military restoring peace will certainly fail to sway the Myanmar people suffering from fresh physical and emotional wounds inflicted by the military.

The Myanmar people have come this far in their struggle against military dictatorship without any international support. They are challenging an established army by any means they can to save their lives and to imagine a new prosperous and peaceful country. People are strongly determined to fight for a future where military dictatorship ends for good and justice is achieved for the Myanmar people. Therefore, respecting people’s aspirations, it is time for the international community to help restore stability and peace by placing concerted pressure on the Myanmar military. If the military is faced with sustained and intense pressure, both at home and abroad, it will be have no choice but make concessions. Only then will the desired peace and stability for Myanmar be restored more quickly.

Aye Chan is the pseudonym of a public policy analyst and expert on peace, development, and politics in Myanmar.