Guest Column

In Myanmar, Don’t Mention the Coup 

By David Scott Mathieson 19 April 2022

A recent job posting for the international non-profit organization Search for Common Ground sought a “proactive, dynamic and experienced” person to work in their Yangon office on “Youth, Peace and Security”. The posting failed to mention the February 1 2021 military coup, but did proclaim that “Search Myanmar is at an exciting stage and has been trying to reach a new level of growth, scaling up…to support its strategy in-country to support Myanmar in its priorities of peace, development and democratic change.” I’m not sure “exciting stage” is the apt characterization for contemporary Myanmar. Search is also looking for a Conflict Analyst, a Project Director, a Gender and Diversity Consultant and several other positions.

There has been a flurry of new job postings in the international development space in Myanmar, many of which avoid mentioning the coup. When the issue does arise, it is referred to as a ‘military takeover’, likely because the Ministry of Information under the junta’s State Administration Council (SAC) banned the use of the term ‘coup’, as well as the terms ‘junta’ and ‘regime’. It all contributes to a strained return to normalcy, as the United Nations (UN), international organizations, and Western embassies all contrive to rationalize the relentless bad news from around the country.

Filling jobs is prosaic way to keep busy. Nor does aid money spend itself. Although it would be a demonstration of common decency if job postings didn’t talk about “exciting opportunities” when so many potential applicants have been killed in street protests, are in prison, have gone underground to continue civil disobedience, have been exiled, or have chosen to take up arms against a brutal and illegal military system. That rather limits the pool of applicants, something which they could have acknowledged in their ‘search’ for common ground. 

In the aftermath of the first anniversary of Myanmar’s putsch, there was the inevitable slew of morosely serious ‘webinars’, which blend into a distant droning sound of helplessness until one discerns the rising signals of reengagement amongst many international donors and diplomats. There are signs big and small, from the woeful visit of outgoing Australian Ambassador Andrea Faulkner to SAC head Senior General Min Aung Hlaing in Naypyitaw in early April, obviously on instructions from the Australian government, obtuse statements from diplomats in Yangon, to continued recruitment of multiple positions that scream business as usual and the continued operations of programs that a coup would normally halt. 

The UN’s most superfluous agency, the United Nations Office on Drugs and Crime (UNODC), has also advertised for a new Myanmar country director. Yet the UNODC Asia Pacific Regional Director, the studiously self-promoting Jeremy Douglas with his steely Elliot Ness-like intensity, has been spouting alarmist nonsense about a post-coup explosion of crystal methamphetamine production and the perfect conditions for criminal enterprises, given that the Myanmar Police Force (MPF) is otherwise occupied suppressing dissent. The rise of meth production in northern Shan State preceded the coup by years, the MPF only arrest low-level traffickers and users, not major players protected by the military, and the UNODC hasn’t had much success in drug eradication in Myanmar in several decades.

Also, the UN’s common position doesn’t permit any interaction with the Myanmar military or police, so what exactly would the successful applicant be doing? The job posting states; “Keep abreast with the latest developments and trends in Myanmar regarding all areas under UNODC mandates and advise on possible policy and operational responses; Represent UNODC’s position and interests in Myanmar and liaise with Government’s institutions [in line with the common UN position], civil society, regional and international aid agencies and financial institutions, and the media.” So really not much of any use. Or is it the thin edge of a wedge of reengagement? UNODC permitted the attendance of an SAC official at the UN Commission on Narcotic Drugs several weeks after the coup, and it worked closely with the MPF on drafting the 2014 Anti-Terrorism Law, so its new country head should be watched closely.

The World Food Programme (WFP), arguably one of the the most important agencies operating given the scale of food insecurity and conflict-induced displacement, recently released its ‘2021 Highlights’, not exactly a very conflict-sensitive title. It referred not to a coup d’etat or widespread atrocities, but to a “Political Crisis…Myanmar military stages a takeover prompting near paralysis of economy and public services”, while the number of people receiving assistance increased by one million. An overall tepid description of what the WFP continues to call a ‘crisis’. 

UN Secretary General Special Envoy Noeleen Heyzers efforts have also dissolved into bland formula, especially after she was pilloried for her remarks (or misstatement) on ‘power sharing’ in late January. Her April 1 visit to Cambodia resulted in a limp concoction of generalities as she pledged to: “continue to amplify the voices of the people of Myanmar and encourage international action based on an accurate assessment of the situation…continue to engage with all key stakeholders, focusing on helping articulate the bottom-lines and conditions needed for momentum towards any talks about talks in the greater interest of peace, stability and democracy.” It’s as if the coup didn’t happen, the SAC doesn’t exist, or that the military regime isn’t the primary perpetrator of the violence she hopes to quell. Stringing inoffensive words together sends clear signals for the UN inside Myanmar and others to get back to work. 

The UN Office Coordinating Humanitarian Affairs (UNOCHA) has also distributed a clear set of Joint Operating Standards (JOS) that are a model of rectitude and humanitarian impartiality. However, when one sees this contained in the JOS, “this engagement must be principled and should never be considered political legitimization, recognition of – or support to – a party of conflict”, the question is how much legitimization the UN as a whole is bestowing on the SAC as a matter of course? The appointment of the American humanitarian expert Liam Mahony to be an advisor to the UN Humanitarian Country Team in Yangon may provide answers to this. Mahony produced a number of excoriating reports on the UN and international NGO’s failures in Rakhine State, “A Slippery Slope” and in 2018 “Time to Break Old Habits”, about the massive failures of the international community to prevent the atrocities against Rohingya Muslims.

The promise of peace has been exhumed in other ways than just Search Myanmar. The 11-donor Joint Peace Fund (JPF), a US$100 million Ponzi scheme of Western donor avarice and incompetence, has staged a Lazarus-like rebirth with a new strategy: “Following the military takeover…the JPF conducted a major restructuring of its operations to support national stakeholders seeking to resolved the decades-old conflict…(a)n interim strategy was developed as a basis for JPF support to peace process stakeholders during a transition period from January to December 2022…that strengthens local conflict management mechanisms – enabling actors to mitigate the impact of violent conflict on civilians – and retains the foundations for actors to communicate and negotiate to end conflict and violence.” 

In other words, we utterly failed at supporting peace between 2016 to 2021, so give us more money and during a multisided civil war sparked by a military coup we can resolve it. There is an astonishingly misplaced optimism in this interim strategy. The JPF is recruiting a Senior Conflict Analyst (meaning foreigner), National Conflict Analyst (meaning someone from Myanmar), Senior Gender Advisor, and two other National Gender Advisors. The ‘Roles and Responsibilities’ of all these positions are highly unlikely to be achieved in any meaningful way, and will contribute little beyond having lunch at the Alamanda Inn’s French restaurant in Yangon’s Golden Valley Green Zone

The central normalizer must be the European Union (EU), maintaining its massive My Justice program (justice in Myanmar?) implemented by the British Council, the Oxfam-directed Durable Peace Program, and the unfortunately mistimed Nexus Response Mechanism (NRM), a US$50 million fund to to “implement innovative, flexible, and rights-based activities at the nexus of the humanitarian, development, and peace sectors…(the) objective is to contribute to long-term peace and national reconciliation, security, stability and sustainable development by reducing the vulnerability, building the resilience, and protecting the rights of conflict and disaster affected communities across Myanmar”, which sounds like a planning document from 2016, not the Myanmar of 2022. To be continuing a project with the Orwellian title of ‘Durable Peace’ in the current carnage is surreal, if not sick. This from a donor who instituted the much derided MyPol police reform scheme, and injected 175 million euros directly into the National League for Democracy’s (NLD) education budget [out of a total grant of 221 million euros], and was a major donor to the JPF.

Compounding the EU’s post-coup cognitive dissonance, EU Ambassador Ranieri Sabatucci’s slew of snarky tweets are enraging many inside Myanmar and he seems determined to pick fights with anyone but the SAC. One of his most recent tweets stated that “#Myanmar social media is full of trollers, located abroad (sic). They judge/speculate without knowledge of the facts. Their insults and aggression discourage healthy pluralistic debates. The result, could be shrinking of democratic space on social media. They should not succeed.” If only Ambassador Sabatucci put as much effort into ensuring the SAC won’t succeed. 

The EU exemplifies the two-step strategy of normalization. Back home in Brussels, impose sanctions, make strong speeches and resolutions from the EU Parliament, but in the halls of the European External Action Service (EEAS) seek ways to recover the relationship. Throwing money doesn’t work, but it makes the EU feel useful, and important. 

Much of this post-coup normalization is being orchestrated by the all-enveloping efforts of the United Nations Office of Project Services (UNOPS), a benign-sounding behemoth of a project-implementing bureaucracy that has been criticized for its slow pace of adaptation to the post-coup reality, and being predisposed to accommodating authority regardless of its credentials. If the James Bond franchise ever had an UN agency as an evil nemesis, it would be UNOPS, where donors send so much bulk funding to be dispersed with the tenderness of a wood chipper. 

Arrayed on the other ‘side’ of this normalizing pathology is a mirror image complex of advisors and consultants to the parallel National Unity Government, and various anti-SAC forces. They operate in twilight and obscurity far more than the worker drones of the UN, equally unaccountable and their utility rarely questioned. Who are they and what are they up to? What role did they play in supporting the military or the NLD over the past several years?

They will likely have their complicity in the deficiencies of the NLD expunged as unfortunate association. Yet in light of the recent US government designation of the Rohingya genocide, it would behoove Western donors to ensure they are not paying engorged salaries to anyone in Daw Aung San Suu Kyi’s former inner circle who cooperated in the attempted cover-up of major atrocities. In fact, any of the opportunists who were orbiting Naypyitaw under the NLD government should automatically be highly suspect. If for no other reason than their obscene salaries.  

As feeding frenzies go, it’s perhaps not as fulsome as the early years of the ‘transition’ or the boom years of the post-2015 election when massive development funds were creating major opportunities for the moneyed classes of the international development set. Think of today’s repurposing of so much money that cannot legally be implemented inside Myanmar as a ‘decent interval’ before the West eventually downscales from the country to a pre-Cyclone Nargis mentality and funding mechanisms. This would return the country to a site of sanctions and condemnation, and funneling the bulk of aid to warehoused Rohingya refugees in Bangladesh, cross-border assistance to the unremitting attrition warfare of eastern Myanmar, occasional food deliveries to the rural resistance zones of Sagaing and Magwe regions, and undulating optimism at the prospect of ‘durable solutions’ to resolve ten years of protracted displacement of 100,000 people in Kachin and northern Shan states, and the potential funding windfall it may bring to international agencies to assist.

But then anything connected to governance, peace, human rights, or the scams of social cohesion, have a markedly limited role in the current conflict. It is open to question how much genuine utility they had even before 2020, when the peace process was clearly dead and projects of governance were circumscribed by an autarkic and incompetent ruling party. 

So why do so many of these actors remain engaged? Pay checks and lifestyles, is a simple explanation. By at least mid-2021 there was already an exodus of foreign technical experts to other countries, much the same as the stampede of people from Afghanistan and Cambodia into Yangon in 2014. 

It is now clear that Ukraine has almost permanently distracted media and diplomatic attention away from not just Myanmar, but Yemen, Ethiopia and the Congo. Many Western donors have already calculated their post-pandemic and post-‘takeover’ priorities to resume trade with Southeast Asia, which compels the charade of Association of Southeast Asian Nations (ASEAN) centrality in resolving the Myanmar crisis. As the one-year anniversary of agreeing the Five Point Consensus approaches later this month, any optimism that there will be progress any time soon is clearly strained or delusional, yet it hasn’t prohibited a movement towards ‘living with the SAC’.  

It is as if an orchestra of connivance is tuning its instruments, readying itself to build to a crescendo of credible normalization that doesn’t look like the betrayal of Myanmar it really is. But every job advertisement, qualified statement, self-lobotomized tweet, call for ASEAN to take the lead, or addition to the bonfire of pointless knowledge, is actively assisting the SAC in solidifying its rule. On behalf of the people of Myanmar, who are not drowning, but waving, its craven cynicism should be challenged at every turn.

David Scott Mathieson is an independent analyst working on conflict, peace, human rights and humanitarian issues on Myanmar

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