Myanmar: From Diplomacy to Force
By Thitinan Pongsudhirak 1 May 2021
At its recent “special” summit in Jakarta on Myanmar’s crisis, Asean reached its diplomatic maximum by coming up with a “five-point consensus” that will likely prove too little and too slow. Constrained by consensus and its non-interference principle where any of its 10 members has a virtual veto, Asean’s overdue response to Myanmar’s fast-escalating violence on the ground is likely to prove ineffective. As Asean’s diplomacy faces limitations, more of Myanmar’s outcomes are likely to be decided by the use of force in an intensifying civil war.
The preparations in the lead-up to the summit were telling. Confronting what is an existential crisis, three of the grouping’s leaders managed to skip the summit, namely those from Laos, the Philippines and Thailand. Chaired by Brunei, which is under absolute rule, the leaders’ meeting took almost three months to organise, possibly longer had Indonesia not manoeuvred diplomatically to make it happen. The wide range of Asean’s governing regimes matters when having to deal with a rogue member’s autocracy.
When it finally took place, Asean’s five-point consensus understandably calls for the cessation of violence, dialogue and humanitarian assistance. The two additional inputs, which the organisation considers a breakthrough, were the setup of an Asean envoy to “facilitate mediation” and a delegation to visit Myanmar and meet all concerned parties. These latter two moves starkly contrasted with two earlier calls by Indonesia, Malaysia and Singapore for the release of political prisoners and the restoration of democratic rule based on election results from last November, that awarded a resounding mandate to the civilian-led National League for Democracy under Aung San Suu Kyi, who has been under detention since the day of the coup.
Even with a diluted agreement, it became clear just hours after the summit that Senior General Min Aung Hlaing’s attendance was a one-way deal. He gained acceptance among Asean leaders while agreeing to a document that has no timetable and no enforcement. The ball should be in the junta’s court but it is still with Asean, which has to come up with an envoy and organise a delegation to visit Myanmar. For the junta, the self-styled State Administration Council (SAC), time and circumstances are on its side.
Snr Gen Min Aung Hlaing’s inclusion among Asean leaders was duplicitously spun for domestic audiences through state-run media. Official media suggested that it was the military strongman who had the upper hand vis-à-vis Asean, that the coup was well explained and understood among Myanmar’s neighbours. The accompanying junta press release merely noted that it “will give careful consideration to constructive suggestions by Asean Leaders” but only “when the situation returns to stability in the country” because immediate priorities “were to maintain law and order”. In other words, Myanmar’s military will comply with Asean’s five points on its own terms at a time of its choosing.
As Asean-led diplomacy makes headway only on paper but not on the ground, the focus inside Myanmar will likely shift to an intensified showdown between the Tatmadaw and the SAC on one hand and the National Unity Government (NUG), comprising the elected parliamentarians under the Committee Representing Pyidaungsu Hluttaw, the Civil Disobedience Movement, and the Ethnic Armed Organisations (EAOs), among other anti-coup columns.
Unlike past popular uprisings, the anti-military civilian opposition in the past has not been able to organise under a working structure that constitutes a shadow, competing government. The NUG followers so far have been effective in denying the Tatmadaw’s ability to administer the country and operate basic infrastructure and services. State functions have ground to a halt at the expense of the Myanmar people who are willing to pay the price to demonstrate that the ruling generals can take and keep power but they cannot run the country.
This confrontation has become more physical, characterised by clashes between security forces and an inchoate people’s army using guerrilla tactics and homemade weapons. In the ethnic areas, armed clashes have increased in frequency and intensity, whereby the Karen and Kachin armies overran several Tatmadaw outposts in recent weeks. In return, the Tatmadaw deployed more airstrikes at will and is capitalising on its aerial superiority. Displaced persons and refugee flows, particularly to Thailand, can be expected.
As military confrontation between the Tatmadaw and the EAOs expands with dim prospects for a diplomatic solution and Asean mediation, there have been calls for outside intervention. One proposal is an imposition of a “no-fly” zone to pin down Myanmar’s air force, which is equipped with Russian-made advanced helicopter gunships and fighter jets. More outlandish is the suggestion for offshore missile strikes by the United States to bring the Tatmadaw to its knees. These proposed external interventions are dangerous and ill-considered.
If a superpower such as the US or China intervenes directly through military operations, it will mean ownership of the conflict. For the US, it would involve resources and aims in yet another country many Americans can barely locate on a map. For China, a direct intervention, as opposed to influence through proxy and client forces in northern Myanmar, would threaten Beijing’s economic and strategic interests in the country. Moreover, once one major power intervenes, the risk is that others may follow suit in a free-for-all.
What the anti-Tatmadaw forces need strategically is the neutralisation of Myanmar’s air force. In tactical terms, this means the acquisition of anti-aircraft capabilities. If air power can be denied, ground forces will have a better chance to achieve at least a stalemate. A striking example was when Afghan insurgents fought a Soviet invasion and occupation army in the 1980s and turned the tide towards stalemate after receiving US-made Stinger anti-aircraft missiles. On the contrary, if Myanmar’s air force enjoys complete air superiority, anti-coup opposition forces are more likely to lose on the ground.
No one with any conscience should want to see civil war in Myanmar but it is happening. It is a result of Snr Gen Min Aung Hlaing’s naked power grab and theft of a democratic mandate overwhelming rendered by the Myanmar people last November. If there has to be a fight, let it be fair in adherence to the will of Myanmar’s vast majority.
Thitinan Pongsudhirak is a professor and director of the Institute of Security and International Studies at Chulalongkorn University’s Faculty of Political Science in Bangkok. He earned a PhD from the London School of Economics with a top dissertation prize in 2002. Recognized for excellence in opinion writing from the Society of Publishers in Asia, his views and articles have been published widely by local and international media.
This article first appeared in The Bangkok Post.
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