Guest Column

Myanmar’s Junta Has No Diplomatic Cards to Play

By Ye Myo Hein 22 October 2021

At the very outset of the Myanmar military’s coup, Myanmar watchers predictably observed that coup leader Senior General Min Aung Hlaing had tugged at the tiger’s tail. That observation seems to be spot on. In the nine months since the February 1 coup, the illegitimate rule of the junta has been confronted with unprecedented pressure on multiple fronts. 

The initially peaceful anti-regime protests have morphed into armed resistance, posing a significant threat to the junta’s rule across the country. Basic administration is a shambles, the economy is in tatters and the country is rapidly becoming a failing state. But besides all that, the most pressing challenge for the regime is the ever-increasing opprobrium from the international community.

Since the first day of the coup, the generals appeared to expect the inevitability of pressure, condemnation and sanctions from the international community. Therefore, in his meeting with the United Nations (UN) Special Envoy Christine Schraner Burgener, the second-highest ranking leader of the junta, Deputy Senior General Soe Win snapped that “we have to learn to walk with only a few friends”. 

That message obviously reflected the regime’s myopic and devil-may-care attitude towards the country’s previous pariah status. In fact, the junta’s plan was to dust off the old diplomatic playbook of the military dictatorship era. Since the military’s first coup in 1962, the successive dictators of Myanmar have survived in power with just a few international friends. The latest generation of officers has admired that modus operandi as a diplomatic tour de force. 

Therefore, Dep. Snr. Gen. Soe Win’s remarks came as no surprise. Who he meant by a “few friends” were China, Russia, ASEAN countries and a few congenial pariah states. The junta has undoubtedly banked on China and Russia, two powerful players on the UN Security Council with the power of veto and their devil’s alliances, as well as presuming that with the Association of Southeast Asian Nations (ASEAN) on their side, they are insulated from the pressure and sanctions of the West.

The Devil’s Alliances

The script went as planned initially. The West unanimously denounced the coup and subsequently imposed sanctions on the coup leaders and their economic interests. China, Russia and the ASEAN countries early on took “a hand-off approach” to the coup. A day after the military takeover, Chinese state media downplayed the coup as “cabinet reshuffles” and at the UN, China and Russia blocked a UN Security Council Statement condemning the putsch. 

In fact, one week prior to the coup, Russian Defense Minister Sergei Shoigu visited Myanmar to sign off on a deal to increase the supply of military equipment. During that trip, the Russian defense minister did not meet the representatives of the civilian National League for Democracy (NLD) government, but only the military chief and signed the deal even without the presence of the government. In line with this preference for the military, Russia’s representatives at the UN Human Rights Council understated the coup as a “purely domestic affair of the sovereign state”. 

In mid-February, when the nationwide anti-regime protests gained momentum, the Chinese Ambassador to Myanmar said, “the current development in Myanmar is absolutely not what China wants to see” and urged all parties to “handle differences properly under the framework of the constitution and law”. China apparently adhered to the point, but it had gradually extended its normal relations with the junta behind the scenes with the hope that the regime would control the situation sooner or later.

Amidst the bloodshed, as junta forces killed scores of non-violent protesters in shocking violence, Russian Deputy Defense Minister Aleksandr Fomin attended the Armed Forces Day military parade in Naypyitaw on March 27, in a demonstration of Russia’s support for the regime. Junta chief Snr. Gen. Min Aung Hlaing also visited Russia on June 24.

ASEAN countries did not adopt a unanimous position on the coup. Within days of the takeover, Thailand and Philippines labelled the coup as an “internal affair”. Singapore expressed grave concern but offered no support for the broad sanctions imposed by the West. Malaysia and Indonesia took a further step by urging ASEAN to hold a special meeting to discuss the coup’s potential impact on regional stability. 

Due to the junta’s increasingly violent crackdown on civilians, ASEAN foreign ministers duly met in an informal meeting a month after the coup, but they failed to agree a collective condemnation of the coup. Belying this effort, three members of ASEAN – Thailand, Vietnam and Laos – sent representatives to the Myanmar military’s March 27 parade, hosted by the junta chief. The junta’s “few friends” strategy appeared to be working with the support – at least tacitly – of certain important regional countries.

 

Five Points of Consensus

The coup leaders ratcheted up their brute force terror campaign against the non-violent civilian resistance in order to make the recalcitrant protestors submit to their authority. Much of Myanmar has become a battlefield overwhelmed by the savage violence of the junta. Its security forces have murdered more than 1,100 people and arbitrarily detained over 9,000. In the age of livestreaming, the world was stunned to witness the scale of the junta’s violence and its sheer barbarity. 

As a consequence, international pressure and condemnation surged and China and Russia later converted to more cautious approaches towards the coup. With growing instability and threats to its interests in Myanmar, China started to mull over the possible ways to restore normalcy to its neighbor and failing state. In contrast to its early designation of Myanmar’s coup as a “domestic affair”, Chinese Foreign Minister Wang Yi encouraged the leaders of ASEAN in early April to hold a “special meeting as soon as possible to mediate” in Myanmar. Even Russia voiced its deep concern at the growing number of civilian casualties. 

Likewise, ASEAN could also not remain indifferent to the deteriorating situation of its member state. On April 24, it held a special summit on Myanmar, resulting in the “Five Points of Consensus” to facilitate a peaceful solution to the crisis. Although there were several criticisms of ASEAN’s soft approach to the junta, the international community, including but not limited to the UN, United States, European Union (EU), China, Russia, India and Japan, supported the bloc’s consensus as “an encouraging step” towards resolving the political impasse. 

However, as expected, ASEAN struggled to implement its five-point consensus and, owing to its internal divisions and lack of leverage over the junta, it took over three months even to appoint a special envoy. The junta has been obstinate about making even small concessions to the consensus, despite grudgingly subscribing to ASEAN’s plan at a time of heightened pressure on it. Criticism had grown that ASEAN was buying time for the junta to consolidate its rule.

Twists and Turns

In reality, the junta has failed to consolidate its rule over Myanmar. With only coercive power at its disposal, its brutal and lethal suppression of peaceful protests has transformed a non-violent movement into widespread armed resistance. The violence is spiraling out of control across the country, heading in an unwelcome direction for the regime’s few friends, especially China.  

Although China is carefully hedging its bets on the junta and its opposition, it has “assessed that the Myanmar military is the likeliest victor” since day one of the coup. However, the growing instability, and the subsequent spillover impact on its interests and the stability of its shared border with Myanmar, has prompted China to reconsider its position. Moreover, Beijing seems unhappy with the junta’s moves to draw Russia closer to avoid over-reliance on China. In contrast, Beijing has had more cozy relations with Daw Aung San Suu Kyi and the NLD than with the military. Thus, Beijing increasingly calculates that Suu Kyi and the NLD are still the key players for de-escalating the rising conflicts and returning Myanmar to the old status quo. 

In late August, China’s special envoy for Asian Affairs, Sun Guoxiang, turned up for a week-long visit to Naypyitaw and reportedly insisted on meeting Daw Aung San Suu Kyi, but to no avail. When the junta’s Union Election Commission stepped up the push to dissolve the NLD, China demonstrated its opposition to that decision by issuing its response to the NLD’s congratulatory letter on the Communist Party of China (CPC) centenary and, later, by inviting the NLD to the meeting of “Political Parties’ Cooperation in Joint Pursuit of Economic Development” organized by CPC.

A big hit to the regime was that China reportedly struck a deal with the US to keep U Kyaw Moe Tun, who stands with the anti-junta movement, in Myanmar’s UN seat by blocking the junta’s representative. The regime’s hopes for international legitimacy have therefore waned with time. The EU also adopted a resolution that “supports the CRPH [Committee Representing Pyidaungsu Hluttaw] and the National Unity Government as the only legitimate representatives of the democratic wishes of the people of Myanmar”. However, the junta still hoped to retain support from ASEAN.

The Crumbling of Hopes

Considering ASEAN’s long-standing commitment to non-interference and consensus-based decision-making, the coup leaders certainly presumed that they could manipulate the bloc in 

their favor. Shortly after accepting the five-point consensus, the junta leader walked back his commitment by saying that the proposals would be considered after stability has been restored. The junta also highly anticipated that ASEAN’s special envoy Erywan Yusof would dance to its tune. Before reaching the detailed agreement for the envoy’s trip, the junta already invited its close political parties to meet him in Naypyitaw. They rejected his request to meet Daw Aung San Suu Kyi on the farcical grounds that she is facing trial on several charges, and tried to convince him to “build trust and confidence” on his first trip.

The junta took it for granted that its maneuvering would prevail over an indecisive ASEAN but the ASEAN envoy unexpectedly cancelled his trip to Myanmar. International pressure on ASEAN has been increasing: the UN general secretary cancelled a scheduled virtual meeting with ASEAN ministers at the last minute so as not to be present with the junta’s representative in the same online room. Some members came to the realisation that “this is a matter of life and death for the credibility of ASEAN”. It eventually resulted in an emergency meeting of ASEAN which decided to exclude the junta leader from the upcoming ASEAN summit. It was an unprecedented move by the consensus-based ASEAN, and a death blow to the junta’s hope for international legitimacy.

The junta said that it was “extremely disappointed” with ASEAN’s decision, and no doubt it was. The old diplomatic playbook of the dictatorship is not working anymore. The regime’s few friends, whom they have relied upon too much, turned their backs. As usual, the junta blamed foreign intervention – US and EU pressure on ASEAN – for the decision. Snr. Gen, Min Aung Hlaing questioned ASEAN’s failure to be concerned about the rising violence provoked by the opposition. As well as growling back at ASEAN to cover its humiliation, the junta tried to put on a political trick-show in order to pull its estranged few friends back to its side. Two days after ASEAN’s decision, the junta announced the release of 1,316 political prisoners and 4,320 political detainees held for anti-junta protests. However, it was not enough to coax ASEAN into rolling back its precedent-setting decision. 

ASEAN’s decision has had a devastating impact not only on the junta, but on the former generals who always bragged about their political and diplomatic success from surviving intense international pressure with the support of a few friends during the period 1988 to 2010. The decision has also clearly demonstrated the illegitimate rule of the junta and the incompetence of Snr. Gen. Min Aung Hlaing, who is unable to consolidate his power. It may even lead to the military questioning his leadership, fueled by the frustration of retired generals. 

Nine months after the coup, the junta has achieved nothing except to plunge Myanmar into political chaos that threatens to turn the country into a failed state, sparking more violence and wrecking the entire economy. Now, the regime cannot even rely on the old diplomatic playbook of previous dictators. Among the junta’s many failures, that may prove to be extremely costly, not least to the regime’s own internal cohesion.

Ye Myo Hein is the executive director of the Taguang Institute of Political Studies and a fellow with the Asia Program at the Woodrow Wilson International Center for Scholars. 

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