Guest Column

What Myanmar can Learn From Sudan’s Predictable Tragedy

By Matthew B. Arnold 5 May 2023

Sudan over the past several weeks has been rocked by escalating warfare between the country’s two largest, and formerly allied, armed forces, the Rapid Support Forces (RSF) and the Sudanese Armed Forces (SAF). Despite bizarre proclamations from the head of the United Nations (UN) in Sudan that this violence came totally as a surprise, there was nothing startling about it, particularly to the 45 million Sudanese people who, yet again, are still living under military dictatorship.

Painfully, Sudan’s is a story all too familiar for the people of Myanmar. Both countries follow an unfortunate pattern: military dictatorships; a ‘transition’ supported by the international community that did nothing to fundamentally take the military out of the country’s politics, economy, or governance; repeated coups; and the predictable return to military dictatorship. This is all layered with painful rounds of peaceful protests by a country’s citizenry brutally suppressed through the deaths and imprisonment of thousands, all the while there is another international push for one more ‘transition’ fundamentally founded on further accommodating the same deplorable military. It is worth understanding Sudan’s situation as it illuminates much that Myanmar’s people can consider as they push forward their own revolution for federal democracy.

Frustrated by decades of oppressive military dictatorship, never-ending civil war, and withering economic conditions, hundreds of thousands of normal Sudanese citizens began peaceful protests in December 2018 demanding political and economic reforms: fundamentally an end to military dictatorship and the creation of a democracy. Over the coming months, large scale protests and other forms of civil disobedience escalated across the country, routinely met by atrocities committed by the government’s armies – the RSF and SAF – at the behest of the country’s dictator of three decades, Omar al-Bashir. Hundreds were left dead and thousands in prison as al-Bashir attempted to consolidate power after declaring a state of emergency.

Events culminated in early-April 2019 when a massive protest comprised of several hundred thousand civilians encamped in front of the military’s national headquarters in Khartoum. On 11 April, al-Bashir was deposed in a military coup comprised of both the RSF and SAF and replaced by a junta called the Transitional Military Council (TMC).

Given the scale of protests and civil disobedience across the country, the TMC was forced into half-hearted negotiations with protest and civic leaders about a return to civilian rule. These negotiations proceeded nowhere and provoked more large-scale protests across the country that culminated in early June with mass protests of hundreds of thousands in Khartoum. On June 3, 118 protesters were massacred by junta forces, who also imposed internet blackouts across the country. Events escalated further the following week through a national strike that saw students and large parts of the civil service join the protests along with widespread closures of banks, public transport, and markets. An umbrella organization of protest groups, the Forces of Freedom and Change (FFC) agreed to end the strike if the junta released political prisoners and ceased violence against protesters. The TMC and FFC then agreed to negotiations for a process leading to civilian rule.

Over July 2019, negotiations between the FFC and TMC laid the outlines for a ‘transition’ to civilian rule and democracy. Agreed in August 2019, the Draft Constitutional Declaration laid down a framework for a transition based on civilian-military power sharing. This transition was to be 3 years and 3 months and led by a Transitional Sovereignty Council comprised of both military and civilian leadership. A military member was to lead it for the first 21 months followed by a civilian member for the latter 18. The Transitional Sovereignty Council was to be supported by a cabinet composed of civilian ministers, amongst a raft of other seemingly positive steps, such as investigative mechanisms into the larger massacres, and all of which was to conclude with democratic elections at the end of the 39-month transition period.

The TMC was officially dissolved in August 2019 and the Transitional Sovereignty Council, with its mandate to ‘transition’ the country to democracy, begun. This period has been widely dubbed the ‘Sudanese Revolution,’ as it showed how a popular uprising, manifest through non-violent methods, could yield ‘agreement’ [in theory] from a military to a fixed, time-bound ‘transition’ to democracy. Amidst all this, and way beyond the word limit of an op-ed, was a vast array of extensive involvement by international actors, from the African Union to the UN to a wide range of neighboring countries as well as those further afield, like the USA and UK.

For a time, the Transitional Sovereignty Council, chaired by SAF General Abdel Fattah el-Burhan in Khartoum, continued working along with the civilian Prime Minister, Abdalla Hamdok. However, protests across the country persisted, driven by economic stagnation and resentment over the lack of accountability for atrocities committed during the decades of al-Bashir’s dictatorship and the Sudanese Revolution. Tensions within the Transitional Sovereignty Council simmered, rendering it generally dysfunctional and key aspects of the Draft Constitutional Declaration unimplemented, such as the creation of a legislature.

Over late 2020 and into 2021 public discontent with the performance of the Transitional Sovereignty Council continued, especially as the economy continued to deteriorate. Despite a cabinet reshuffle, public disappointment in the pace of the transition and effectiveness of the Transitional Sovereignty Council never abated. At the same time, some countries moved to normalize relations with the Transitional Sovereignty Council and hence Sudan, with the USA, for instance, restarting full diplomatic relations and removing it from its list of states sponsoring terrorism.

With ongoing protests, a lack of implementation of basic transition agreements, and worsening economic conditions, tensions across Sudanese society and governance only escalated. Unsurprisingly, the chair of the Transitional Sovereignty Council, General El-Burhan, staged a coup on 25 October 2021 with support from the RSF. The coup was met with a wave of huge nationwide protests, often reciprocated with overt violence by security forces. Prime Minister Hamdok officially refused to leave his post, calling the coup a crime. Tellingly, the African Union suspended Sudan pending a return to power of the prime minister and the transitional government comprised of civilian ministers.

El-Burhan, faced with domestic and international pressure, relented to offer a 14-point plan for a return of the transitional framework, which was initially rejected by Hamdok as well as large parts of the population who continued to peacefully protest but who were now adamant against power-sharing ‘transitions’ with the military. In late November, Hamdok relented, under international pressure, and signed on to the 14-point plan only to fully resign at the beginning of January 2022. With that, Sudan was once again under the full control of a military junta led by General El-Burhan.

In the subsequent 15 months the country was under the autocratic control of the El-Burhan junta, which truculently maintained the name ‘Transitional Sovereignty Council’. Perversely, the junta, which excluded civilian members calling for a return to a civilian-led transition, kept emphasizing its role as ‘transitional’, routinely proclaiming there would still be elections as stipulated in the 2019 Draft Constitutional Declaration at the end of the ‘transition’ period.

Critically, within the junta, El-Burhan kept as his deputy in the Sovereignty Council General Mohamed Hamdan Dagalo, the leader of the feared paramilitary army, the RSF. In this manner, the SAF and the RSF were clear partners in the October 2021 coup and subsequent junta. The RSF leader Dagalo, also widely known as ‘Hemedti’, a nickname bestowed on him by his original benefactor Omar al-Bashir, had come to prominence first in 2003 as a key actor in the Darfur genocide that left over 300,000 dead. Hemedti had been a senior leader of local militias known as ‘Janjaweed’ that were responsible for the mass killings, with the support of SAF and authorization from al-Bashir. In 2013, al-Bashir formalized the Janjaweed militias into the RSF to act as auxiliary forces for the SAF.

On 15 April 2023, warfare started between the SAF, led by El-Burhan, and the RSF, led by Hemedti. Since then, it has only escalated, placing the country and its already brutalized population under the threat of an extended war that will only worsen dire economic and humanitarian conditions. The violence is full-on warfare by conventional military forces – including the use of tanks, fighter jets and artillery – in civilian dense areas like central Khartoum and other major cities. Anger amongst the Sudanese people is, understandably, widespread and visceral, not just against the two militaries now fighting each other, but particularly a wider sense amongst the public that much of the blame for the current tragedy lies in the hands of the international community, with its many parts, and its role in the ‘transition’ period.

The crux of Sudan’s unfolding tragedy is the formulaic, naïve, self-serving, dogmatic, imbecilic, and utterly asinine insistence by the international community that ‘transitions’ to democracy involving genocidal militaries are possible and that key actors and coalitions from the international community, such as regional organizations, have the political savvy and capital to support them through to fruition.

For instance, a key example is the nauseating arrogance of leading organizations like the UN, with support from key donor nations, that they can sustain ‘transition’ processes through the formation of woefully bureaucratic entities like the ‘United Nations Integrated Transition Assistance Mission in Sudan’. The convoluted UNITAMS may have been created to aid the country’s political ‘transition’ starting in 2019, but as mentioned, recently claimed to be blindsided by the return to open warfare in April 2023. This is either laughable insincerity or contemptible, near criminal, ineptitude; the UN can take its pick.

Sudan’s current crisis has provoked the predictable spike in temporary international attention. Much of it has focused on how it came to be that two former allies are now in open warfare with one another. At heart of the reflection is a basic question: why was the international community so adamant about trusting a military, which ran the country for decades as a brutal dictatorship plus the militia it enabled to conduct the 2003 genocide in Darfur, to be the key stakeholders guiding a ‘transition’ to democracy?

Amongst numerous recent media commentaries, one by CNN offers a collective of valid observations for consideration by the Myanmar people. Prominently, the question of why the political aspirations of the Sudanese for peace, stability and democracy were allowed to be utterly hijacked, stands out. As one long-time international correspondent acknowledged: “Looking at Sudan right now I can’t help but think of the 2019 revolution. Everyone I spoke to back then was clear: No military rule, no RSF.” As another analyst added, Sudan’s current events were “the culmination of years spent by the international community legitimizing the two military rivals as political actors, entrusting them with getting a democratic transition across the line in spite of many signals they had no intention of doing so.” The crux of the matter was obvious enough, as one longtime analyst and diplomat noted: the fateful mistake regarding both SAF and the RSF was “coming up with a political framework agreement….that gave them equal standing to civilians.”

What makes this observation even starker in its simplicity is the vile history of these military actors. As further noted in the CNN article, the main protagonists [SAF and RSF leaders] “started their careers in the killing fields of Darfur.” Even twenty years after the Darfur genocide, the international community across the board was too willing to accept the word of genocidal generals. How is it not obvious enough that there are no ‘good generals’ in military dictatorships, especially ones with decades of atrocities and genocides under their belts? There are no militia leaders who committed genocide that are redeemable.

Perversely, unlike al-Bashir, Hemedti was never even indicted by the International Criminal Court for the Darfur genocide. As one long-time Sudan analyst concluded: “We avoided exacting consequences for repeated acts of impunity that might have otherwise forced a change in calculus. Instead, we reflexively appeased and accommodated the two warlords. We considered ourselves pragmatic. Hindsight suggests wishful thinking to be a more accurate description.” This is being generous, ‘wishful thinking’ stands starkly against the uneasy question of the “role of western countries and diplomats in emboldening the country’s security elites who started a war and sabotaged popular aspirations for democracy.”

Sudan’s recent history is a convoluted story, but it is worth sharing with Myanmar. This author likely made some minor mistakes in summarizing it given how convoluted it is. But, overall, it is not a unique story because underlying it are the same dynamics that afflict the international response to Myanmar’s current crisis. The crux of the matter is the unending insistence that military actors can be equal partners to civilian parties, ultimately being empowered as reputable political players, i.e., as ‘key stakeholders’ worthy of inclusion in ‘transitions to democracy.’ This theme underpinned the wide range of international actors who pushed negotiations in Sudan after the 2019 protests, ranging from the United States and Britain, as well as the United Nations, African Union, and multiple African and Arab governments.

With the Association of Southeast Asian Nations  (ASEAN) Five-Point Consensus peace plan [which is going nowhere] and the new ‘Track 1.5 Dialogues’ pushed by India and Thailand, it can be expected that Myanmar’s democracy movement will eventually be pressured to accept a framework agreement built around accommodating the military. Despite thousands of years of history with one side or another winning, the whole notion that the right side of history can win anymore is thoroughly repressed by the international community, and particularly the Western-funded aid industry.

With no faith in a clear outcome, particularly one that favors liberal forces and democracy, an entire lexicon and industry has been built up around perpetual conflict, underpinned by notions like ‘transition’, much of it encouraged and facilitated by those proclaiming to be against violence. Terms like ‘all stakeholders’, ‘inclusive dialogue’ and ‘nobody can win through war’ are pervasive. The West has been waging wars for hundreds of years; still does. The pacifism entrenched in the Western-funded aid industry is nauseating hypocrisy. Countries fight wars, and peoples stage revolutions, because they want conclusive outcomes. That is understandable enough.

Moreover, international justice systems place no real emphasis on institutions, rather focusing on individuals. This has an unfortunate outcome where some individuals, for instance Omar al-Bashir, can be charged for something, namely genocide, requiring a vast number of people to commit. But, later on, the international community can cherry pick which parts of the guilty institution are now ‘good’ and ought to be ‘key stakeholders.’ Of course, ‘dialogue and mediation’ are the only way forward.

Particularly onerous and disingenuous is the oft used term of ‘stalemate’, regardless of the actual military situation. It is habitually used not as an objective term to assess a military situation but rather as a pseudo-normative term to push the notion that dialogue and mediation [by aid actors and diplomats] are the only option. This becomes obvious when certain international policy institutes are forced to concede that institutionally they will only support mediation and dialogue.

Moreover, ‘stalemate’ is too easily accepted and used in a crass, self-serving manner by diplomats to either justify their actions or lack thereof. Often, these same diplomats fall into endless cycles of ‘both side-ism’ and ‘whataboutism’ justifying including genocidal maniacs as ‘key stakeholders’ together with a country’s citizenry pushing for democracy.

Contrasting with this moral vacuousness, on the other extreme are regional neighbors, whose emphasis on ‘nobody can win’ and ‘we must include all stakeholders [not really, just the military]’ are self-serving countries that pursue nothing but their own narrow commercial and/or strategic interests, shamelessly calling their actions favoring the junta ‘non-interference’; the country’s people be damned. Perhaps more lamentable are those regional neighbors who can’t even be bothered to care. A weak, fragile country is fine; likely it always has been. A military junta is perfectly acceptable to them. That isn’t going to change. However, at least one positive highlight from Sudan’s experience is worth sharing: the African Union automatically suspends states where coups have been staged. ASEAN, by comparison, is decades behind in such basic rules of international civility.

The story told above doesn’t need detailed relating to Myanmar; it is all too obvious. Given the 10 years of ‘transition’ that ended in the February 2021 coup, ceaseless atrocities ever since, and a completely inept effort from the international community to protect the Myanmar people from military violence, ‘transition’ is now a dirty word amongst Myanmar’s public, especially when it involves further trusting a genocidal military. The Myanmar people should reject any effort at a framework agreement laying out a ‘transition’ process brokered by the international community that includes any part of the Myanmar military. There are no ‘good generals’ in this military; there never will be ‘goodwill’ for change from it, certainly not for democracy and a military under civilian control which can’t relentlessly loot the country.

Fundamentally, the take-away for both Sudan and Myanmar is that salvation comes primarily from within. Heavy international involvement likely means your country becomes a medium for endless pontification by some countries that would never apply such standards to themselves, rapacious manipulation by others for their own narrow commercial and strategic self-interests, and contemptable incompetence and hypocrisy by the UN and regional associations. Key is to not stop momentum to topple a military dictatorship when you have it because international actors are pushing for a peaceful ‘transition. The Sudanese should have kept protesting in June 2019, especially since some units of the security forces were switching to their side.

Myanmar’s revolutionaries should persevere because they can win. What positive international support that should be pushed for by democracy movements should narrowly focus on denying the military regime diplomatic recognition, economic pressure, blocking access to weapons and funding, and ensuring humanitarian aid through non-junta actors. ‘Transition’ has been in quotes throughout this piece for a reason. It is a shill of a term pushed mostly by outsiders to justify their myopic and/or cynical involvement. Some help is needed but it requires careful management. To the Myanmar people, fundamentally it is better to win your own revolution on your own terms and to do so conclusively than to place your trust in the international community.

Matthew B. Arnold is an independent policy analyst who has been researching Myanmar’s politics and governance since 2012. He was an aid worker in Sudanese refugee camps over the early 2000s, in Darfur over 2004, and co-authored the book South Sudan: From Revolution to Independence (Oxford University Press, 2012).