Guest Column

Zugzwang in Myanmar

By David I. Steinberg 17 February 2022

Chess is sometimes described as similar to life: a game in which decisions have to be made that cannot be rescinded and that will lead to either success or loss. English has no single word in chess or in life to describe a certain unfortunate situation, so we turn to German. Zugzwang in chess is the point at which one side must make a move, but whatever that move may be, it will be disastrous for its position and side, and it will ultimately fail. This is different from a stalemate, where nothing happens, and no one is forced to proceed.

Since seizing power in the 1 February 2021 coup, it is the Myanmar military that must act, since it claims to have the power to govern, despite the armed objections of broad swathes of the population of all ethnicities and religions. Even if the military could quell overt rebellions and civil disobedience and command an end to much of the immediate violence against it, however unlikely, it is in zugzwang. In a sense, the military’s coup created the conditions for its own ultimate defeat and ignominy.

As in chess, the military cannot simply claim the status quo ante and that their move never took place, and ignore the plight they have created for themselves, nor the perils to the overall population. Their claim that they acted in the state’s best interests is incredulous to most of the population and internationally. All sides seem to have burned their bridges behind them, and thus a retreat from their respective, multiple positions is unlikely given the cast of characters.  Power in Myanmar has always been personally centered. Institutions are weak and run by individuals, not precedent or history. The top panoply of leadership in the military and in the civilian opposition National Unity Government (NUG) are committed to positions from which there seems no withdrawal. Any sign of compromise, such as shared power, as recently suggested by the United Nations Special Envoy on Myanmar, Ms. Noeleen Heyzer, is greeted with distinct opprobrium by all sides. It would personally disgrace all such leaders.

To describe the tense situation as a stalemate implies protracted stasis. This is not a stalemate, as reality means that lives are constantly lost, economic conditions continue to deteriorate, no authority can cope with the COVID-19 epidemic, and fear permeates the multiple societies that are Myanmar. The downward spiral continues, while the official media controlled by the junta presents propagandistic paeans to progress. As the philosopher Thomas Hobbes wrote in 1681, if an opinion is not approved, it is called heresy, and in Myanmar today demeaning the military, the state, the leadership, or local conditions is heresy and subjects one to arrest and imprisonment under the draconian structure that is euphemistically called judicial.

The chess world is filled with detailed manuals on defense and offense, and these are rigorously studied by the serious. There are, however, no manuals on Myanmar or on the means to solve these issues. There are no set rules, the violation of which would end the exercise. The Burmese have indicated no interest in foreign negotiations, but only in foreign support for their stances. But such support has limited influence and rather exacerbates tensions.

Should foreign states recognize the NUG at this time, then diplomatic relations with the military regime cease, and perhaps embassies in the country would have to be closed. If the military’s role is acknowledged, then the West would raise strong moral and human rights objections. Foreign states are, however, likely to split: China, Japan, India, Korea, and the Association of Southeast Asian Nations would likely continue their formal ties with the government, the junta, while awaiting political changes promised in 2023. The West might object, and there are calls in the United States to recognize and arm the NUG. While there are rules in chess to which all who play must adhere, there are no such stipulations in national dilemmas and no manual on proceeding. It is a morass without maps.

And so the prognosis for the shorter term is distinctly pessimistic, and for the longer term it may take more than a decade, or even a generation, for wounds to be partly healed and new individuals to take over leadership and begin dialogue. The people cannot wait. The chess match is over; the military has lost, but the NUG has not won, and the peoples continue to suffer.

David I. Steinberg is distinguished professor of Asian studies emeritus, Georgetown University.

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