Nearly a month on from the Myanmar military’s seizure of power, the international costs for the junta, in terms of both money and reputation, are quickly beginning to mount. The United States government has announced two rounds of targeted sanctions, as have the United Kingdom, Canada, and the European Union.
Businesses have cut ties with military-linked firms and are reconsidering plans to invest there. The World Bank has halted payments to projects requested since the coup and Facebook has kicked the military off its platforms.
All of these actions have been accompanied by a chorus of international condemnation of the military’s seizure of power on February 1, and calls for the reinstatement of the legitimate elected government led by Aung San Suu Kyi.
They are all understandable, and in many cases laudable. But they also raise a question: namely, why such a strong reaction was not forthcoming in the case of the military’s ethnic cleansing and alleged genocide of the Rohingya Muslims in 2017. Based on the reactions of the past few weeks, Western governments seem more outraged by the Tatmadaw’s putsch than by the atrocious acts it committed under the aegis of an elected government.
In August 2017, the Myanmar military launched a brutal clearance operation against Muslim Rohingya villages in the northern part of Rakhine State in the country’s west, Razing homes and shooting villagers, it eventually drove more than 700,000 terrified civilians over the border into Bangladesh. After an investigation, United Nations exports later called for the military to be investigated for war crimes and crimes against humanity, including genocide.
To be sure, Western nations did fiercely condemn the treatment of the Rohingya, and imposed sanctions in response to it. But it can be argued that the current reaction is quantitatively different. The U.S. did not sanction the Myanmar military until August 2018, a year after the Tatmadaw’s initial assaults took place, after the U.N. fact-finding mission determined that the assault possessed “genocidal intent.”
Meanwhile, Commander-in-Chief Min Aung Hlaing only wound up on the Treasury Department’s sanctions list at the end of 2019. Similarly, Facebook canceled 18 accounts and 52 pages linked to the Tatmadaw in August 2018, including those belonging to Min Aung Hlaing, but held off any more sweeping actions against the Myanmar military.
If anything, given the gravity of the alleged crimes, one would expect the mismatch to be the other way around. We are talking here about some of the worst crimes of which human beings are capable, the moral urgency of which has spurned the catch cry “never again.” (Or as David Rieff once put it, “never again, again and again.”)
One possible explanation of this is that the coup was the straw that broke the proverbial camel’s back; that by wiping away any remaining pretense that the Myanmar military was committed to democratic reforms, it necessitated an unusually strong response. Another explanation is that Western governments’ policies are taking their cues from the sentiments of the Myanmar people, as expressed in the rapidly spreading protests and civil disobedience campaigns.
In this connection, however, it is worth noting that Myanmar’s streets were nearly bare of protesters when the Rohingya were being driven from their homes and shot by Tatmadaw foot soldiers in late 2017. With this in mind, it is reasonable to ask whether Western governments shouldn’t be making their own moral and political judgments.
While I think both of these factors have played a role, I think this is also an interesting example of how Western governments – and observers in North America and Europe more generally – have a misplaced focus on democratic procedures and elections as a measure of political progress.
This probably stems in part from the fact that procedural criteria are easy to weigh and monitor. Partly, too, it represents an outward reflection of mainstream Western conceptions of democracy. In the U.S., particularly, these have tended to focus heavily on political rights – i.e. the vote – to the exclusion of any substantial discussion of material inequalities or economic distribution, or to its complex intersections with racial prejudice.
In Myanmar, however, the question of democracy cannot be treated in isolation from the challenges of ethnic inclusion that have dogged the nation since independence, which have their roots in deep racial and religious fissures – divides that reached their terrible fruition in the marshes of Rakhine State in the closing months of 2017. Neither can they be detached from the lopsided, distorted form of capitalism that took hold in Myanmar in the 1990s, entangled with the conflict economies of the borderlands.
Over the past decade, Western policy toward Myanmar seems to have been underpinned by a core liberal assumption: that “all good things go together.” Under this line of thinking, “free and fair elections” would create momentum toward peace and broad based prosperity. The fact that this would then open the way to the breaching of one of the world’s last “frontier markets” didn’t hurt.
In practice, the picture was much more messy. As Thant Myint-U wrote in his recent book “The Hidden History of Burma: Race, Capitalism, and the Crisis of Democracy in the 21st Century,” the West’s nostrums of democracy and free markets did little to heal Myanmar’s ethnic and religious divisions. Indeed, he argues that they merely served to widen existing economic disparities and to “inject a new layer of partisan competition on an already fractious landscape.” As the country’s political space opened, fighting between the Myanmar military and ethnic armed groups reached levels not seen in years, while the treatment of the Rohingya progressively worsened.
As I’ve argued at length elsewhere, the dominant role of the military is a symptom of Myanmar’s problems as much as their cause. After all, it was the fear of ethnic minority separatism that justified he military’s coup of 1962, and has since underpinned its self-perception as the only institution that can hold Myanmar together. This also explains the ambivalence of many ethnic minority peoples to Aung San Suu Kyi and the NLD.
The reversal of the coup and the reinstatement of the NLD government are laudable and necessary goals for Western governments. It is an open question whether these efforts will succeed. But it is important to recognize that even if they did, they alone would be insufficient to solve the country’s deeper problems, leaving every chance that the cycle of conflict would continue generating victims. As Kenan Malik wrote in The Guardian this week, “one thing is certain: there can be no democracy unless there is democracy and equal rights for all.”
As it turns out, the current protest movement has seen some heartening signs that things might be about to turn. On social media, ethnic Bamar protesters have expressed remorse for not standing up for the Rohingya when they had a chance. There are stories now of new links being forged between the democracy movement and Rohingya activists, and increasing calls by Bamar activists for the scrapping of the 2008 Constitution and the creation of an inclusive federal democracy.
This week, Kyaw Hsan Hlaing, a journalist from Rakhine State, made in an impassioned plea for the anti-coup protest movement to remake Myanmar’s politics rather than just restore it, expressing optimism about the potential of the protests that have followed the coup. “I believe the current moment offers not only a chance to fight against military dictatorship,” he wrote, “but also to bring better understanding between the Bamar and other ethnic groups.” We can only hope that he’s right.