The World Faces a Choice Between Bad and Worse in Myanmar

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ASEAN Beat | Diplomacy | Southeast Asia

The World Faces a Choice Between Bad and Worse in Myanmar

Jakarta’s call for dialogue would legitimize the Myanmar junta, but is the most realistic option for resolving the country’s crisis.

The World Faces a Choice Between Bad and Worse in Myanmar
Credit: Pixabay

The Brazilian philosopher Paulo Freire put it that “washing one’s hands of the conflict between the powerful and the powerless means to side with the powerful, not to be neutral.” And that, I give you, is the myth of ASEAN’s “non-interference.” Is that about to change now that Indonesia has taken it upon itself to try to reach some sort of resolution to the military coup in Myanmar?

The United States has clearly shown it’s unwilling to expend the energy needed to roll back the military’s power, after imposing only targeted sanctions that almost all pundits agree won’t convince the junta to step down. The European Union, even after taking three weeks to merely decide on whether they’ll impose sanctions or not, a decision taken on February 22, has still not announced what those measures will be, but everyone expects them to be even more limited than America’s. China clearly isn’t happy about the events but isn’t about to support the international community pressuring an authoritarian elite to remove itself from power, for very obvious reasons.

Small wonder, then, that the likes of Indonesia and Brunei, as ASEAN chair, sense they might occupy an important position in this vacuum. Things are messy. Earlier in the week, it was leaked to the media that Jakarta might be ready to accept the junta’s promise to hold fresh elections, a revelation that prompted protests outside of Indonesia’s embassy in Yangon and Bangkok by Burmese pro-democracy protesters, who are still demanding that the junta hands power back to the National League for Democracy (NLD) government, which won November’s general election.

Such opposition saw Jakarta volte-face, with Indonesia’s Foreign Minister Retno Marsudi denying that this was ever her intention and cancelling a planned trip to Myanmar. Nonetheless, on Wednesday the junta-appointed foreign minister, Wunna Maung Lwin, arrived in Bangkok for an unannounced meeting with his Thai and Indonesian counterparts, the first diplomatic salvo by the junta.

But Marsudi is in a tough spot. The ASEAN bloc isn’t about to unanimously support a strong stance against the junta. The likes of Cambodia, Thailand, Vietnam, and the Philippines have made it known that they see the coup as an internal matter – not non-interference, but interference to side with the powerful and the new status quo. Singapore and Brunei have been most critical of the coup, which may, although it’s unlikely, see a number of Southeast Asian countries come together bilaterally to try to sort out this mess, rather than going through the ASEAN bloc itself.

A tough spot, indeed, since history tells us that rarely do military juntas, once secure in power following a coup, voluntarily step down. On occasions, they’ve been destabilized within a week or so of taking power, but the international community reacted too slowly to events in Myanmar. Instead, the only possibility now of removing the junta is in the hands of the Burmese people, whose brave acts of defiance and moral certitude deserve our solidarity, although they’ve been sorely let down by the international community – just as they’ve been let down on so many occasions in recent history.

On the one hand, if Jakarta is willing to accept the outcome in which the junta holds fresh elections at some undermined point in the future, it would in effect legitimize the coup and delegitimize the pro-democracy protests. And, read in one way, it’s a return to normal, where Southeast Asian foreign policy is to side with the powerful and to promote stability above all else. Given that it took five years for Thailand’s military junta to hold elections after its coup of 2014, however, there’s no guarantee that Myanmar’s generals will even stick to their promises, but this won’t be seen as any major embarrassment by Jakarta.

On the other hand, there aren’t a great number of ways out of this political crisis. My colleague Sebastian Strangio pointed out in these pages this week that “an important element of a diplomatic solution to the crisis will be to offer the new junta a chance to stage a return to the status quo ante without risking a serious loss of face,” he wrote. “As the current wave of protests shows, the Tatmadaw has clearly underestimated the depths of its own unpopularity, and may welcome, if ASEAN couches the language just so, a diplomatic roadmap that allows it gracefully to extract itself from its present, self-excavated hole.”

Fair enough, but there are not several paths back to the status quo ante – nor, indeed, does even one path appear passable. To return to pre-coup days would mean the NLD returns to power yet the military doesn’t return to its barracks. Ever since the NLD took up governance after the 2015 ballot they have lived in daily fear that one day the military would have enough and lead a putsch, as it intimated it would days before the coup itself. It’s rather impossible to imagine how the NLD could go back to governing alongside a reactionary military after all of this – not only because another coup cannot be ruled out but because this coup has fundamentally torn up the military’s pledge to reform that was made in the early 2010s. Chances are that, even if things could return to how they were, Myanmar will descend into perpetual crisis like Thailand, where any new civilian government knows that any day it could be turfed out by the army. Like after an extramarital affair, a relationship can continue but there’s no going back to how things were before.

If there’s no going back, there’s only two paths leading forward. Many of the Burmese protesters are now also demanding the rewriting of the constitution to remove the military’s automatic seats in parliament and the decentralization of the entire state into a federal system. That might sound utopian, but it’s the only sustainable way of moving forward. Yet it’s near impossible since the Western powers have shown no great enthusiasm for even forcing the junta to backtrack, let alone forcing it to fundamentally remove itself from politics altogether. Even if the NLD is restored, it has little means of changing the military’s political role, as shown last year when it failed to pass a resolution to gradually remove the military’s automatic seats in parliament.

The only other way forward is to accept the coup and pressure the junta to move ahead as quickly as possible with new elections, in the blind hope that they have a modicum of fairness and could allow the NLD to return to office. Read positively, these new elections would essentially be a referendum on the military’s role in politics. A major victory for the NLD (unlikely as the junta will harass its opponent) would send a signal that even the generals cannot ignore. A more ambiguous result (more likely) would favor the military. And don’t rule out the junta changing the constitution before any new election, just as what happened in Thailand post-2014.

If there is no going back to the status quo ante and only the worst of the two paths ahead seem passable, Jakarta’s stance that diplomacy and compromise is the only way out of this crisis takes on a different meaning. It may be the least ethical and least principled of positions, and will send a damning message to the rest of the region that military coups will be considered legitimate. But, in Jakarta’s defense, it is the most realistic of options and the only one that entails something more solid than verbose rhetoric and international grandstanding.

The real lesson is that no one prepared for this (very foreseeable) event. Surely, a few officials from Washington, Brussels, Singapore, and Jakarta might have found time since 2015 to discuss what they would do in the event of a military coup in Myanmar? But no, and because of that failure, the path now lying before us is the one paved with pragmatism not principles.