By Jan Servaes*
BRUSSELS, 16 April 2023 (IDN) — February 1 marked two years since Myanmar’s military, the Tatmadaw, launched a disastrous coup that has plunged the country into an economic slump. The State Administration Council (SAC) military junta continues to struggle to impose its rule across the country, while a coalition of activists and armed groups strenuously oppose the coup amid a spreading civil war.
Against the regime are hundreds of grassroots-level armed groups, including the People’s Defense Forces (PDFs), coordinated to some extent by the parallel government of national unity (NUG), with the cooperation of a number of long-fighting ethnic armed organizations (EAOs) against successive central governments.
“Peaceful protests, including the Civil Disobedience Movement (CDM), continue but have lost momentum and have been relegated to the back seat of the anti-junta struggle,” reads an overview by The Diplomat. According to the author, Naw Theresa, Myanmar is “in the grip of a nationwide struggle between two groups, neither of whom are seeking a peaceful political solution.”
Other observers take a more nuanced view of the situation from a historical perspective. For example, drawing on research during Myanmar’s decade of partial civilian rule (2011-2021), Gerard McCarthy examines how the bankrupt post-socialist junta in the 1990s and 2000s brokered market reforms and forced private and non-state actors to shoulder the burden on social security.
Instead of expanding government-led social action funded by direct taxation, post-2011 grassroots activists and democratic leaders variously portrayed government social action as ineffective, undesirable, and even subversive of civic norms. Instead, they encouraged citizens to be “self-reliant” and support each other, including during disasters. Since the return of the dictatorship in 2021, these non-state social actors are now more important than ever.
These networks help support needy pro-democracy militias, provide education for children fleeing violence, and provide social governance in large parts of the country that are no longer under military control. Community groups even ran quarantine facilities and raised money for the government’s vaccination program during the COVID-19 pandemic at the encouragement of Aung San Suu Kyi herself.
Yet few of these groups receive funding from the international community—even though they play a vital humanitarian and social role. In a township in the Sagaing region, for example, an alliance of local social actors, including welfare groups, militias, and teachers on strike, is helping to run a network of more than a dozen schools that educate thousands of young people.
Initiatives like these currently receive almost no foreign aid but are fulfilling vital social functions in the wake of the junta’s administrative collapse in most of the country’s rural and border areas. Foreign governments and humanitarian actors must ensure that these networks are much better equipped as the dictatorship remains in power, McCarthy argues.
That is why the SAC has stepped up its repression against its opponents and against those suspected of supporting the resistance in any way. In December, 77-year-old former leader Aung San Suu Kyi was sentenced to 33 years in prison, with the intention of banning her from politics permanently. A large number of activists and protest leaders have been arrested and tortured. There have been reports of security forces arresting youths after PDF attacks and sending them to prison for several years.
As the resistance becomes better armed, the military has doubled down on airstrikes and attacks on civilians. It is becoming more and more trivial. The Tatmadaw has deployed its arbitrary “four cuts” strategy against the very people it claims to protect. These heinous tactics, once used with impunity in ethnic minority areas, have now extended to areas predominantly populated by the ethnic Bamar majority.
Just last month it killed monks and civilians in a monastery. On April 11, the deadliest attack to date since the 2021 coup took place when a village in northwestern Myanmar, in the aforementioned Sagaing region, was bombed. At least 100 people, including 30 children, were killed, according to The New York Times.
For its part, the NUG launched a “popular defense war” in September 2021, promising to overthrow the regime quickly. It is building a broad coalition of ethnic groups, civil society, activists and militias through the National Unity Consultative Council (NUCC), whose Assembly ratified the Federal Democracy Charter in January 2022, under which an interim constitution is being drafted. Earlier, opponents of the coup had annulled the 2008 constitution, drafted under military pressure.
Myanmar’s economy is chugging along after a severe contraction in 2021. Macroeconomic indicators appear to have generally stabilized, but are stalled by plummeting productivity, foreign flow and import licensing restrictions, insecurity, ongoing blackouts and high inflation. Businesses balance between the junta and the opposition, fearing crackdowns, violence and social damage.
The United Nations Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs (OCHA) reported in March that 17.6 million people, nearly a third of Myanmar’s population, are in need of humanitarian assistance, and about 1.3 million have been displaced since the coup.
The junta claims an influx of investment, but companies keep leaving because of security, economic or reputational concerns. The World Bank expects relatively modest growth of 3 per cent for 2023 barring major disruptions, demonstrating the resilience of people and businesses in the face of monumental adversity.
Since the coup, the kyat has fallen by 50 per cent against other currencies due to mismanagement, speculation and rumours. Those who still have money rush to buy property and gold to hedge against the volatility of the kyat.
There is little public confidence in the SAC’s ability to stem Myanmar’s economic collapse, and opponents of the regime believe a Sri Lanka-style debt crisis is only a matter of time. Businesses, ordinary citizens and resistance groups are reviving informal hundi channels to get around the SAC’s currency restrictions.
The SAC reports trade surpluses and having “sufficient” foreign exchange reserves, but the imposition of fixed exchange rates and forced currency conversion requirements indicates that things are not so rosy. The regime has taken a neo-mercantilist approach, suppressing imports and promoting import substitution, which the World Bank says threatens to stifle the economy in the long run.
The NUG is attempting to cut off funding streams from the SAC, but it remains to be seen how effective it is as the Tatmadaw can easily pass the impact on to the populace. While radical resistance voices preach a scorched-earth policy to raze the economy and hasten the demise of the SAC, the NUG continues to walk a very thin line in order not to exacerbate the impact of the crises on ordinary people.
Young and well-educated members of the population are leaving en masse through both formal and informal channels. With manual labor in Thailand, cleaning jobs in Dubai, or jobs in shadowy casinos along the porous borders paying much more than local rates, even Yangon’s pool of semi-skilled workers is dwindling. Local media regularly report that irregular economic migrants are arrested by Thai authorities and sent back to Myanmar or die in tragic circumstances.
This is a clear violation of international human rights law, norms and principles, said the ASEAN Parliamentarians for Human Rights (APHR). According to information APHR received from local civil society organizations, three members of a Myanmar opposition group entered Thailand on April 1 to seek medical treatment.
En route to Mae Sot, the three men were taken into custody by Thai Immigration and then handed over by Thai authorities to the junta-allied Myanmar Border Guard Force (BGF) on the morning of April 4. Witnesses say BGF troops fired on the men after the handover. According to media reports, at least one of the men was killed. The fate of the other two remains unclear.
Human rights groups have repeatedly criticized Thailand for returning refugees crossing the border. Asylum seekers from Myanmar in Thailand face a precarious situation in which they have no legal protection and are at any moment at risk of deportation.
Earlier this year, the Thai government formally adopted the UN Convention against Torture. It states that “no government organization or official may expel, deport or extradite anyone to another country where there are reasonable grounds to believe that the person is in danger of torture, cruel, inhuman or degrading treatment or enforced disappearance.”
Turning these three men over into the hands of the Myanmar junta, which has repeatedly arbitrarily arrested, tortured and sometimes even extrajudicially executed dissidents, is in clear violation of this treaty, the APHR said.
Indonesia’s ‘silent diplomacy’ after Cambodia’s ‘cowboy behaviour’
It has been three months since Indonesia became president of the Association of Southeast Asian Nations (ASEAN). Indonesia is thus the third country in the bloc tasked with tackling the crisis in Myanmar.
Indonesian Foreign Minister Retno Marsudi had made some strong remarks in the past two years: he said Jakarta would only accept Myanmar’s representation at ASEAN summits after the restoration of democracy and accused the junta of “many broken promises”. Some, therefore, assumed that the country would take a harder line as president.
But since Indonesia took on the role, it has revealed little about its agenda, and public communication has been kept to a minimum. A spokesman for the State Department, Teuku Faizasyah, told Frontier that the covert approach is deliberate. “Not all diplomatic activities need to be made public. We want to do our own work as well as possible. We will see towards the end if this approach is more suitable to counter the problem,” said Faizasyah.
While Indonesia has not publicly mentioned its contacts with the NUG, Faizasyah told Frontier that they are “trying to reach out to all parties” and he “believes [the NUG] is one of the parties we are working with.”
Indonesian President Joko Widodo visited Singapore in mid-March for an interview with The Straits Times and a meeting with Singapore Prime Minister Lee Hsien Loong.
Joko Widodo confirmed to The Straits Times that Indonesia has taken a quiet diplomatic approach to Myanmar.
After the meeting, Lee said, “Singapore will continue to work with Indonesia and ASEAN members, plus ASEAN partners such as the UN, to push for the full implementation of the five-point consensus”. According to Reuters, Lee also said he lamented the lack of progress in implementing the plan without explaining how the effort would now be more successful than before.
Bumps in the road: Thailand, Laos…
While Indonesia insists it is quietly moving forward, Thailand, which has a much closer relationship with the junta, feels encouraged to take matters into its own hands.
In April last year, Thailand appointed its own special envoy to Myanmar, Pornpimol “Pauline” Kanchanalak, who has spoken out against criticizing or punishing the regime.
A source familiar with ASEAN diplomacy told The Bangkok Post that Kanchanalak convened a Track 1.5 meeting in Bangkok in February, inviting representatives from the Myanmar junta and neighbouring countries. Laos, Bangladesh and India were represented, but it remains unclear in what capacity China was present. One of the themes on the agenda was the refugee crisis, which weighs heavily on Thailand.
The same source said the regime was represented by U Thant Kyaw, the head of the junta’s Foreign Ministry-affiliated think tank, the Myanmar Institute for Strategic and International Studies.
This and a previous meeting organized in December, attended by the junta’s then-foreign minister, U Wunna Maung Lwin, was criticized for lending legitimacy to the regime. Few results were made public. The more critical ASEAN members—Indonesia, Malaysia, Singapore, the Philippines and Brunei—were not present.
If Indonesia does not achieve substantial results, ASEAN’s next president, Laos, will have an even smaller chance of success. After all, Laos not only lacks the resources and political capital of Indonesia but has also shown that interests lie elsewhere.
“With Laos, everyone knows that they are going to do things very differently. They are among the countries that think the Myanmar issue is a domestic issue, and Laos is working with certain partners,” said Lina Alexandra, referring to Vientiane’s relationship with China and Russia, who continue to provide Myanmar’s military with weapons.
“Having failed to push through a solution to the conflict in Myanmar, ASEAN needs a face-saving way to admit defeat,” writes David Hutt in The Diplomat.
Junta elections in 2023?
The 2023 elections announced by the junta seem increasingly unlikely. To make the election, for which no date has yet been set, appear legitimate to the outside world, the junta attempted for a while to win over some members of the National League for Democracy (NLD). That ended in a sizzle.
After the Union Election Commission (UEC), formed by the junta, officially excluded the NLD from participation, 40 other political parties also failed to register with the UEC. Yet officially, 63 political parties remain in the running. The UEC says it will use proportional representation instead of the first-past-the-post electoral system. It also amended the 2010 Political Party Registration Act, updated voter rolls and trained election personnel.
Under those circumstances, and under the 2008 constitution, the military-backed Union Solidarity and Development Party (USDP) would need just 26 per cent of parliamentary seats to form a majority.
The junta is still angling for international recognition, but the West seems reluctant to meet this quickly. The US and Germany reject any “sham” election because it will not be free or fair. The European Union, United Kingdom, Canada and France also condemned the dissolution, scheduled elections and violence by the military, while calling for the restoration of inclusive democracy. For many of these countries, this is the first time they have explicitly condemned a ‘junta’-election.
Meanwhile, US allies in Asia-Pacific seemed rather cautious in their responses and stopped condemning them. Australia expressed concern about the “narrowing of political space” and Japan expressed “serious concern” that “further exclusion of the NLD … will make it even more difficult to improve the situation”. Malaysia has also urged other ASEAN members to reject any election.
The Crisis Group considers the junta elections a “Road to Nowhere”. After a detailed assessment of the situation, it recommends that countries in the West and in Myanmar’s vicinity continue to apply pressure, including through the use and threat of targeted sanctions, and use all existing channels of communication with the regime to stop resorting to violence.
Foreign governments should also collectively emphasize the lack of credibility of the elections and the risk that they will create further instability. As the leading opposition force, the NUG, for its part, would have to establish a clear set of principles to counter electoral violence by resistance forces.
It is highly questionable whether all this will change the mind of the junta, and in particular, junta chief Min Aung Hlaing. After all, it is an open secret that Myanmar’s military leaders deeply believe in various superstitions: astrology, occultism, numerology, black magic, yadaya. Min Aung Hlaing is no exception. On April 9, he and his wife Kyu Kyu Hla released two turtles on the Coco Islands as part of yadaya, or the Burmese form of voodoo. The junta boss thus prayed for a long life.
* Jan Servaes is editor of the 2020 Handbook on Communication for Development and Social Change (https://link.springer.com/referencework/10.1007/978-981-10-7035-8) and co-editor of SDG18 Communication for All, Volumes 1 & 2, 2023 https://link.springer.com/book/9783031191411) [IDN-InDepthNews]
Credit: The Irrawaddy | The village of Pazi Gyi in Kantbalu township, Sagaing region, after the April 11 bombing.
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