Viewpoint by Jan Servaes
The author was UNESCO Chair in Communication for Sustainable Social Change (2011-2016). He taught ‘international communication’ in Australia, Belgium, China, Hong Kong, the US, the Netherlands, and Thailand, in addition to short-term projects at about 120 universities in 55 countries. He is editor of the 2020 Handbook on Communication for Development and Social Change.
BRUSSELS (IDN) — Since the February 1 coup in Myanmar, analysts have been anticipating a protracted civil war scenario, citing the example of Syria.
Some – including the United Nations Special Envoy to Myanmar—have warned of a complete collapse of the economy amid grave human rights violations by the Tatmadaw – the military that staged the coup. It is clear that the junta, led by Major General Min Aung Hlaing, has failed to maintain control of the country or bring a sense of normalcy to the country.
Most observers expect a protracted stalemate amid mounting repression. Attempts to mediate from countries such as China, Japan and members of ASEAN, the Association of Southeast Asian Nations, have so far proved fruitless and are now causing rifts within the regional bloc. It also seems that the military’s most ardent supporters are beginning to lose patience and confidence.
The abrupt collapse of the Myanmar kyat, which has lost more than 60 percent of its value in recent weeks, is the latest sign of the plight facing the country’s economy. High inflation, rising food prices and an acute cash shortage have plunged the population into economic despair. The Asian Development Bank and the World Bank estimate that Myanmar’s GDP contracted by 18 percent in the fiscal year to September 30, the worst in Myanmar’s recent history.
Nine months after the coup, more and more foreign companies are announcing the closure of their operations in Myanmar. The latest example is the closure of the Kempinski Hotel in the capital Naypyidaw. Also, this month, Norwegian telecom giant Telenor, German wholesale company Metro and British American Tobacco (BAT) announced it will exit the Myanmar market at the end of 2021. Having only started investing in the country in 2013 with a $50 million investment, BAT’s exit from Myanmar reflects the extent to which the business environment has deteriorated in just a few months.
Cracks within the junta?
In a sign that the junta could lose support from its proxy party, Nandar Hla yint, the spokesman for the pro-military Union Solidarity and Development Party (USDP), gave a rather explosive interview to BBC Burmese, acknowledging that the country is in disarray:
“Our country has no stability. As we all know, there is heavy pressure from the international community. How can we do good business in a country without peace and stability? How could our economy thrive under international pressure?” he said. Flirting with actually criticizing the junta, he said it is “important for the government to know the root of the problems” and to use a “needle” when appropriate and an “axe” when needed. It’s vague, but he seems to be suggesting that some of the military’s crackdowns have been counterproductive. “How the economy will be revived will depend largely on the economic policies of the regime. We will have to wait and see how the regime will revive the economy. With the current crisis looming, it will be very difficult to achieve peace and stability and economic recovery within a short period of time,” Nandar Hla Myint continued.
He also called for “dialogue” to “build trust” between the parties of the current conflict for the sake of Myanmar’s future. He did not explicitly mention the parallel National Unity Government of Myanmar (NUG), but he seemed to refer to them. Although the junta has refused to negotiate with the NUG, it has made temporary ceasefires and concessions to individual resistance groups.
The interview reflects both growing fears among military and junta workers who are increasingly being murdered in the streets, and an acknowledgment that the Tatmadaw is struggling to break the stalemate in the crisis.
The NUG Statement of September 7
The spectre of a failed state torn by internal conflict was heightened with the September 7 declaration by the parallel government of national unity (NUG), made up of expelled MPs and other opposition figures. The statement —”a war of defence for the people”—came amid an escalation of bombings, targeted killings, sabotage and armed clashes carried out mainly by civilian groups of the People’s Defence Force (PDF). Ethnic Armed Organizations (EAO) meanwhile have also intensified their campaigns against the Tatmadaw, assisting the PDF in some areas with training and logistics.
Acting President Lashi La of the NUG presented in a video message 14 points for “a people’s war against the military junta”. Among other things, he called for “all military-appointed administrators at various levels of government to leave their positions immediately.” Other points called for the PDFs to follow the NUG’s “military codes and conduct” and to “protect the lives and property of all people in your respective towns and cities.”
Lashi La also called on all military and police officers to join PDFs and report to the NUG’s Ministry of Defence. While cases of desertion have been reported, particularly with the police, it is difficult to see a greater number joining the opposition without guarantees for the safety of their families. This was confirmed on October 21 in a panel discussion hosted by the Foreign Correspondents’ Club of Thailand (FCCT) with Captain Nyi Thuta, a founding member of People’s Soldiers, a group of former Tatmadaw soldiers who urge colleagues to defect and to join the people.
The seventh point calls for ethnic armed organizations (EAOs) to “immediately attack the Min Aung Hlaing and the military council with various forms.” This seems to indicate that the NUG has not been given command and control over all Armed Actors (EAOs).
Some EAOs have pledged allegiance to the NUG, while others, such as the Kachin, Kayin and Kayah ethnic groups, have reiterated their autonomous opposition to the military junta. Others, especially in the Shan and Rakhine states, have refused to recognize or cooperate with the NUG. The NUG’s call for coordinated EAO action is therefore ambitious rather than reality.
Most EAOs deal primarily with conflict within their own area of operations, where the fighting appears to be expanding, and do not necessarily share the NUG’s national perspective. They are all struggling to respond to a heightened humanitarian crisis of conflict, flooding and the Covid-19 pandemic.
Initially peaceful, the broad anti-coup Civil Disobedience (CDM) movement has also evolved in tandem with the growth of the People’s Defence Force (PDF)—now an estimated 300 groups equipped with firearms and explosives. In the cities, some groups are employing urban guerrilla tactics with daily blasts, assassinations, and attacks on infrastructure. The National Union Government (NUG) claims that at least 1,560 junta troops have been killed, and dozens of civilian administrators appointed by the junta were executed.
More than 9,000 civilians have been arrested since the coup, at least 1,222 killed (131 of them tortured to death) by the Tatmadaw, according to the Assistance Association for Political Prisoners (AAPP). The Associated Press published an investigation into the use of torture across the country, making it clear that these are not isolated incidents, but a systemic policy.
Photo: Protesters against the military coup in Myanmar, 8 February 2021. CC BY-SA 4.0
Just days before the ASEAN October 26-28 summit, ASEAN President Brunei announced that Commander-in-Chief Min Aung Hlaing would not be invited. The side lining of Min Aung Hlaing was a huge insult to the junta and a rare, bold move by a regional group known for its code of non-interference and involvement. Myanmar’s military, which has ruled the country for 49 of the past 60 years, vehemently protested, accusing ASEAN of deviating from its standards and allowing itself to be influenced by other countries, including the United States. It is perhaps correct to say that the decision not to invite came under pressure from the so-called QUAD.
This Quadrilateral Security Dialogue (QUAD), a group of four countries comprising the US, Japan, India and Australia, called in September for an end to violence in Myanmar. This alliance of four countries is expected to play a more active role in the Asia-Pacific region in the coming months and years.
At the first QUAD summit, which was held virtually in March, it became clear that the alliance has an inclusive agenda. It decided to launch an ambitious COVID-19 vaccine delivery program and formed working groups to explore collaboration on emerging technologies and climate change. The leaders also made it clear that finding a quick solution to the Myanmar crisis was a top priority.
But within QUAD, reactions to the ongoing violence in Myanmar are different. While the US, along with the EU, has imposed sanctions on the military regime, India and Japan are acting more cautiously.
Tokyo and New Delhi have maintained good relations with both the Myanmar military and the National League for Democracy (NLD) and have invested in several economic projects in the country. Another key reason why Tokyo and New Delhi are proceeding cautiously is that they don’t want to alienate Myanmar and push it towards China.
As for India, pushing Myanmar further towards China will cause non-traditional security threats to resurface. Several rebel groups from India’s troubled northeast continue to operate from bases in Myanmar’s western border regions.
Of the QUAD countries, India, and Japan both have a deep understanding of the complex dynamics at play in Myanmar.
The ASEAN statement not to invite Min Aung Hlaing made it formally clear that the main reason was the Tatmadaw’s lack of commitment to “establish a constructive dialogue between all parties involved”. Reference was made to the failure to comply with the so-called five-point consensus of April 2021 and the continued refusal to allow the ASEAN Special Envoy to meet Aung San Suu Kyi.
So, it reflects a strategic blunder on the part of the junta. The West was basically willing to wash its hands of the Myanmar crisis and dump ASEAN with the responsibility of solving it. But the regime has refused to make even cosmetic concessions that would at least give ASEAN something to point to as a sign of progress, however feeble. A meeting with Aung San Suu Kyi, for example, would hardly change the dynamics of the current political crisis, but would allow ASEAN to pat itself on the back a little and everyone else could pretend the bloc has made some progress.
But the junta was unwilling to make such a minimal concession. “The game Min Aung Hlaing is playing is so trivial and silly, exposing his deep-seated personal resentment and hatred of Daw Aung San Suu Kyi,” the Irrawaddy said in an editorial.
ASEAN’s initiative to block Myanmar appears to have come internally at the urging of Malaysian Foreign Minister Saifuddin Abdullah, who even said on Oct. 6 that his country is willing to consider entering into a dialogue with the Myanmar government of national unity (NUG), if the junta does not fully cooperate with the five-point consensus.
Indonesia’s outspoken foreign minister, Retno Marsudi, went further in a Twitter post on October 15, saying Myanmar “should not be represented at the political level until Myanmar restores its democracy through an inclusive process.”
But regional security analysts notice that ASEAN’s annoyance at the junta’s intransigence and the bad reputation ASEAN has acquired because of Myanmar’s membership cannot be explained solely by concerns over democracy and human rights.
Malaysia and Indonesia have been victims of a flood of Muslim Rohingya refugees from Myanmar for years. According to the UNHCR, there were 179,390 refugees and asylum seekers registered in Malaysia at the end of August. Of these, 102,990 are Rohingyas, 22,470 Chins (a predominantly Christian minority) and 29,390 from other ethnic groups from conflict zones in Myanmar. While the exact number is unknown, thousands of Rohingya refugees also ventured to Indonesia in rickety boats. Moreover, since 2017, about 1 million Rohingya have been stranded in Cox’s Bazar in Bangladesh, the largest refugee camp in the world.
How ‘democratic’ is ASEAN?
Is it concern about the February 1 coup and the subsequent brutal repression of the public opposition? Or is it just a face-saving gesture by a regional bloc that is increasingly criticized for being ineffective and therefore losing credibility at a time when global superpowers play an increasing role in the region’s power politics, which have forced ASEAN into some activity?
After all, ASEAN relies heavily, especially on what may come after the pandemic, on the goodwill of the US and other Western countries that have unequivocally condemned Myanmar’s coup and urged the bloc to do more to restore normalcy in the country.
The junta has always claimed that it took power constitutionally because the president had decided to hand over power to the generals, which he has the right to do under the 2008 constitution. According to the junta, army-appointed First Vice President Myint Swe, a retired lieutenant general, had taken the presidency from Win Myint, who, according to the junta, had resigned for health reasons.
But on October 12, during an interrogation in court, the incarcerated U Win Myint stated that he was in good health. Hours before the February 1 coup, his lawyer said, the military had tried to force him to resign from his post and warned him that he could be seriously harmed if he refused. U Win Myint replied that he would “rather die than give permission,” the lawyer stated in an English text message sent to reporters. “The president has informed both the nation and the world through the court that the takeover is unconstitutional… It is the strongest evidence that they [military leaders] committed high treason as it comes from the head of state himself,” said U Win Myint’s lawyer.
This undermined any junta’s claim of legality, even under the 2008 constitution, which was drafted under the auspices of the military. Therefore, the Asian Parliamentarians for Human Rights (APHR) stated: “Let us not lose sight of the fact that Myanmar’s junta leaders are also accused of the worst crimes imaginable, including genocide. There is only one place Min Aung Hlaing belongs: not at the next ASEAN meeting, but in an international court.”
Moreover, ASEAN can hardly be described as an association of free democracies. The bloc’s current chairman, Brunei, is an absolute monarchy. Two of its members – Vietnam and Laos – are one-party communist states. Cambodia is governed by Prime Minister Hun Sen, who recently banned political opposition and turned the country into an even tougher autocracy.
Singapore also lacks fundamental freedoms when it comes to media and civil rights, and Malaysia can best be described as a semi-democracy. Rodrigo Duterte, the president of the Philippines, is known for his disdain for the media and all opposition to his rule.
In Thailand, the military has carried out several coups to overthrow elected governments and retains a disproportionate political role despite the 2019 elections. The personal friendships between Thailand’s Prime Minister General Prayuth Chan-ocha, and Myanmar Senior Gen. Min Aung Hlaing are widely known. This chemistry between the two armies has also been noted by experienced Thai diplomats and political commentators. An expert group concludes that current Thai foreign policy has fallen to its “lowest point” in living memory.
“Ironically, given its history of autocratic rule, that leaves Indonesia as the most, according to some, the only democratic ASEAN member,” concluded Myanmar expert Bertil Lintner.
The February 1 coup was also bad for business within ASEAN. Singapore exported $2.7 billion worth of goods to Myanmar in 2020, mainly mineral fuels, oil, electronics, and machinery. But Singapore companies and other ASEAN members could now face sanctions and boycotts for their dealings with Myanmar.
Trade with Vietnam also flourished before the coup, with Vietnamese companies investing in real estate and a huge new modern shopping centre in Yangon. Mytel, one of Myanmar’s largest telecom operators, is a joint venture between the military-controlled Myanmar Economic Corporation and Viettel, which is owned by the Vietnamese military.
Vietnam, hardly a democracy, would normally not have cared about a military takeover in a foreign country, but the Vietnamese can hardly be pleased to see their co-owned communication towers blown up by anti-junta protesters and other investments ruined because of the coup d’état.
So ASEAN is stuck with an exiled member who has dragged his reputation through the mud. In typical ASEAN fashion, foreign ministers reiterated “that Myanmar is an important member of the ASEAN family”, and Myanmar must be “given the space to restore its internal affairs and return to normalcy”.
Release (and re-arrest) of prisoners
Although the junta stated it was “extremely disappointed and deeply troubled” and officially spoke out against this embarrassing rejection for the junta, it blamed “foreign interventions” by the US and the European Union. The NUG, on the other hand, said it “appreciated” the “unprecedented and positive step”, but also called on ASEAN not to invite a member of the junta as a non-political representative.
“Of course we applaud ASEAN for the leadership it has shown, but this is clearly not enough,” Edgard Cagan, senior director of East Asia and Oceania at the National Security Council (NSC), said at an event at the Centre for Strategic Planning and International Studies in Washington. “To address the challenges of the coup and the difficulties people face because of the coup, a broader and more effective effort is needed.” Cagan did not specify what those efforts might be. But many analysts have said ASEAN should suspend Myanmar’s membership, halt trade with it — and not take steps such as lobbying to water down a United Nations resolution calling for an arms embargo on the country.
Min Aung Hlaing reiterated in a speech that ASEAN had made some “non-negotiable” demands, but announced a mass release of detainees, ostensibly in response to international pressure. Some say the amnesty was an attempt by the regime to appease ASEAN, of which Myanmar is a member.
Thousands of prisoners were reportedly released or had their charges dropped. This includes celebrities, journalists, politicians, protesters, student activists and more. Monywa Aung Shin, spokesman for the National League for Democracy and member of the party’s central executive committee, who was arrested on the day of the coup, was the top politician to be released.
A number of journalists were released, including Mizzima co-founder Thin Thin Aung, former editor-in-chief of the Thanlyin Post Tu Tu Tha, and DVB reporter Aung Kyaw, who livestreamed his own arrest in the Tanintharyi region. Unfortunately, Frontier‘s US editor-in-chief Danny Fenster and collaborator Sithu Aung Myint both remain incarcerated. Attorney Thet Naung, who represents some of the political prisoners, told Myanmar Now that the freed men were being charged “exclusively” under Section 505 of the Criminal Code, while both Danny Fenster and Sithu Aung Myint face additional charges.
But in many cases, the sudden releases were too good to be true, as at least 110 of the released prisoners were immediately re-arrested, according to the AAPP.
Among them the very popular rock singer Ito. He was returned to the infamous Insein Prison in Yangon a day after his release. He had been arrested at his home in early September on charges of harbouring volunteers who had undergone military training.
Many released prisoners also said they had been tortured in captivity. That leads Human Rights Watch to conclude that abuses since the February coup amount to crimes against humanity.
US State Department tour through Asia
While the junta faced pressure closer to home, it also continued to be harassed by the West. Derek Chollet, a US State Department adviser, visited Southeast Asia, with meetings in Singapore, Thailand, Indonesia, and Japan to discuss the Myanmar crisis.
“All we’ve seen, and we’ve been told by our people on the ground, is that there’s just some kind of gross mismanagement of the economy… We have to attribute the bad economic situation to the lack of political stability and all the uncertainty”, Chollet said during a press conference. “The situation in Burma is getting worse, both from a humanitarian and security perspective, in terms of the economy and the lack of progress in politics,” Chollet told The Associated Press in an interview.
In Singapore, Chollet urged the government to use financial pressure against the junta, something it has so far appeared reluctant to do. Chollet said in a tweet that he met with the deputy director of the Monetary Authority of Singapore and “discussed ways to limit the Burmese military regime’s access to foreign financial assets”. Rights activists have long criticized Singapore, Myanmar’s largest well-known foreign investor, for failing to act, even though military officials and companies are allegedly abusing the banking system.
With Thailand, Chollett discussed providing humanitarian aid to Myanmar through the border, which would likely bypass the junta institutions. The US does not want to give aid money that could end up in military hands. So the real purpose of that conversation was probably to ensure it can continue to work directly with ethnic armed groups (EAOs) and the National Unity Government (NUG) along the Thai border.
The US, along with the UK and the European Union, has already imposed sanctions on senior Myanmar military members and state-owned companies — including those trading in lucrative timber and gemstones — which are considered sources of revenue for the military.
But activists have been quick to point out that the sanctions do not relate to US and French oil and gas companies –Total and Chevron — that operate in Myanmar, and are the military’s largest source of foreign currency revenue. It allows them to make purchases such as refined petroleum, weapons, medicines, and other imported goods.
“In the absence of sanctions, these huge multinational corporations that have massive stakeholder investments could potentially be complicit in ongoing atrocities and crimes in Myanmar,” said Manny Maung, a Myanmar researcher for Human Rights Watch. “These business relations basically go straight to the criminal junta. Failure to take reasonable steps… is really quite reckless and allows companies to be complicit.”
In what could be even more bad news for the junta’s quest for legitimacy, Amanda Milling, the UK’s Asia minister, confirmed that the regime had not been invited to a meeting between ASEAN and the G7 in Liverpool coming December. “The UK has been clear that the military regime in Myanmar is not welcome to attend in person,” said the minister.
Murders and mass resignations of junta-appointed administrators
The junta continues its bloody crackdown on civilians across the country. Fighting continues to intensify in the interior and border regions, including the Chin state – a hotbed of anti-military resistance – where the junta has reportedly shut down the internet in much of the state. Thousands of people fled Thantlang after fighting on Sept. 18, seeking shelter in nearby villages along the India-Myanmar border, with others crossing into the Indian state of Mizoram. An October 15 report from the Chin Human Rights Organization (CHRO) claimed that about 100 buildings had been destroyed by the military in the Sagaing and Magway regions in August and September, and another 100 in Chin state. Among them were seven churches and a monastery, CHRO said.
Anti-military guerrillas continue to kill government officials at a relentless pace. But perhaps more importantly, the climate of fear is causing many officials to quit their jobs.
Understandably, the wave of layoffs has been most pronounced in the Sagaing region, which is also arguably where most murders occur. In some neighborhoods, nearly every local administrator has resigned. Their departure is likely to hasten the collapse of the junta-run administrative system in rural areas. This will certainly be a major concern for the Tatmadaw, who are already struggling to assert their control over remote areas.
According to Anthony Davis of the military magazine Janes, the Tatmadaw are poised to launch a multiple campaign against the insurgency especially in the west of the country. After a steady build-up of troops involving the army, air force and river police, the campaign coincides with the end of the monsoon season in October. Davis fears the Tatmadaw’s combined arms offensive against opposition concentrations could turn the tide in the Tatmadaw’s favor.
He fears that the army will return to more drastic measures that have been used in the past: the depopulation of entire rebellious villages.
The strategy, known in Myanmar as the ‘four cuts’, was introduced in the 1960s by Western military advisers – most notably Colonel Ted Serong of the Australian Army – and was based on the practice of fighting the insurgency from the Cold War in Malaya and later South Vietnam. The method aimed to cut off insurgents from four essentials: food, funding, recruits and intelligence. The rural population was moved to defensible settlements and ties between civilians and rebels were severed.
In 1960s Burma, a lack of resources meant that the “four cuts” as part of the anti-communist campaign were never given sufficient priority to be strategically relevant. Before long, it was also brushed aside by a much more blunt and essentially Burmese approach to counterinsurgency, particularly as practiced by Tatmadaw’s Bamar soldiers in remote border regions inhabited by what many of them saw as culturally “inferior” ethnic minorities.
This was a form of counterinsurgency that had nothing to do with Western theories underlying the “four cuts” but had much in common with the “three all’s” of the Japanese Imperial Army in China during the 1940’s – burn everything, kill everything, loot everything. And in the context of Myanmar, scorched earth methods could usefully be supplemented by driving hundreds of thousands across international borders to Thailand, China, Bangladesh and India.
As the smoke already rising from villages in western Myanmar clearly illustrates, Tatmadaw’s operational practice, even in the ethnic Bamar regions, continues to rely heavily on the “three all’s”. And in the coming months, rural populations fleeing burning villages will almost certainly not benefit from “new villages” or even “strategic hamlets”: the Tatmadaw has neither the resources nor the mentality to “manage” the insurgency.
The result is likely to be an explosion of filthy refugee camps in townships and regional centres that will serve as new fires of resistance and exacerbate a humanitarian disaster that the Tatmadaw is already unable to address.
It is doubtful that those planning Operation Anawrahta have given much thought to the collateral damage their offensive will cause and the multiplier effect it will have on the population’s resistance. On some level, they’ve never needed that in the past; in another they have already turned their backs on alternative options.
But perhaps an even more important element of collateral damage in the coming months will be the impact on the military and junior officers when they realize what their commanders have instructed them to do to their own countrymen.
In the short term, the Tatmadaw ethos of iron discipline will serve to isolate the soldiers from their actions. But as weeks turn into months and the number of civilian casualties mounts, biting demoralization among many of the Tatmadaw forces could pose a far greater threat to the generals in Naypyidaw than the meagre military capabilities of the resistance they now seek to crush. [IDN-InDepthNews – 06 November 2021]
Photo: More than 300 houses and two churches in Thantlang, Chin state, burned down by junta troops, according to a report on October 30. Credit: mizzima.com
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