March 2021

EDITORIAL – March 2021 – Myanmar coup: the ASEAN answer

Myanmar coup: the ASEAN answer

The recent rise in rhetoric swirling around a new Cold War could find no better home than the coup in Myanmar.

After a decade of edging towards more democratic rule, the gun once again prevailed over the ballot box in this Asian country of 54 million. In time-honoured fashion, a military regime shut down democratic institutions, arrested leaders and rolled their vehicles onto the streets.

Seen through a Cold War prism, the coup represents a territorial win for authoritarianism.

We only need to look at last century’s conflicts on the Korean Peninsula, Vietnam and Cambodia, the upheavals in Indonesia, the Philippines and so on to imagine how Myanmar could end up centre-stage of a new East-West proxy war.

The rival power this time is China, which in the view of many in the US is a Marxist-Leninist state intent on global domination over liberal democracy.

While Myanmar, long reliant on Chinese support, could be hailed as Beijing’s latest conquest, there is, little evidence that Beijing sponsored the coup and, thankfully, no sign yet of the West drawing red lines through Asia’s rivers and jungles as they did during tensions last century

From Europe, North America and Japan, the condemnation has been harsh but measured, with an emphasis on diplomacy and targeted sanctions.

The real test, here, lies with the ten-member Association of South East Asian Nations, of which Myanmar is a member. ASEAN has a record of being slow and ineffective in regional crises. It operates on a principle of consensus and non-intervention in the internal affairs of its members.

Within these parameters, ASEAN has worked well. But it now needs to test itself and do more. With America and China bracing for a bare-knuckled contest around the Indo-Pacific, an ASEAN-mentored solution to the Myanmar crisis is by far the preferable way forward.

First, it would show that Southeast Asia is more than capable of sorting out its own problems. The less it asks for outside help, the more it will stay in control.

Second, ASEAN deeply understands the many threads feeding into the Myanmar crisis. The tapestry through Asian eyes looks very different to the one woven in Washington or Beijing.

Central to that is the mindset of Myanmar’s armed forces, the Tadmadaw, whose senior officers have convinced themselves they are guardians of the nation, the glue holding the country together.

The hugely popular National League for Democracy was pushing for constitutional change and full transition to civilian rule which, in the military’s view, would result in the country falling apart. These officers would also forfeit their perks, power, prestige and many could even face human rights and corruption charges.

In this respect, the Myanmar military mindset is not unlike that of other authoritarian regimes, such as Iraq’s Saddam Hussein or Libya’s Muammar Gaddafi. And, indeed, when they were overthrown those countries did fall apart.

While the freedom against dictatorship argument resonates well with voters in Western democracies, ASEAN understands the challenges.  If handled clumsily Myanmar’s fate, with a dozen or more insurgencies still running, could easily become that of a failed state compounded by an exceptionally high body count.

China has long had influence in Myanmar. Since the 1990s, Beijing has run military radar stations on the Coco Islands that lie midway between the mainland and the Andaman Islands, territory of India which sees China as its biggest foreign threat.

Chinese money funds much of Myanmar’s infrastructure. Just over a year ago President Xi Jinping visited, announcing more than 30 projects including a deep-water port at Kyaukpyu, 400 miles north of Yangon. The ambitious China-Myanmar Economic Corridor aims to set up a direct oil supply line from the Indian Ocean to the Chinese southern province of Yunnan.

Beijing makes no secret of its interests there, and to keep them all on track it needs stability. Edgy generals pitted against street protestors does not deliver that.

The crisis has also underpinned an economic reality.  Western democracies and Japan account for just 20 per cent of Myanmar’s trade, while China and the wider Asian region make up almost 70 per cent.

The West has far less economic leverage than it once had, and Southeast Asia has a far better understanding of the crisis itself.

ASEAN must accept that the Myanmar crisis could stretch some of its principles of consensus and non-interference, but this could be done quietly without fanfare in a Southeast Asian way.

If successful, it could persuade Beijing and Washington to keep their distance and ensure that old Cold War rhetoric and outdated ideology does not come into play.

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