Jonathan Liljeblad, Australian National UniversitySince the coup in Myanmar on February 1, the international community has struggled to agree on coherent action against the military (also known as the Tatmadaw).
Outside the UN, a strong, coordinated response by Myanmar’s neighbours in the Association of Southeast Asian Nations (ASEAN) has also been lacking due to their reluctance to interfere in each other’s affairs. Thai political expert Thitinan Pongsudhirak called it an “existential crisis” for the bloc.
This reluctance, which has now cost the lives of over 500 civilians, rules out the use of military force to stop the violence, peacekeeping operations or even a humanitarian intervention.
It has left the international community with one remaining option for a coordinated response that could change the military’s behaviour: the imposition of economic sanctions. But even this action has been subject to much debate.
Follow the money
General sanctions that try to change the behaviour of authoritarian regimes by damaging their economies have proven problematic in the past. Many leaders have invariably found ways around the sanctions, meaning civilians have disproportionately borne the costs of isolation.
In contrast, targeted sanctions against the specific financial interests that sustain authoritarian regimes have been more effective. These can impose pressure on regimes without affecting the broader population.
This is where the international community has the greatest potential to punish the Tatmadaw.
Since the US and other countries pursued more general sanctions on Myanmar in the 1990s and 2000s — with mixed results — the international community has gained a greater understanding of the Tatmadaw’s transnational revenue streams.
In particular, in 2019, the UN Fact-Finding Mission (UNFFM) on Myanmar released a report detailing the diverse Tatmadaw-linked enterprises that funnel revenue from foreign business transactions to the military’s leaders and units.
Researchers have also outlined the Tatmadaw’s dealings in illegal trade in drugs, gemstones, timber, wildlife and human trafficking.
The extent of information on the Tatmadaw’s financial flows shows just how vulnerable the military’s leaders are to international pressure.
Tracking the military’s legal and illegal business dealings makes it possible to identify its business partners in other countries. Governments in those countries can then take legal action against these business partners and shut off the flow of money keeping the junta afloat.
To some degree, this is starting to happen with Myanmar. The US and UK recently decided, for instance, to freeze assets and halt corporate trading with two Tatmadaw conglomerates — Myanmar Economic Corporation and Myanma Economic Holdings Limited. Both of these oversee a range of holdings in businesses that divert revenues directly to the Tatmadaw.
Myanmar’s trading partners can do more
This is only a starting point, though. To tighten the pressure on the junta, targeted sanctions need to be imposed against the full suite of entities identified by the UNFFM. These include groups like Justice for Myanmar and journalists.
The sanctions need to be accompanied by broader investigations into the Tatmadaw’s revenues from illicit trade. To counter this, Human Rights Watch has urged governments to enforce anti-money laundering and anti-corruption measures, including the freezing of assets.
Singapore’s central bank has reportedly told financial institutions to be on the look-out for suspicious transactions or money flows between the city-state and Myanmar. Singapore is the largest foreign investor in the country.
Moreover, for maximum impact, targeted sanctions need to be imposed not just by the West, but by Myanmar’s largest trading partners in the region. This includes Singapore, along with China, India, Indonesia, Japan and Thailand.
Business leaders in these countries have historically had the closest ties with Myanmar’s military and business elites. But their participation in a multi-national targeted sanctions strategy is not out of the question. For one, this would not require direct intervention within Myanmar, something they are loath to do. Imposing targeted sanctions would merely entail enforcing their domestic laws regarding appropriate business practices.
International action is becoming more urgent. Beyond the concerns about the killings of unarmed civilians, there is a larger issue of the violence extending beyond Myanmar’s borders. There are growing fears the crisis could turn Myanmar into a failed state, driving refugee flows capable of destabilising the entire region.
In short, this is no longer an “internal” matter for Myanmar — it is becoming a transnational problem that will affect regional peace and security. The tools are there to stop the financial flows to the Tatmadaw and curtail their operations. It is critical to act before the Myanmar crisis grows into an international disaster.
Myanmar’s military appears to be testing out a range of vicious tactics in the hope something will stem the protest movements that have embroiled the country since the coup in early February.
The military crossed a grim threshold last Wednesday when security forces fired live rounds at protesters across the country, resulting in what the UN said were at least 30 deaths and hundreds of critical injuries.
Then, on Saturday, security forces beat and took away Khin Maung Latt, a Muslim ward chairman for the former ruling party, the National League for Democracy (NLD). The next morning, the family recovered his tortured and mutilated body from the hospital.
That night, the father of MP Sithu Maung, who is one of only two Muslim politicians elected to represent the NLD last year, was beaten and dragged away by security forces. He has not been heard from since.
And this week, another NLD official, Zaw Myatt Linn, died in custody less than a day after being arrested.
These brutal attacks appear designed not only to terrorise the NLD, protesters and others taking part in the civil disobedience campaign, but the Muslim community, in particular.
Myanmar’s Muslim minorities have a history of persecution by the military and other nationalist groups. Brutalising Muslims now may be an attempt to bolster support within the few remaining parts of society that still back the military.
A history of self-delusion and miscalculations
There have now been more than 60 protesters killed and almost 2,000 arrested, but nothing has stopped the popular rage against the coup makers and their ill-considered plans.
Any grudging respect the military may have retained for its role in guiding the political transition over the past decade has now well and truly evaporated.
The military has a reputation for self-delusion, and it certainly miscalculated the public mood prior to launching the coup that ousted the NLD from power just weeks after it won an overwhelming majority in national elections.
The military’s commander-in-chief, Senior General Min Aung Hlaing, may have convinced himself that Thailand could be a model for how to transition from the coup to semi-democratic elections. If so, he is likely to be severely disappointed.
Thailand’s military seized power in 2014, and five years later, the coup leader, Prayuth Chan-ocha, won a compromised election to retain his position as prime minister.
But Thai society is much more divided between liberal and nationalist monarchist movements, giving the military there a sizeable support base. In Myanmar, the military doesn’t enjoy the same popular backing, which was why its proxy party suffered a humiliating defeat in the 2020 election.
A further escalation of violence against unarmed protesters in Myanmar is likely to undermine support from the military’s few international allies, including China. It seems there are no good options left for the military to resolve this entirely self-inflicted crisis.
A fragmented but effective opposition movement
The bruising standoff between the military and opposition is now a war of attrition. No one knows for sure who will last the longest.
The opposition movement is comprised of many interlocking parts, of which the protests are not the only — or even the most important.
The civil disobedience movement, mostly made up of striking or uncooperative workers, is paralysing major parts of the economy. Large numbers of civil servants remain at their desks, but are not doing any work, bringing government activity to a halt.
The country’s largest trade unions launched an indefinite, nationwide strike this week, as well.
The loose, anarchic structure of the opposition movement — with few leaders and highly decentralised modes of organisation, funding and operations — means the military cannot easily decapitate the movement.
The military tried to silence the most symbolic leader, Aung San Suu Kyi, by placing her under arrest, but it hasn’t affected the opposition’s ability to organise or tap into public anger against the military.
Sources inside the country suggest the civil disobedience movement has been energised by Myanmar’s UN ambassador, Kyaw Moe Tun, who defied the military and declared its rule illegitimate. His courage has proved a lightning rod for the millions of angry protesters looking for inspiration and moral clarity.
These protesters now seem committed to the confrontation. The best approach may be to foment division within the military and police in the hopes of undermining Min Aung Hlaing’s authority.
Security forces haven’t rebelled in great numbers in the past, even when ordered to crack down on the Buddhist monks leading the Saffron Revolution in 2007. But after a decade of political and economic liberties, Myanmar has changed profoundly. Some in the military and police have changed along with it and might not be amenable if a major crackdown is ordered against their own citizens.
If so, there are likely to be increased defections of security forces to the opposition.
What can the world do?
This conflict will be resolved one way or the other by the duelling groups within Myanmar. The outside world has few levers left to pull.
The UN Security Council, for one, remains largely deadlocked on the issue, with China and Russia unwilling to deliver strong statements or endorse any serious action against the military.
The US and other Western nations have implemented sanctions on members of the military and military-linked companies, but many of these were already in place in response to the violence against the Rohingya in recent years.
Australia has also suspended its cooperation with the military and directed all aid funds through non-state actors. This is a welcome measure.
If real external pressure is to be applied on the Myanmar generals, it may have to come from the ASEAN countries — specifically Singapore, one of the biggest investors in Myanmar.
Singapore’s political and commercial leaders are now facing pressure to take a stronger stand. Soon after the coup, a prominent Singaporean businessman divested from a Myanmar tobacco company, which is majority-owned by a military conglomerate.
Kirin, a giant Japanese brewer, pulled out of its joint venture with the same conglomerate.
If other companies can similarly suspend their deals with the military, it will certainly help to strangle the key sources of revenue keeping Myanmar’s top brass in power.
The bravery of the protesters on the streets needs to be matched by a clear international message that Myanmar’s coup-makers cannot expect a financial lifeline to maintain their homicidal rule.
Just before the newly elected members of Myanmar’s parliament were due to be sworn in today, the military detained the country’s de facto leader, Aung San Suu Kyi; the president, Win Myint; and other key figures from the elected ruling party, the National League for Democracy.
The military later announced it had taken control of the country for 12 months and declared a state of emergency. This is a coup d’etat, whether the military calls it that or not.
A disputed election and claims of fraud
Humiliated by the result, the USDP alleged the election was subject to widespread fraud. However, international observers, including the Carter Center, the Asian Network for Free Elections and the European Union’s Election Observation Mission, all declared the elections a success. The EU’s preliminary statement noted that 95% of observers had rated the process “good” or “very good”.
the results of the elections were credible and reflected the will of the majority voters.
Yet, taking a page out of former US President Donald Trump’s book, the USDP pressed its claims of fraud despite the absence of any substantial evidence — a move designed to undermine the legitimacy of the elections.
The military did not initially back the USDP’s claims, but it has gradually begun to provide the party with more support, with the commander-in-chief of the armed forces, General Min Aung Hlaing, refusing to rule out a coup last week.
The following day, the country’s election authorities broke weeks of silence and firmly rejected the USDP’s claims of widespread fraud — setting the stage for what Myanmar historian Thant Myint-U called
[Myanmar’s] most acute constitutional crisis since the abolition of the old junta in 2010.
The civilian-military power-sharing arrangement
It is difficult to see how the military will benefit from today’s actions, since the power-sharing arrangement it had struck with the NLD under the 2008 constitution had already allowed it to expand its influence and economic interests in the country.
The military had previously ruled Myanmar for half a century after General Ne Win launched a coup in 1962. A so-called internal “self-coup” in 1988 brought a new batch of military generals to power. That junta, led by Senior General Than Shwe, allowed elections in 1990 that were won in a landslide by Suu Kyi’s party. The military leaders, however, refused to acknowledge the results.
In 2008, a new constitution was drawn up by the junta which reserved 25% of the national parliament seats for the military and allowed it to appoint the ministers of defence, border affairs and home affairs, as well as a vice president. Elections in 2010 were boycotted by the NLD, but the party won a resounding victory in the next elections in 2015.
Since early 2016, Suu Kyi has been de facto leader of Myanmar, even though there is still no civilian oversight of the military. Until this past week, the relationship between civilian and military authorities was tense at times, but overall largely cordial. It was based on a mutual recognition of overlapping interests in key areas of national policy.
Indeed, this power-sharing arrangement has been extremely comfortable for the military, as it has had full autonomy over security matters and maintained lucrative economic interests.
In the wake of that pogrom, Suu Kyi vigorously defended both the country and its military at the International Court of Justice. Myanmar’s global reputation — and Suu Kyi’s once-esteemed personal standing — suffered deeply and never recovered.
Nonetheless, there was one key point of contention between the NLD and military: the constitutional prohibitions that made it impossible for Suu Kyi to officially take the presidency. Some NLD figures have also voiced deep concerns about the permanent role claimed by the armed forces as an arbiter of all legal and constitutional matters in the country.
A backwards step for Myanmar
Regardless of how events unfold this week and beyond, Myanmar’s fragile democracy has been severely undermined by the military’s actions.
The NLD government has certainly had its shortcomings, but a military coup is a significant backwards step for Myanmar — and is bad news for democracy in the region.
It’s difficult to see this action as anything other than a way for General Min Aung Hlaing to retain his prominent position in national politics, given he is mandated to retire this year when he turns 65. With the poor electoral performance of the USDP, there are no other conceivable political routes to power, such as through the presidency.
A coup will be counterproductive for the military in many ways. Governments around the world will likely now apply or extend sanctions on members of the military. Indeed, the US has released a statement saying it would “take action” against those responsible. Foreign investment in the country — except perhaps from China — is also likely to plummet.
As Myanmar’s people have already enjoyed a decade of increased political freedoms, they are also likely to be uncooperative subjects as military rule is re-imposed.
The 2020 general election demonstrated, once again, the distaste in Myanmar for the political role of the armed forces and the enduring popularity of Suu Kyi. Her detention undermines the fragile coalition that was steering Myanmar through a perilous period, and could prove a messy end to the profitable détente between civilian and military forces.
Myanmar’s transition from five decades of military rule is a work in progress.
Despite the junta’s formal dissolution in 2010, the release of political prisoners including opposition leader Aung San Suu Kyi, and democratic reforms allowing National League Democracy to win government in 2015, the military (officially known as the Tatmadaw) retains huge political and economic power.
A quarter of parliamentary seats are reserved for military appointees. The Tatmadaw also controls several major commercial conglomerates with disproportionate economic influence, having prospered through years of cronyism and corruption.
The severe international sanctions imposed on Myanmar during junta rule have been lifted. However, United Nations human rights advocates have warned against doing business with the Tatmadaw due to its human rights atrocities.
Several reports in the past month suggest foreign companies are failing to take that direction seriously.
Two British banks, HSBC and Standard Chartered, have reportedly lent US$60 million to a Vietnamese company building a mobile network in Myanmar. The Tatmadaw-controlled Myanmar Economic Corporation owns 28% of the network, known as Mytel. An Israeli technology company, Gilat Satellite Networks, has also reportedly been doing business with Mytel.
The Australian government has also been indirectly implicated. Its Future Fund has invested A$3.2 million (about US$2.5 million) in a subsidiary of Indian multinational Adani, which is doing business with the Myanmar Economic Corporation.
Adani Ports and Special Economic Zones, is funding the rail link to connect Adani’s controversial Carmichael coal mine in Queensland to a port on the Great Barrier Reef. It is also building a container port near Yangon on land owned by the Myanmar Economic Corporation.
War crimes and other atrocities
The United Nations’ call to avoid doing business with the Tatmadaw stems from its 2016 operations against the Arakan Rohingya Salvation Army, the separatist Islamist insurgency based in the western state of Rakhine.
Rahkine is about one-third Muslim, mostly ethnic Rohingya, a group with its own distinctive culture and language.
The crackdown quickly deteriorated into a human rights crisis. About 350 Rohingya villages were destroyed, according to Human Rights Watch. Hundreds of thousands fled to Bangladesh. (Hundred of thousands were already living in refugee camps due to past persecution.)
In March 2017 the United Nations Human Rights Council appointed an independent fact-finding mission to investigate allegations of atrocities. The mission included former Australian Human Rights Commissioner Chris Sidoti, former Indonesian prosecutor general Marzuki Darusman and Sri Lankan human rights advocate Radhika Coomaraswamy.
They published their first full report in September 2018. Detailing the killing of thousands of Rohingya civilians, forced disappearances and mass gang rapes, it called for the Tatmadaw commander-in-chief, Senior-General Min Aung Hlaing, and five other commanders to be tried for genocide.
Call to sever economic ties
In September 2019 the mission published a report on the Tatmadaw’s economic interests. It recommended foreign businesses sever ties and cease all business dealings with Tatmadaw-controlled entities.
The report’s main focus was Myanmar Economic Corporation (MEC) and another conglomerate, Myanmar Economic Holding Ltd (MEHL). These two corporations have profited from near-monopoly control over many activities and industries under the junta. They have amassed huge land holdings and businesses in manufacturing, construction, real estate, industrial zones, finance and insurance, telecommunications and mining.
They became public companies in late 2016, but their profits still mostly flow to the military.
The report names foreign companies in commercial partnerships with them, including Adani, Kirin Holdings (Japan), Posco Steel (South Korea), Infosys (India) and Universal Apparel (Hong Kong).
The report also recommended governments and institutions such as the World Bank and the International Monetary Fund (IMF) take action to economically isolate the Myanmar military.
It is important to note the UN report did not call for general disinvestment from Myanmar. It encouraged businesses to enter, invest and contribute to much-needed economic development – but without associating with the military.
The question of isolation versus engagement has been a longstanding one for Myanmar. Until 2011 the United States, the European Union and countries including Australia imposed broad trade and diplomatic sanctions.
However, foreign companies often found a way to do business in Myanmar through various low-profile strategies. Companies in neighbouring countries in particular largely operated on a “business as usual” basis.
Doing business in Myanmar without doing business with Tatmadaw interests is no easy task. Access to land and property is especially thorny, given so much is owned by crony companies.
Adani, for example, has defended its port development as contributing to Myanmar’s economic development, stating:
While some nations, including Australia, have arms embargoes and travel restrictions on key members of the military in place, this does not preclude investment in the nation or business dealings with corporations such as MEC.
It notes its port investments in Myanmar are “held through Singapore-based entities and follow the strict regulations of the Singapore government”.
But doing business with the military conglomerates is less necessary than in the past. Creating separate subsidiaries does not shield investors from their ethical responsibilities to not help line the pockets of those responsible for genocide.
Whether avoidable or necessary, when high-profile international businesses choose to enter into such deals they will certainly continue to be observed and criticised for making these choices.
Last weekend, a few hours after the US presidential election was called for Joe Biden, Myanmar voters started lining up for their own chance to decide whether the National League for Democracy (NLD) government, led by Aung San Suu Kyi, would return for a second term.
With 5,643 candidates from 91 parties competing for 1,119 seats, at both the state and federal level, the country’s almost 38 million voters were asked to cast judgment on the last five years of NLD rule.
After three days of vote counting, the ruling party has claimed a huge victory, likely extending its resounding wins from the 2015 general election.
Under the military-authored constitution, a quarter of the seats in the national legislature are still reserved for military-appointed representatives, who generally vote as a bloc. The NLD, therefore, needed to win two-thirds of the elected seats to achieve a governing majority.
This requirement was designed by the military to be a high, almost impossible, threshold for any democratically oriented party in such a diverse, multi-ethnic political system. But it looks like the NLD has achieved it again, with ease.
The NLD appears to have displaced the military-backed Union Solidarity and Development Party (USDP) from some of its strongholds in rural areas and southern Mandalay. And its dominance in Yangon and much of the country has been met with jubilation among die-hard supporters, eager to see a further consolidation of the country’s democratic ambitions.
The renewed mandate for the NLD will also be taken by Suu Kyi’s millions of supporters as repudiation of the widespread international backlash against the government for its handling of the Rohingya crisis, which saw nearly a million people displaced in 2017.
Conflict remains a big issue
During her first term, Suu Kyi sought to broker a new nationwide peace agreement with the various ethnic minority armed groups, but was frustrated by the entrenched complexities of the country’s borderland politics.
Well-armed militias, some of which draw considerable financial strength from wide-ranging illicit businesses, proved unwilling to accept her government’s claims on their territories.
In some of these areas, the Election Commission cancelled voting in the election, ostensibly due to the ongoing fighting. Northern Rakhine state and also areas of Chin, Shan, Kachin, Kayin and Mon states, and in Bago Region, were all affected by these cancellations.
In Rakhine and Chin states, however, elections were able to be held in NLD strongholds less affected by the conflict between the military and the Buddhist ethnic Rakhine Arakan Army, while voting was cancelled in areas held by ethnic minority parties.
In all, 22 seats in both houses of the national legislature will remain vacant until the conflicts have eased, which may not happen any time soon.
Because the decision to call off the voting in these areas benefited the NLD, it called into question the independence of the Election Commission.
About 1.5 million voters were disenfranchised by the move. There are also further Rohingya in Rakhine state and refugee camps in Bangladesh who have historically been denied citizenship and voting rights.
Human Rights Watch has called the elections “fundamentally flawed”, and many countries have qualified their support for the result by highlighting this disenfranchisement.
Is the military really loosening its grip?
At best, the military will only grudgingly accept the election results, especially since its favoured party, the USDP, performed poorly.
The past five years have seen generally amiable relations between the NLD and the military, even in light of the military’s brutal “clearance operations” of the Muslim-minority Rohingya in Rakhine state in 2017.
However, in the lead-up to the elections, the commander in chief of the military, Senior General Min Aung Hlaing, released a statement criticising the Election Commission, arguing that
weakness and deficiencies which were never seen in the previous elections are appearing.
Recently, a reputable website run by activists investigating the military was blocked and various opposition parties had their political broadcasts censored when they appeared on state television.
In addition to other restrictions on freedom of speech, the election cancellations, internet shutdowns, disenfranchisement of ethnic minorities and campaign restrictions due to COVID-19 have cast a pall over the vote.
Outlook for the new NLD government
While the treatment of the Rohingya — and Suu Kyi’s defence of the military’s crimes against them — is impossible to accept, foreign governments have little choice but to continue providing support for the newly empowered NLD government.
International pressure should continue to be applied, however, to resolve the Rohingya crisis and protect freedom of speech.
If the military were to step in and take back control from the civilian-led government, this would, in every sense, be a significant backward step for democracy in Myanmar. While we have argued the chances of a coup looked relatively low during the NLD’s first term, recent events have demonstrated the military can always find an excuse to reassert itself at the centre of Myanmar politics.
To avoid further turbulence, and with its fresh mandate, Myanmar’s government will need to quickly concentrate on broad-based economic development and human security. The election result also offers a chance to focus on the peaceful resolution of longstanding conflicts in what remains a tragically divided and impoverished society.
Over 37 million Myanmar citizens, including 5 million first-time voters, will go to the polls on November 8.
The election represents a litmus test for the popularity of National League for Democracy (NLD) leader Aung San Suu Kyi, who was placed under a house arrest by the military for about 15 years intermittently between 1989 and 2010.
Much is at stake in this election, but the role of the military still looms large in Myanmar politics.
The constitutional change needed to further democratise Myanmar is impossible without the military’s consent, so achieving major political transformation through the election alone seems unlikely.
The recent past
In 2011, after about five decades of military rule, the military nominally handed power to the government of President Thein Sein and his Union Solidarity and Development Party (USDP).
Soon after, in the 2015 election, Suu Kyi’s NLD party won a landslide victory. She is now Myanmar’s incumbent state counsellor (equivalent to prime minister) but her international standing has taken a hit in recent years.
Critics accuse her of allowing widespread abuse of minority Rohingyas. Many Rohingya villages were burned down during a military crackdown in 2016 and 2017. Over 900,000 Rohingya — including more than 400,000 children — fled to Bangladesh and a large number of Rohingya refugees are dispersed across Southeast Asia.
Meanwhile, armed conflicts between ethnic armed organisations and the military continue, especially in the Rakhine state and the northern borderlands, and Myanmar’s transition to democracy is faltering.
New parties and political alliances
Suu Kyi’s NLD and its main rival, the USDP, are the two largest political parties vying for a majority of seats.
With its origin in the bloody 1988 anti-government uprising, the NLD has long fought for democracy and freedom.
The USDP (currently chaired by Than Htay), on the other hand, was formally registered in June 2010 with tacit support from the military. However, the USDP’s recent decision not to favour retired military generals as candidates indicates its ties with the military are weakening.
Many smaller parties and alliances are emerging and some, such as the People’s Party and the United Political Parties Alliance (UPPA), are likely to divide NLD’s traditional voters.
Two new political parties, the Union Betterment Party and the Democratic Party of National Politics, both formed by ex-military generals, will likely split the military sympathisers and cut into the USDP’s traditional voter base.
In states such as Kachin, Shan, Rakhine, Mon, Chin and Karen, many ethnic parties have recently merged to form a united front. They aim to win a majority in state parliaments and claim most of the national parliament seats in their states. These mergers may also weaken the NLD’s position; it had performed well in ethnic majority states in 2015.
Despite some notable economic and policy reforms, many ethnic parties are dissatisfied with the NLD government for the slow pace of transition from the military rule.
As the COVID-19 pandemic restricts freedom of movement, the candidates will be forced to campaign largely through social media and traditional media, which might work in the favour of larger and better-resourced parties. Not all parties and candidates have the finances to run online campaigns.
Big issues driving the voters
The election campaign will bring to light complex issues around Myanmar’s rich ethnic diversity: the continuation of armed conflict, demand from ethnic minorities for federalism, devolution of state power and better economic opportunities.
Despite the NLD’s promise of greater freedom and civil liberties, Suu Kyi’s government has prosecuted more journalists, social media users and human rights activists than the previous government.
Myanmar’s economic and infrastructure development has been limited and, as my research argues, has been manipulated for political gain by powerful interest groups.
This has helped radicalise a section of Buddhist extremists. The middle class and rural poor haven’t benefited greatly from development policies; more than 24% of people still live below the national poverty line.
Deep reforms for a federal system and equitable economic development policies are needed to bring real progress toward peace between ethnic armed groups and the government. The way land ownership and natural resources are managed would need to be overhauled. Such reforms, however, are constrained by provisions in Myanmar’s constitution that ensure state power is shared with the military.
The constitution allows the military to occupy 25% of parliamentary seats. Only serving military officers can lead the three most powerful ministries – defence, home affairs and border affairs. This makes the military a very powerful political institution, which effectively controls the peace process and the direction of the transition.
The Rohingya crisis: ‘seems a textbook example of ethnic cleansing’
The persecution of Rohingya Muslims in Myanmar, which then-United Nations human rights chief Zeid Ra‘ad al-Hussein said in 2017 “seems a textbook example of ethnic cleansing”, continues to loom large in Myanmar politics. It has created one of the world’s largest refugee crises.
Many international observers have criticised Suu Kyi’s silence on the Rohingya crisis. Inside Myanmar, however, her popularity remained strong (especially among the country’s majority Bamar community) as she was called to answer for allegations of genocide made at the International Court of Justice late last year.
The Bamar community makes up about 70% of the country’s population and is the major voter base of Suu Kyi’s party. They largely consider Rohingyas illegal migrants, despite the fact many have lived in Myanmar for generations. A section of the community supports radical Buddhist nationalism and resists ethnic pluralism.
The Rohingya crisis has made ethnic minority voters deeply sceptical of Suu Kyi, but within the Bamar community, Buddhist nationalist narratives have surged and may come to dominate electoral campaigns.
What’s the outlook for reform?
Myanmar’s military has frequently resisted constitutional reforms that would reduce its power.
If, as is expected, Suu Kyi’s NLD wins a majority this year, the military will likely collaborate with its allies in the parliament to block any constitutional reform.
If Suu Kyi’s political rivals — the USDP and other smaller parties and alliances — obtain a larger presence in the parliament, no single party will have a big enough majority to push through constitutional reforms. This will ultimately benefit the military and delay the transition to democracy.
It has been more than two years since “clearance operations” by Myanmar’s security forces, the Tatmadaw, forced more than 700,000 Rohingya across the border to neighbouring Bangladesh.
During this time, the UN Security Council has remained silent on the plight of Rohingya, with China and Russia working to keep it off the council’s agenda.
But at the UN General Assembly last month, The Gambia announced it would take the Myanmar government to the International Court of Justice for the genocide of the Rohingya.
Vice-President Isatou Touray said The Gambia is:
a small country with a big voice on matters of human rights on the continent and beyond. […] The Gambia is ready to lead the concerted efforts for taking the Rohingya issue to the International Court of Justice on behalf of the Organisation of Islamic Cooperation and we are calling on all stakeholders to support this process.
Myanmar might finally be held accountable, but defending the Rohingya from genocide shouldn’t just be left to the global Islamic community. They need to be joined by countries with an interest in reducing the sexual and gender based violence at the core of the Tatmadaw’s genocidal campaign.
Otherwise, these important issues may not be sufficiently included in the case due to regional religious politics.
Sexual and gender violence
Last year, a Human Rights Council Fact-Finding Mission report detailed serious breaches of international humanitarian and human rights law by members of the Tatmadaw, including killing, rape, torture, arson and forced displacement.
The report also detailed how the Myanmar government, as a whole, was responsible for perpetrating these crimes, and should be held to account.
In an additional report released in August this year, the fact-finding mission found sexual and gender based violence was:
part of a deliberate, well-planned strategy to intimidate, terrorise
and punish a civilian population.
The sheer volume of pregnant women in the refugee camps was one early indicator of the extent to which sexual violence was used against women and girls. But the mission also found it was used against men, boys and trans people.
In their view, acts of sexual and gender based violence were committed as genocide.
In general, the UN Security Council has recognised the use of sexual violence as genocide, but they haven’t tied it to the crisis in Myanmar.
The council has passed nine resolutions on women, peace and security. Among other things, these resolutions call for the protection of women and girls, men and boys from conflict-related sexual violence, and urge countries to end to impunity for these crimes.
So, it is of the utmost importance that the sexual- and gender-based violence used in the genocide is accounted for in any International Court of Justice (ICJ) case.
How can the ICJ help?
The ICJ adjudicates between states, not individuals. Although individuals commit genocidal acts, under the Genocide Convention of 1948, states also have responsibility for preventing and punishing the crime of genocide.
Myanmar signed the UN’s Genocide Convention in 1957, which contains an article giving the ICJ jurisdiction if another state thinks they’ve breached their obligations.
This means once the case comes before the court, it can make rulings within a matter of days that would be binding on the government of Myanmar, the Security Council, or both. What’s more, it can begin almost immediately and can have immediate effect inside Myanmar.
This could make a big difference for Rohingya still inside Myanmar who are experiencing the ongoing genocide.
An ICJ case could also serve as a way to recognise and remedy the collective harm of the sexual- and gender-based violence, not just the harm experienced by individuals.
The Gambia has called on other countries to join it in taking a case against Myanmar to the ICJ. Canadian civil society and parliamentarians have been working to convince their government to bring such a case for more than a year. Importantly, a case from Canada against Myanmar would include sexual- and gender-based violence.
And there are a range of reasons why Canada would step forward in support of The Gambia’s case. Taking such action would align with Canada’s foreign policy objectives, such as those on human rights and women, peace and security.
Canada is also campaigning for a seat on the UN Security Council, but they have stiff competition from Ireland and Norway.
Taking Myanmar to the ICJ would show Canada is a strong international actor, able to work for the good of global peace and security, navigating the full set of challenges posed by the permanent members of the Security Council.
But other countries can – and should – support The Gambia’s case and ensure the inclusion of sexual and gender-based violence in a range of ways.
ICJ cases are usually long and costly. Interested countries could offer financial assistance for The Gambia’s case. They can also join the case as co-applicants in support of The Gambia’s leadership.
Lastly, once the case is lodged, the court allows other countries to intervene. Countries unwilling to come forward as co-applicants could ensure gendered and sexual violence issues are included by making just such an intervention.
At the Security Council later this month, UN Member States will have the opportunity to participate in the annual open debate on women, peace and security.
By then, someone must surely be able to stand up and say:
we stand with The Gambia, we will take the government of Myanmar to the International Court of Justice, to hold them to account for the sexual and gender based violence they perpetrated as genocide against the Rohingya.
The links below are to articles relating to the persecution of Christians in Myanmar (the most recent are at the top).
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Aung San Suu Kyi, Myanmar’s civilian leader and de facto president, is under fire from all sides. Domestically, she is facing growing criticism for stalled economic and political reforms, glacial progress on policy and service improvements, and the suppression of freedom of expression and press freedom.
But it is her international reputation that is most in tatters.
The Nobel Peace Prize laureate, imprisoned for 15 years over a 21-year period in her struggle for human rights and democracy, has suffered a swift and dramatic fall from grace as a global icon. She is now widely seen as an enabler of ethnic cleansing and genocide.
As the Brussels-based International Crisis Group put it recently:
Rarely has the reputation of a leader fallen so far, so fast.
Failures of Suu Kyi’s government
Suu Kyi has been the subject of much criticism since taking power 2½ years ago, but the most recent and vociferous condemnation has centred on two events: the jailing of two Reuters journalists who exposed a massacre of Rohingya civilians by the military, and her government’s failure to respond to international investigations into allegations of ethnic cleansing and genocide.
It is notable that it was Suu Kyi’s civilian government that prosecuted the journalists, not the military. Suu Kyi could have ordered the charges dropped, as she did for student protesters during her early days in office. Instead, before the trial was over, she commented that the reporters were guilty of violating the Official Secrets Act, and once even allegedly referred to them as “traitors”.
The second great disappointment has been the government’s response to the UN Human Rights Council’s report into the violence that drove almost 700,000 Rohingya Muslims to flee to Bangladesh last year.
The report, released in full in September, found conclusive evidence that security forces had indeed engaged in mass killings and gang rapes of Rohingya, with genocidal intent. It went on to accuse Suu Kyi and her government of contributing to the atrocities through “acts and omissions”.
The HRC recommended the UN Security Council refer the Myanmar commander-in-chief and five generals to the International Criminal Court (ICC). The UN Human Rights Council also set up a body to prepare evidence for trials.
Rather than pledge to cooperate with the investigation, however, Suu Kyi has consistently defended the military action against the Rohingya and repeatedly pointed to a lack of understanding of the complexities of the situation.
Her only concession to the increasing international condemnation of her government has been this muted statement:
There are, of course, ways in which, with hindsight, we might think that the situation could have been handled better.
Limitations on Suu Kyi’s power
The military remains a very powerful force in Myanmar. It has the power to appoint its own personnel to a quarter of the seats in parliament and oversees the three powerful ministries of Home Affairs, Defence and Border Affairs.
The government has no power to hold the military accountable for actions against the Rohingya. Suu Kyi is therefore in a very weak position.
She has nonetheless gone out of her way to not just defend the military, but praise it. In Singapore last month, she made headlines when she declared that the three generals in her cabinet were “rather sweet”.
Suu Kyi has stressed that her government’s aim of removing the military from politics would eventually be achieved through negotiation, keeping in mind the need for national reconciliation. However, her dream of constitutional reform depends entirely on military approval.
This would appear to inhibit any ability for her to censure the military. She also has no means to compel the military to cooperate with international investigators.
A path to redemption
Suu Kyi still has considerable moral authority within Myanmar, and the military is still widely unpopular. Thus, despite the severe limitations on her power, she does have other options to lead effectively on issues like human rights, the Rohingya and press freedom.
Suu Kyi and her government should start by recommitting themselves to a belief in universal human rights. She should also express empathy with the victims of the atrocities in Rakhine state, which may begin to shift popular opinion against the actions of the military and engender more public sympathy for the Rohingya.
Further, Suu Kyi needs to pledge full cooperation with the ICC investigation into the serious allegations of ethnic cleansing and genocide, and call for a genuinely independent domestic inquiry to pave the way towards true reconciliation.
Suu Kyi may not be able to compel military cooperation with the ICC investigation, or even unfettered access to the country for investigators. But drawing on her moral authority could go a long way to help. She could pave the way for visas and travel approval, for instance, both of which were denied to investigators by her government.
Finally, the government must develop robust, urgent repatriation plans for the Rohingya – in cooperation with Bangladesh and the UN – that guarantee their security, human rights, a pathway to full citizenship and an end to segregation in Rakhine. They need a plan for inclusive development policies in the state, and to restore both media freedoms and humanitarian access to the region.
The opportunity for such moral leadership is quickly evaporating.
Suu Kyi and her government were elected by a landslide in 2015, winning about 80% of seats up for election. Polling released last week showed that only about half those surveyed believe the rights of people have improved in the 2½ years that she has been in power and less than half the population feel there has been any political or economic improvement.
There have also been increasing complaints about the performance of the government.
With her support eroding both home and abroad, Suu Kyi appears to have a limited window to adequately address the Rohingya crisis and regain her moral authority. Otherwise, Myanmar risks slipping back into isolation and again becoming a pariah state.