Throughout February and March of 2021, a running battle was being fought on the streets of Yangon between Myanmar’s new military government and its opponents. The coup of February 1 was proving to be a less than peaceful power transition, and hundreds were killed in clashes in which police or the army used live ammunition. Thousands more were imprisoned. It should be said that Myanmar’s military is not known for its hospitality to dissidents.
With Internet blackouts, fake radio stations playing disinformation, worker’s strikes, mass arrests, and a military occupation of hospitals and universities, things were undoubtedly getting serious. Then again, Myanmar’s politics has always been serious. Myanmar was already fighting several civil wars against the Rohingya, Shan, Kachin and Karen peoples, and the UN has come close to accusing Myanmar of genocide. Serious indeed.
But amid such grim seriousness in Myanmar, as soldiers were taking aim at civilians and pulling the trigger with terrifying regularity, the West’s response seemed anything but serious. Indeed, there was a touch of farce to several successive so-called diplomatic initiatives, the most bizarre of which came on the 27th of March. Consider the following statement:
“As Chiefs of Defense, we condemn the use of lethal force against unarmed people by the Myanmar Armed Forces and associated security services. A professional military follows international standards for conduct and is responsible for protecting — not harming — the people it serves. We urge the Myanmar Armed Forces to cease violence and work to restore respect and credibility with the people of Myanmar that it has lost through its actions.”
This statement was the collective work of several Western generals, people of high authority and, supposedly, intelligence too. Let’s put aside for a moment that farcical image of Myanmar’s soldiers shooting unarmed people in the street, and then, upon hearing that someone in Canada has told them they should not, they have an instant change of heart, throw aside their weapon, and decide that war crimes are no longer for them, all because a distant stranger said so. Let’s put aside for a moment that such letters are, at some level of abstraction, based on the premise that this is precisely what might happen. Or should happen.
Instead, let’s examine the text for a second whiff of farce — that of its fundamental misunderstanding of the difference between being a soldier in a Myanmar-like regime and those in, say, New Zealand. First, the text clearly implies that Myanmar’s military “serves” its people. But on what evidence is such an assertion based? Does the Myanmar military serve the Rohingyas it has been massacring? Does it serve the elected government it has only recently allowed to exist? Does it serve something other than the quasi-criminal patronage networks that underpin the regime’s centre and the army paycheques that rely on it?
A second oddity in the text asserts that a “professional military follows international standards,” and we can be sure Myanmar’s military does just that. Unfortunately, the standards are those set by warlord states, the kind with borders that bear no relation to its sovereignty. Myanmar’s military does not so much stand on its recognised borders and look outward, its weapons facing towards foreign aggression, but instead, it fixes its eyes on internal enemies. As professional soldiers, Myanmar’s fighting men have a task, but it is not the one crafted for it by Western generals.
I could give our local generals the benefit of the doubt and say that their statement wasn’t made in ignorance but instead shows calculated callousness. That is, they know very well their statement is meaningless to Myanmar, and they intend it to be. Therefore, their protest is purely performative, the kind done to reaffirm an ideal without enforcing it. In this, the generals were not alone.
When Singapore’s foreign minister said, “We urge the authorities to exercise utmost restraint…” and “…de-escalate the situation…”, we can draw only two conclusions. Either the minister expected the protestors to accept the military government, or the military government should stay in power by magic alone. Absent these two alternatives, there must be violence, there must be repression, there must be crimes against someone, somewhere, because this is the only alternative once the vote no longer matters. Without democracy, there is only force. Without consent, there is coercion.
In April, when the EU voted to expand sanctions on Myanmar’s military-owned companies and issue travel bans affecting 35 individuals, one wonders just how many individuals the EU thinks are involved in crushing democracy. In fact, as some states lined up to sanction Myanmar’s military-industrial complex, it offered a timely reminder that the estates of war criminals are freely operating in the global economy, and only the occasional bouts of “unacceptable” violence cause occasional locking of funds.
Odd though it may seem, some pundits placed their faith in ASEAN for resolving the Myanmar crisis, even though this group has always contained multiple dictatorships and is famous for non-intervention. True to form, ASEAN’s joint statement disappointed the blind optimists. ASEAN offered nothing but vapid statements that violence “should” cease whilst delivering no sanctions, and we are left with clear indications that the military government would be treated as legitimate soon, if only they could find a way to stop shooting people.
Myanmar’s case highlights the narrow difference between “good” and “bad” dictatorships, as seen through the eyes of ASEAN and Western governments alike. Good dictatorships are those with which foreign militaries have friendly exchanges, arms sales, various dialogues, and whose leaders (and their families) freely travel. Moreover, good dictatorships kidnap people in the dead of night, rig elections and imprison democratic leaders, whereas bad dictatorships resort to bullets in full view of international media.
At the very least, Myanmar might need to become a good dictatorship again if the military wants its companies to buy and sell in Europe and elsewhere. This may or may not be attainable. However, the benchmarks for re-joining the club of good dictatorships are low. They get even lower once you have some semblance of democratic processes to veil your regime’s brutality. Consider that Myanmar’s military companies and individuals were trading freely when, as recently as 2018, UN officials were explaining Myanmar’s ethnic cleansing to CNN.
To free up funds, one can imagine the coup leaders heralding the creation of a new government coalition in the next few months, then holding some elections in a year, possibly with Aung San Suu-Kyi in a leading position, thereby giving a familiar face for the West. And all the while, it must be obvious that the real power remains the gun and that the gun is not held by elected officials. Unfortunately, many people deluded themselves into thinking that Suu Kyi’s release and her membership of government changed some fundamental dynamics in Myanmar, and they will delude themselves again in the future. There are reasons.
Few people want to say aloud why Myanmar’s military is treated so leniently by liberal-leaning states, although it is common knowledge. “Tread Softly with Myanmar, or Push it into China’s Arms,” so reads a headline, bluntly saying in ten words what thousands from diplomats cannot. From this, a question naturally arises — how much bloodshed should be permitted to keep Myanmar from China’s clutches? How many of Myanmar’s souls should succumb to bullets, bombs and torture in payment for non-alignment?
Evidently, the number has not yet been reached. We await it.
*Image source: Internet