Myanmar tragedy: Quo vadis?

FILIPINO WORLDVIEW - Roberto R. Romulo - The Philippine Star

In my previous column on the Myanmar situation, I speculated that for the military junta, the desired end game of their coup would be a sham election where the junta’s USLD party wins and strongman Min Aung Hlaing is made president. Hlaing was slated to retire in 2021 after extending the mandatory retirement age from 60 to 65. He has a lot at stake in wanting to become president. Domestically, he has a hand in all major economic activities through his majority stake in military-owned companies and by proxy to his children in Myanmar’s private sector. He has previously been accused of corruption and nepotism, to which he will be vulnerable to criminal charges under a civilian government. Internationally, he stands accused in the International Court of Justice for genocide against the Rohingya people. There is very strong evidence that supports that accusation. Unfortunately for him, Aung San Suu Kyi’s National League for Democracy (NLD) won the election in a landslide with his party garnering just 10 percent  of the votes.

Faced with the prospect of losing his substantial wealth and possibly being indicted, Hlaing set the process in motion for his preferred end game by staging a coup which he justified by claiming the election was rigged and should be invalidated. Aung San Suu Kyi was arrested on trumped up charges, which if convicted as expected, would disqualify her from public office.

What the general did not expect was the determined opposition of the brave Burmese people to give legitimacy to his actions. The people want no compromise – they want the results of the November 2020 election to be respected and implemented.

By all accounts, Hlaing is taciturn and dictatorial by nature. The junta has increasingly been violent and brutal in suppressing the protests, which to date has claimed the lives of about 50 protesters. Suspected dissidents and leaders of a civil-disobedience movement, which includes some of the country’s top diplomats and other civil servants, have been rounded up. Two of those arrested who are key party officials of the NLD have died in custody.

He has protected his flank by replacing senior generals with younger officials loyal to him. And now they have hired an Israeli lobbyist Ben-Menashe – notorious for disinformation and whose client list includes Robert Mugabe and the Sandinistas – to tell their side of the story. According to this narrative – designed for both domestic and international audience – Aung San Suu Kyi was the major player in a violent campaign of repression against the Rohingya people and was allowing the country to drift into China’s sphere of influence. In claiming to want to move towards the West and not be a Chinese puppet, the regime wants to portray itself as a bulwark against extremism or a reliable ally against growing Chinese influence. They are also trying to exploit the grievances of the minority ethnic groups against the Buddhist majority which makes up the bulk of NLD’s support.

Global condemnation

What is the rest of the world going to do in the face of a strongman prepared to sacrifice the lives of his own people and make his country a pariah to stay in power? The UN Security Council, under the presidency of the United States, unanimously called for a reversal of the military coup, strongly condemning the violence against peaceful protestors, and calling for utmost restraint by the military. A presidential statement is a step below a resolution which would inevitably be vetoed by China and Russia.

The US and other countries have imposed sanctions aimed at denying members access to their personal fortune deposited overseas and to prohibit doing business with the military-owned companies. This may have some impact over time, but not immediately. Although China has stayed neutral and is watching developments before it commits itself, it has said that it is not happy with what has transpired. This has worried the junta to the point that this was factored in their narrative by presenting themselves to the “West” as a willing ally against China’s aggressive behavior. China still holds the key to a solution to the Myanmar conundrum as a broker in any bilateral arrangements or as a member of the Security Council.

ASEAN did its best under Indonesian leadership, but all it came out with is a bland statement urging “all parties” to refrain from instigating violence and to seek a peaceful solution through constructive dialogue and practical reconciliation”. Aside from falling on deaf ears in the junta, this was also not well received by the protesters.

Our own Secretary of Foreign Affairs has been vocal about restoring the situation to the “status quo ante” before the coup. Locsin has been silent lately. President Duterte has refrained from commenting. ASEAN in a way is complicit in what is happening. Their adherence to the principle of non-intervention offers a convenient excuse not to meddle more forcefully.

A ‘Ramos/Enrile’ needed

The key to me is the heroism of the Burmese people opposing the junta. They want no less than a regime change. That can only happen two ways: either the world, including ASEAN and with China playing a key role, acts more purposefully to force the junta to back down, or for their version of a “Ramos/Enrile” to arise and side with the people.

In order for this to happen, we must keep supporting the Burmese people to stand fast and we must get our government to act and rouse ASEAN to action, which to date has reinforced the belief that it has been inutile when it comes to human rights and oppression. Taking the unprecedented, but legal expulsion of Burma from ASEAN would give a dramatic message to the junta and to the people, and swing the balance in favor of the latter. They could, of course, always be readmitted subsequently.


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