Change the game

FROM A DISTANCE - Veronica Pedrosa (The Philippine Star) - February 6, 2021 - 12:00am

The coup in Burma/Myanmar upsets the precarious balance of power that has sufficed as a form of stability for those in the country who are lucky and rich enough. Many more millions of people’s lives were already deeply insecure, because of multiple conflicts, poverty and lack of access to basic services like healthcare and education, even before the pandemic and the accompanying economic depression. For them, General Min Aung Hlaing’s coup is a hobnail-booted kick that’s smashed any flimsy certainties they may have held. It’s also torn society’s fabric in a way that’s providing a glimpse of potential structural change, though history is not on the side of progress there.

For those of us from other countries in South East Asia, what’s happening in Myanmar exposes once again the hypocrisy of our governments. The Asean non-interference principle is just an excuse for the ten government leaders to be able to wink and nod at each other, playing policy games when they’re in airconditioned sound-proofed rooms together, cosily insulated by concrete and barbed wire from the grit and crackle of real life and the sweat, toil and despair of real people. What one government can get away with sends a signal to all the others that they can do the same - they do and they will.

These first days since the coup have been a flurry of activity: politicians from the National League for Democracy of ousted leader Aung San Suu Kyi have been arrested and activists have gone into hiding; but there is also the birth of a nationwide civil disobedience campaign to deny the military and draw the battlelines away from the political elite. As the Assistant General Secretary of the Confederation of Trade Unions in Myanmar, the biggest trade union organisation in Myanmar put it: “This fight is not the fight between the National League for Democracy (the political party of ousted leader Aung San Suu Kyi) and the military army, but this fight is between the people and the military regime.” We, the People, are calling out the autocrats - a call that should ring a few bells in the Philippines of people power fame.

“I’m so disappointed, very stressed and very angry,” a minority rights activist told me. “I don't like Aung San Suu Kyi much because of her silence on minority rights and involvement in the (Rohingya) genocide, but in this situation I want to stand by the principle that there should be no coup or military rule in the country.”

“They are mocking their own Constitution!” Kyaw Win, founder of the Burma Human Rights Network. “Why should we follow them when they don’t abide by their own system? We need a new system.”

The coup is a game-changer according to Charles Petrie, a veteran diplomat who was the UN Resident Coordinator in Myanmar during the Saffron Revolution of 2007. The military government brutally crushed a non-violent uprising led by Buddhist monks to protest the rising cost of living and human rights abuses. Since then he’s left the UN and acted as an advisor in the peace process between the Myanmar government and the armies of ethnic minorities it’s at war with along its porous borders with China, India, Bangladesh and Thailand.

“Before the coup, there was an ongoing dialogue between the political class and the military. The military was still very much in control, had their basic interests protected and the only reason they've done this is because the general wants to be president,” said Petrie, adding: “The coup is incredibly stupid… This is a Naypyidaw (the administrative, military-built capital of Myanmar) problem. It's just pure politics and blind ambition. What's really important for the international community is that they don't project what's happening in Naypyidaw to the rest of the country.”

The immediate economic prospects should be a big concern in the region too, says Singapore diplomat and former Executive Secreatry of UN Economic and Social Commission for Asia and the Pacific, Noeleen Heyzer. “We have to have concern for the people and their security and you have a population where unfortunately most of the people have to migrate out for low paid, insecure, precarious work in order to survive. I mean you have to be reviving your country, your economy, you know, taking care of your people and not use all these rent-seeking strategies to enrich yourself further and further and concentrate power.”

Kyaw Win questions Asean countries that won’t make a stand for the very principles they say they live by: “Asean countries also have similar systems that elect people, so how can you accept something for your Asean brothers that you cannot accept yourself. So we want to ask our Asean brothers: please help us. We cannot resist this ruthless military who never care about human life and dignity. They need to put pressure on the military.”

But what form of pressure really works and at what risk? A source says they think the military may be behind some rumours and calls for civil disobedience in order to bait people into action that would provide an excuse for a much harsher crackdown like the mass killings of 1988. It’s difficult to see how the military could control the country as it did back then: they may well have opened a Pandora's box and the clock is ticking.

Outside Myanmar, Petrie thinks the international community must act quickly. “There's a very small window for the military to realize that they made a fundamental mistake, that they were in a very strong position before, but for the West, it's incredibly important to preserve that window, not to close it prematurely. The US, the West, has to realize that they don't have cards to play. They've already played them with the Rohingya crisis. They can introduce sanctions if they want but at best it's going to push Myanmar even more into the arms of China.”

Where governments fail, people are beginning to step in. They know their rights and they are no longer afraid to speak up and claim them. Perhaps that’s one reason why the Japanese beer company, Kirin cut off ties with the military, knowing it would be bad business for their brand in the face of mass protests and social media campaigns. The campaign to boycott companies that do business with the generals has proven effective. It’s something everyone can do wherever and whoever they are, might it be part of radical change of the game?

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