The battle for democracy in Myanmar
Democracy is increasingly challenged these days, but in few places in such a dramatic and brutal fashion as in Myanmar. In the early morning of 1 February, the clock on Myanmar’s democratic transition was turned back many years with a 1970s-style military coup. The army claimed that the November 2020 elections, which the National League for Democracy (NLD) had won with a landslide, had somehow been ‘fraudulent’, without offering any evidence. It declared a state of emergency and put State Counsellor Daw Aung San Suu Kyi and President Win Myint under arrest, together with other democratic leaders.
Civilian resistance to the coup has been so widespread, creative and courageous that, I believe, it caught the military by surprise. They resorted to the only means they know and have used so often in the past: violence and repression. So far, at least 550 unarmed protesters, including 46 children, have been killed. Over 2,800 persons have been detained. The world watches in horror, as the army uses violence against its own people.
Myanmar: the object of geopolitical tensions
Yet, even in the face of such brutality, geopolitics divides the international community and hampers a coordinated response. Myanmar borders the two largest countries in the world by population: China and India. Its location makes it a strategic point for China’s Belt and Road Initiative (offering deep-sea access to the Indian Ocean), but also to India’s own corridor to the South China Sea. Other countries like Japan, South Korea and Singapore also have strong economic interests in Myanmar. And Russia is the country’s second supplier of weapons, after China.
Therefore, it comes as no surprise that Russia and China are blocking the attempts of the UN Security Council, for example to impose an arms embargo. China is keen to protect its strategic interests in the country and has called the coup ‘a major government reshuffle’, while Russia insists that it is a purely ‘domestic matter’. Last week, Alexander Fomin, Russia’s deputy defence minister, was the highest-ranking foreign official to attend Myanmar’s Armed Forces Day parade when others including Asian countries had downscaled their level of representation.
Democracy and ethnic peace
The situation is complicated by Myanmar’s highly diverse and complex ethnic fabric: there are 135 recognised ethnicities within its borders and some, like the Rohingya, are not even recognised. Conflict between ethnic minorities and the central government has been going on since independence.
"For decades, the wrong answer to this high degree of ethnic diversity was a centralised, military dictatorship which meant violence between the central army and the ethnic groups plus the suppression of democratic rights for all."
Vast swathes of land are not controlled by the government but ruled by ‘ethnic armed organisations’ or militias, which in some cases number in the tens of thousands. For decades, the wrong answer to this high degree of ethnic diversity was a centralised, military dictatorship, which meant violence between the central army and the ethnic groups plus the suppression of democratic rights for all.
After 2010, a gradual process of democratisation led to free elections in 2015, won by the NLD of Daw Aung San Suu Kyi. The democratic transition was accompanied in the same year by ethnic peace. After decades of armed conflict, a Nationwide Ceasefire Agreement was signed in October 2015 between the government and the armed ethnic groups. This was a milestone and demonstrated the strong political will to address long-standing grievances through dialogue and co-operation rather than violence. The EU was invited to sign the Nationwide Ceasefire Agreement as an international witness.
Just like the introduction of democracy favoured ethnic peace, its abolishment now risks re-creating ethnic violence. For the ethnic organisations are increasingly siding with the protesters and resuming fighting against the military. It may spiral out of control: at the end of March, airstrikes launched by the military in Kayin State killed several civilians and displaced around 10,000 people. The crackdown is becoming more violent, as also the killings in Bago show.
What can the EU do? Partnering for democracy
The EU’s economic presence in Myanmar is limited, but we are becoming a major export market for garments thanks to the Everything But Arms preferences which offer duty free, quota free access to the EU market for developing countries. Myanmar exported €2.4 billion in 2020, with a decline of 20% over 2019 due to the pandemic. In terms of foreign direct investment, the EU has a rather limited footprint ($ 700 million in 2019), compared to China’s $19 billion.
"Despite setbacks, Myanmar was a rare example of transition towards democracy, in a region where we increasingly see backtracking from democracy."
Yet, while recognising we have limited direct leverage, the EU can and should try to play an active role. We cannot accept that a democratically-elected government is overthrown and replaced by military rule. Despite setbacks, Myanmar was a rare example of transition towards democracy, in a region where we increasingly see backtracking from democracy. The EU has also invested significant capital (financial and political) into this transition, with Electoral Observation missions, increased development assistance (€688 million between 2014-2020) and favourable trade preferences (EBA).
Then there is the regional dimension. In December 2020, we agreed on a Strategic Partnership with ASEAN, to reinforce our links with one of the most dynamic regions in the world. This also gives us the opportunity to engage in more depth with ASEAN on Myanmar.
The ASEAN Charter cites ‘adhering to the principles of democracy, the rule of law and good governance, respect for and protection of human rights and fundamental freedoms’ as a basic precept in its preamble. At the same time, ASEAN is a consensus-based organisation that ‘moves at a pace comfortable to all’ which limits the degree to which it can play a major role in this type of conflict. However, as EU we have an interest in promoting regionally-led attempts to mediate and address the crisis and we should support all forces inside ASEAN that make this case as well.
We could reinforce this diplomatic track by offering to increase our economic ties if Myanmar returns to the path of democracy: in addition to more trade, we could offer good quality investments that could help the country with a sustainable development path through state-of-the-art technologies and sustainable business principles. Myanmar needs a more diversified set of external investors so the type that European companies typically offer is valuable. The need for sustainability is crucial given that Myanmar is one of three countries in the world most at risk from the impact of climate change.
The immediate EU response and next steps
Our response to the coup has been swift and closely coordinated with our partners. As EU27, we issued a strong statement on 2 February, condemning the coup, calling for the immediate release of all prisoners and for the restoration of the democratically-elected authorities.
The EU immediately put on hold all development assistance payments that were paid into the government’s coffers. Activities benefiting the authorities such as police training, where the EU assists with adherence to high standards for civilian policing, were also frozen. On 22 March, the EU adopted a first round of sanctions against 11 key individuals responsible for the coup, including the Commander-in-Chief and his Deputy. We are now working on a second package on additional individuals and targeting companies owned by the military. We want to signal the junta that their actions bear consequences.
In our action, we are driven by the principle of ‘do no harm’: we only hit those who are responsible for the coup and their business interests, avoiding negative impact on the wider population. This is why our sanctions only target military-owned companies, and include a ‘humanitarian clause’ allowing the delivery of aid. In fact, ECHO has already allocated €11.5 million in emergency aid, and is ready to do more, if needed.
In parallel, we have been pursuing a robust diplomatic initiative, reaching out to all key stakeholders (ASEAN, China, Japan, India), in close coordination with our like-minded partners, notably the US and UK. We advocate a domestic solution, supported by the region and the wider international community. This should begin with de-escalation and the release of detainees.
Sanctions in itself are not a policy. We need to create a shared diplomatic platform to kick-start a process of dialogue aimed at restoring democracy in Myanmar, in accordance with the clear will of its brave people.
While our action is relentless, our expectations need to be realistic. Geopolitical competition in Myanmar will make it very difficult to find common ground, as we have witnessed again and again at the UN Security Council. The Myanmar military is used to international isolation and has a decade-long record of ignoring the needs and the will of the country’s citizens.
But we have a duty to try. First, to make sure that the will of Myanmar’s people, as expressed at the November 2020 elections, is respected. But also to defend the country’s experiment in democracy, which - notwithstanding its limitations – made it an important example, as we are increasingly facing challenges to fundamental freedoms and democracy across the world.
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