Confident in Impunity, Myanmar Junta Ignores Diplomacy

The generals who seized power five months ago have shown no inclination to heed international pleas to reverse themselves, even as Myanmar slides into a failed state.

Senior Gen. Min Aung Hlaing, the commander of Myanmar’s military, during a parade on Armed Forces Day in Naypyidaw, the capital, in March. Credit...EPA, via Shutterstock

Western powers have imposed sanctions. Neighboring countries have implored the military to restore democracy. More than 200 human rights groups have called for an arms embargo. And last week, the United Nations General Assembly adopted a blunt rebuke aimed at isolating the generals.

The diplomatic pressure has done little to change the situation in Myanmar.

The military dictatorship now ruling the Southeast Asian nation has brushed aside the entreaties and threats, even as the country of 54 million people hurtles toward paralysis and possibly civil war that could destabilize the region. Confident in its impunity after a Feb. 1 coup, the putschists have stretched diplomacy to its limit.

Was this the outcome that had always been foreseen?

Protesters in Yangon wearing “R2P” headbands, thanking places who have shown support to the pro-democracy movement in Myanmar. Credit...The New York Times

Not initially. Many people in Myanmar had hoped for intervention by the United Nations or perhaps the United States in the period immediately following the coup, which upended a November election victory by the civilian leadership and escalated into a brutal repression. Pro-democracy protesters carried signs that read “R2P,” or “Responsibility to Protect,” referring to a 2005 United Nations doctrine affirming the responsibility of nations to protect populations from such egregious crimes.

But diplomatic efforts at the United Nations and the Association of Southeast Asian Nations, the 10-nation regional body known as ASEAN, have largely fizzled.

Why does Myanmar’s coup leadership appear so confident?

General Min Aung Hlaing with Wang Yi, China’s foreign minister, at a meeting in Naypyidaw in January, before the coup. Credit...Myanmar Military Information Team, via Associated Press

The country, formerly known as Burma, was run by the military for decades after a coup in 1962, and the generals in charge never really embraced the idea of democracy. The Constitution they adopted in 2008 paved the way for the election of civilian leaders but ensured the military’s complete autonomy and veto-power over major constitutional amendments.

Thant Myint-U, an American-born Burmese historian and grandson of U Thant, the former United Nations secretary general, wrote in a recent edition of Foreign Affairs that the Myanmar army’s need for total power is ingrained.

“It is led by an officer corps that cannot imagine a Myanmar in which the military is not ultimately in control,” he wrote.

The coup leader, Senior Gen. Min Aung Hlaing, appears to have secured vitally important allies — China and Russia — insulating Myanmar from any interventionist steps. The general also oversees a powerful patronage network built around two military-owned conglomerates and his family’s businesses. A democratic system could imperil them.

The United Nations Security Council, the 15-member body that is empowered to take coercive action, has issued only mildly worded criticisms since the coup, at least partly reflecting resistance to anything stronger by China and Russia. Chinese diplomats have recently referred to Gen. Min Aung Hlaing as Myanmar’s leader. He also was treated well in a visit to Russia this week.

Human rights activists have expressed exasperation at what they view as the Security Council’s failure on Myanmar.

“The council’s occasional statements of concern in the face of the military’s violent repression of largely peaceful protesters is the diplomatic equivalent of shrugging their shoulders and walking away,” Louis Charbonneau, the U.N. director at Human Rights Watch, said last month in joining more than 200 other groups in demanding the council impose an arms embargo.

Was the junta damaged by the General Assembly’s rebuke?

Posters against Gen. Min Aung Hlaing in Yangon. Credit...The New York Times

The General Assembly adopted a resolution denouncing the coup on Friday, an exceedingly rare gesture that grew partly out of the Security Council’s inaction, and it was deemed a success by Western diplomats who said Myanmar’s military had now been ostracized.

But the resolution’s language was weakened to ensure more yes votes — and even then, 36 countries abstained. Analysts said the vote was unlikely to persuade the junta to negotiate with its domestic adversaries.

Nonetheless, said Richard Gowan, the U.N. director at the International Crisis Group, the resolution was “at least a clear signal of international disapproval for the coup and will make it harder for the junta to normalize its relations with the outside world.”

What have other Southeast Asian nations done about the coup?

Gen. Min Aung Hlaing arriving in Indonesia for an Association of Southeast Asian Nations meeting in April. Credit...Indonesian Presidential Palace

ASEAN, which includes Myanmar, has tried to mediate. But its efforts have done more to help Gen. Min Aung Hlaing consolidate his authority than to restore democracy.

The military’s takeover compelled ASEAN to convene a meeting in April, to which they invited Gen. Min Aung Hlaing.

ASEAN practices noninterference in the internal affairs of members and did not formally recognize the general as Myanmar’s new leader. But his red-carpet arrival for the meeting, held in Jakarta, the Indonesian capital, was repeatedly trumpeted by Myanmar’s state-run media as recognition of his leadership.

ASEAN conspicuously did not invite anyone to represent the deposed leadership, which now calls itself the National Unity Government, or anyone else from the pro-democracy movement.

The l