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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 leaders agreed on what they called a “Five-Point Consensus,” including the immediate cessation of violence, constructive dialogue to find a peaceful solution and ASEAN’s appointment of a special envoy to facilitate mediation.

While member nations Indonesia, Malaysia and Singapore pushed for ASEAN to take firm action, strong measures were resisted by Thailand, said Aaron Connelly, a research fellow at the International Institute for Strategic Studies in Singapore. (Thailand’s government is headed by a former general who took power in a 2014 coup.)

The consensus made no mention of freeing political prisoners, who now number more than 5,000 and include the country’s elected civilian leader, Daw Aung San Suu Kyi. Ms. Aung San Suu Kyi would normally have attended such a meeting.

ASEAN has yet to name the special envoy. So far, the main outcome of ASEAN’s diplomatic effort has been to damage its own credibility. Myanmar protesters have been burning the ASEAN flag at demonstrations.

What is the National Unity Government and what does it do?

U Kyaw Moe Tun, Myanmar’s ambassador to the United Nations. He has refused to cooperate with the junta. Credit...Celeste Sloman for The New York Times

The winners of the November election were scheduled to be sworn into office on Feb. 1. But that morning, soldiers swept through the capital city, Naypyidaw, and arrested many of the elected officials. Some who escaped have since formed the National Unity Government, which has declared itself Myanmar’s legitimate government.

Myanmar’s ambassador to the United Nations, U Kyaw Moe Tun, who refused to cooperate with the junta, now represents the National Unity Government. While the world body continues to regard him as Myanmar’s ambassador, no country has formally recognized the National Unity Government.

In a departure from the stance of Ms. Aung San Suu Kyi, the National Unity Government has formed alliances with ethnic armed groups that have long battled the Myanmar military. And in a move that could win support from Western countries, the National Unity Government has called for ending discrimination in the country, and for the Rohingya to receive full citizenship. The persecuted Muslim minority was targeted by the military in a ruthless campaign of ethnic cleansing that forced more than 700,000 people to flee to Bangladesh.

Seeing futility in diplomacy, the National Unity Government also has formed an army that has made small-scale attacks against pro-military targets, raising the prospect that Myanmar could face a protracted civil war.

Christine Schraner Burgener, the U.N. special envoy for Myanmar, who has repeatedly been blocked from visiting the country, warned of increased violence in remarks to the General Assembly after its recent vote. “Time is of the essence,” she said. “When we look back in 10 years, we should not regret having missed an opportunity to put this country back on the path of democracy.”

© 2021 The New York Times Company


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