The Debate | Opinion

This Is Not the Time for Foreign Governments to Stay ‘Neutral’ in Myanmar

Myanmar is approaching an inflection point, but the window for meaningful foreign action is quickly closing.

By Kim Jolliffe for
This Is Not the Time for Foreign Governments to Stay ‘Neutral’ in Myanmar

Demonstrators hold the pictures of deposed Myanmar leader Aung San Suu Kyi during a protest against the military coup in Mandalay, Myanmar on February 17, 2021.

Credit: AP Photo

Myanmar is at a critical juncture. To paraphrase Lenin, decades could happen over the coming weeks.

Aung San Suu Kyi’s uneasy truce with the military establishment that she had hoped to reform from the inside appears to be irrevocably broken. For the first time in at least a decade, we are seeing pro-democratic forces, who are mostly from the ethnic Bamar heartlands, converge with “ethnic nationality” movements from other parts of the country, in direct opposition to the shadowy bureaucracy that has oppressed them both for so long.

With the generals visibly turning to their old repertoire of coercive tactics against anyone connected to political opposition, the choice for governments wanting to promote democracy and human rights in Myanmar is clearer than ever: it is time to get behind the uprising and build a critical mass of pressure on this regime.

Timing is absolutely crucial. Myanmar may not experience such a groundswell of determined political action again for many years and it is in these short windows of opportunity that entire eras can be shaped. Nobody knows exactly what kind of political settlement will emerge in coming months, but a return to the status quo looks impossible, with the military having overstepped countless red lines in the eyes of multiple political factions.

Ultimately, dialogue and compromise will have to be part of the solution in Myanmar. But it should be well understood that the Tatmadaw is actively pushing through prison sentences against Aung San Suu Kyi as I write and it has never accepted international mediators in the decades-old confrontations with her in any case. The time for talking will come, but right now the most important thing for democracy and human rights in Myanmar is that the protests keep going and that the Overton window is shifted as much as possible.

Enjoying this article? Click here to subscribe for full access. Just $5 a month.

More than 15,000 government workers from 24 ministries (including handfuls from the military-led police) are on strike, as part of an unprecedented civil disobedience movement. This movement has already brought the Myanmar Economic Bank to a near standstill and new disruptive tactics are emerging each day. This has made it almost impossible for the military to govern. Soldiers have even been spotted breaking into small-town bank branches to retrieve cash. The elected government is in waiting, having organized online under the Committee Representing the People’s Hluttaw.

The millions of people protesting in over 300 towns and cities represent an extremely diverse array of demographics. They range from die-hard NLD supporters, focused on recognition of the 2020 election results, to members of the country’s more than 100 “ethnic nationalities,” who are calling for end to military violence in their areas and the establishment of a federal system of government. They include tech-savvy Gen Z activists waving banners reading “you messed with the wrong generation,” who are determined to not experience the kind of military rule they grew up hearing about. Meanwhile, minority protestors have flaunted their identities proudly, representing groups of “Hindus,” “Muslims,” “Spirit Mediums,” “Chinese descendants,” and, most strikingly, “Rohingya.”

The military administration has signaled its intentions to form what political scientists might refer to as a “hybrid regime,” keeping the door wide open to foreign investment and aid while rapidly rolling back on civil rights reforms. Security forces have been actively detaining and conducting “midnight inspections” on critics and political opponents, while cracking down with violence on peaceful protestors.

It is critical that the international community does not allow the generals to have it both ways. Foreign governments should back the elected government, the civil disobedience movement, and the protestors now with both morale and material support. There are growing signs that the generals have overplayed their hand and will end up forced into an unexpected compromise. Myanmar society is more organized, more educated, more digitally connected, and more united than ever before – and there is no sign of the protestors backing down.

Many of the “likelihood percentages” and potential scenarios being circulated by risk analysis firms and think tanks falsely predict there will be a return to some kind of status quo. Beyond that, they speculate the chances of protestors succeeding or losing, invariably favoring the latter. But these misrepresent the extent of the current upheaval and ignore just how meaningful the smallest of margins can be in times like this. Whether protests will be successful is not a binary question. The important thing is to use this moment of inevitable change to ensure the new political settlement is as open and as inclusive as possible. Every little push in these coming months could have impacts that last for years.

The decision for diplomats appears much easier than those they have faced in recent years. In 2011, shortly after the generals held widely discredited elections, international engagement with “moderate” military figures in the new government was the least bad option. All pathways for radical change had been closed and Aung San Suu Kyi’s 1990 election victory was a distant memory. Today, despite the junta’s appointment of two economically liberal ministers and a stated desire to maintain an open foreign policy, there is no meaningful scope for engagement with “moderates.” All judicial and legislative powers have been placed in the hands of a small council dominated by men in green and laws are being re-written daily, reversing civil rights amendments that had been achieved over many years in parliament.

Following extreme, and allegedly genocidal, violence against the Rohingya in 2016 and 2017, foreign governments had to balance the unquestionable need for protection of that minority with the task of promoting democracy and social welfare in Myanmar writ large. Today, rural ethnic minority communities at the receiving end of Myanmar army campaigns are demonstrating too, including thousands of Karen villagers who have been marching on their local Myanmar battalions to demand they stop shelling their villages. Most of the country’s leading ethnic political parties and ethnic armed organizations have also denounced the coup and have vowed to support protestors in their calls for democracy.

It is crucial that these new coalitions of NLD loyalists, ethnic movements, and Generation Z activists are strengthened and can find a common platform that stands for a federal democracy and civil rights.

Exerting external pressure on the military, of course, comes with a number of risks. Sanctions and internal disturbances to business must firstly avoid harm to labor intensive sectors as much as possible. Indeed, international sanctions have been anticipated by the generals, who have demonstrated time and time again that they are willing to hunker down amid economic collapse. As long as they are able to maintain enough of a hold on their coercive bureaucracy to cling to power, they will happily play the long game, while Myanmar society is crippled.

Therefore, foreign governments should be politically smart and focus more on strengthening movements within the country than on damaging the economy from outside. Vast aid budgets from Western countries have already been pulled out of support programs to the government and these could be repurposed to support the democracy movement via civil society organizations, local media, digital rights activists, and other local networks at the heart of this movement. Options for protecting and providing asylum for political leaders, protestors, and deserters should also be prioritized.

Enjoying this article? Click here to subscribe for full access. Just $5 a month.

It is also important that Myanmar does not become a battleground for rivalry between the West and China. Myanmar has been a non-aligned country since its founding and Beijing must not be led to fear that democracy will turn the country into a strategic ally of the United States. China has already given clear signals that its door is still open to Aung San Suu Kyi and that military rule is not in its interest. But if leaders there feel that political change is going to threaten their core interests, they could firmly back the military government and spoil any hopes for a peaceful transition.

Still, the biggest risk of all is that indecisiveness from the international community leaves the millions of passionate people in Myanmar’s streets without support. If the potential of this once in a lifetime moment drains away in the coming weeks, these people will be forced to go back to work under an authoritarian government they despise, as the economy collapses along with their dreams and aspirations. It is time to act.

Kim Jolliffe is a researcher and writer who has worked with civil society and international aid organisations in Myanmar since 2008. He has produced over 20 reports and papers on conflict, security, civil-military relations, and human rights in the country.