Entering the fourth month of a self-inflicted wound, the brass hats in Myanmar are in a deep bind and have to make one of three choices: listen to sober voices in the international community and loosen the iron grip; go along with words of “wisdom” from like-minded tight fisted pseudo democratic regimes and continue with the nightmare; or pay no attention to any advice from anywhere, lock the country once more and throw the keys away. The last is an option that might seem very tempting in a country where the junta for five decades, starting 1962, did just that much to the detriment of national development and its people.
But 2021 is not 1962 or even for that matter the 1990s when the regime in Yangon slowly started opening out to the rest of the world to the point of even briefly flirting with something called democracy’. But the men in uniform who had become accustomed to their ways of life in power and institutionalizing the role of the armed forces in every sphere of political and economic activity were in no mood to see their privileges taken away, especially in the aftermath of the elections of November 2019 that left Nobel Laureate Aung San Suu Kyi’s National League for Democracy sweep the polls. The brass hats saw an imminent danger to their representation in polity perhaps even worried about eventual extinction.
The dangerous part of the coup of February 1 is just beginning to dawn on a tiny strategically located country whose internationalization in the global community is anything but complete. Some 750 people are reported to have been killed since the mayhem began and close to 4,000 have been arrested. Suu Kyi herself is in home detention, but completely cut off from the rest of the world. For a person who was imprisoned for about 15 years under the junta in the heydays of the military rule, Suu Kyi faces now a raft of charges—from the most serious of sedition to the most frivolous of importing walkie talkie sets—and is apparently denied permission to talk to her lawyers. The junta, of course, goes about denying the large scale death toll maintaining that only “some” have died in the process of maintaining law and order.
If the junta is seemingly able to ride out of the storm, it is on account of divisions in the international community on how to go about in dealing with the crisis. The West, in its usual gung ho style, wants to go the whole hog on sanctions; the Association of South East Asian Nations (ASEAN) insisting that anything to do with Myanmar will have to be through the route of constructive engagement; and China and Russia are all out in favor of the military brass out of political, strategic and international calculations. The West-led by the United States and Europe has already started the sanctions path by barring the movement of key military figures and imposing restrictions on trade with junta-run entities.
It has been pointed though that ASEAN, which has about a US$ 20 billion trade with Myanmar, has been of the firm view that anything with Myanmar will have to be in a calibrated fashion instead of blindly rushing into the punitive measures route. Also, on the issue of sanctions, the larger question inevitably goes unanswered: who gets hurt. As with the case in most, if not all sanctioned countries, the common person takes the worst hit, not the ruling elites. Kim Jong Un of North Korea is the classic living example of how international sanctions are hurting not him and his close circle of military elites in Pyongyang, but the common person in North Korea. Sanctions in the case of Myanmar has also to be seen in the context of the ongoing pandemic that is ravaging the world and the tiny South East Asian nation has not been spared.
Myanmar, according to a United Nations report, is fast approaching economic collapse, with the military coup together with the impact of COVID-19 pushing some 25 million people (nearly one half of the population) into poverty by 2022, a situation that has not been seen since 2005.” In the space of 12 years, from 2005 to 20017, Myanmar managed to nearly halve the number of people living in poverty. However, the challenges of the past 12 months have put all these hard-won development gains at risk,” remarked Achim Steiner, the administrator of the U.S. Development Program (UNDP). “Without functioning democratic institutions, Myanmar faces a tragic and avoidable backslide towards levels of poverty not seen in a generation,” he added.
The UNDP says that economic, political and health crises affect different people differently and that the vulnerable, especially the internally displaced and ethnic minorities of Myanmar are “more likely” to suffer. According to the UN report, by the end of 2020, about 83 per cent of Myanmar’s households had seen their incomes lashed by one-half as a result of the pandemic, in the process increasing the number of people living below the poverty line by 11 points; and that the situation has worsened since the time of the February 1 coup, projecting a further 12 per cent increase in poverty as a result of the security and human rights crisis.
The UNDP has stressed that women and children of Myanmar are bearing the “heaviest brunt” while urban poverty is expected to triple. The pressure on Kyat (Myanmar currency) is high and seaborne trade has dropped to between 55 and 64 per cent. A paralyzed banking system is impacting welfare payments, adding to the country’s woes.
Perhaps the biggest alarm has come from the head of the United Nations Human Rights Organisation, who has bluntly said that Myanmar is heading in the direction of Syria, where 10 years of civil unrest has resulted in a death toll of about 5,50,000 and some 13 million people getting displaced, internally and as refugees overseas. “Statements of condemnation and limited targeted sanctions are clearly not enough. States with influence need to urgently apply concerted pressure on the military in Myanmar to halt the commission of grave human rights violations and possible crimes against humanity,” said the UN High Commissioner for Human Rights, Michelle Bachelet, in a toughly worded statement. “I fear the situation in Myanmar is heading towards a full blown conflict. States must not allow the deadly mistakes of the past in Syria and elsewhere to be repeated,” she added, in a message that hopefully would be heard in not just the corridors of the United Nations Security Council, but in world capitals as well.
(A former senior journalist in Washington D.C. covering North America and the United Nations, the author is currently a Professor of Journalism and Mass Communication at the College of Science and Humanities, SRM Institute of Science and Technology, Chennai)