Protesters against the military coup won’t be helped by threats. They need support to press for change from within
Protests against the military coup continue in Myanmar; aerial images of the hundreds of thousands of demonstrators who converged in towns and cities in recent days have helped show the scale of animosity towards the country’s military, which now faces the fallout of a nationwide strike. These events highlight the fragility of Myanmar’s political landscape. But they have also prompted a reckoning with the shortcomings, if not worse, of western engagement in Myanmar, a decade on from the start of a transition away from authoritarian rule that saw Myanmar held aloft as a success story in liberal-democracy promotion and “meaningful intervention” in Asia.
The 1 February coup triggered a course reversal from western governments and institutions. Praise for November’s democratic elections, which handed victory to Aung San Suu Kyi’s National League for Democracy party, has since turned to condemnation of the generals and promises of action to coax – if not force – them from power. The US state department framed new sanctions as a means of “promoting accountability” and alluded to “additional policy levers we can pull” to return Myanmar to democratic government, while Boris Johnson stated that the UK would “ensure those responsible for this coup are held to account”. The UN and G7 blocs have meanwhile denounced an “unacceptable” situation.
These are bold declarations, and they continue a history of assertive rhetoric from the UK and its allies in response to upheaval in Myanmar. But in their tenor, content and strategy, they are critically flawed. Statements from western governments and institutions that promise transformative action suggest that they not only have the ability to reverse the coup, but also that they have a nuanced understanding of Myanmar’s complex, often mysterious, internal power dynamics.
The reality is rather different. The influence once enjoyed by western nations in Myanmar has greatly diminished in recent years. A key moment came in 2016-17, when western nations responded to the military’s genocidal campaign against the Rohingya with brash rhetoric, targeted sanctions and UN mechanisms that were ill-suited for atrocity prevention. This had a demonstrably damaging effect on the crisis, backing the military into a corner such that it saw its only options as losing credibility at home or retaliating. Already narrow diplomatic inroads were closed off, and the generals moved closer to China and Association of Southeast Asian Nations (Asean) countries, which are at best agnostic about democratic processes.
The strident tenor of condemnation in 2016-17 underestimated the military’s ability to manipulate the Myanmar public into interpreting western criticism as a threat to the country itself, thereby uniting the people against an external foe and spawning scepticism of western claims of atrocities. It did nothing to halt the violence, nor to deter the military from future campaigns against minority groups.
Britain, the US and others are drawing now from the same failed playbook, coupling forceful rhetoric with action that is proven to have little effect on the generals. Additional sanctions, for instance, have been targeted at a military already subject to sanctions. Yet as the coup demonstrates, these measures do little to rein in their excesses. This raises a second critical issue: that western responses to political and human rights crises are largely automated, and lack the necessary nuance to meet the unique needs of each crisis situation.
But there is another problem with the language now being used to threaten the generals and gesture towards support for the counter-movement: it is both imperious and deceptive. The illusion of imminent action has many pro-democracy protesters believing substantive intervention might be forthcoming. Banners at recent demonstrations have indeed implored the US, EU and others to step in, including through armed invasion. A coalition of civil society groups in Myanmar has called on the UN security council to send an intervention mission. Perhaps some are making such appeals tactically, to generate wider global attention. But for others there remains an unjustified faith in western power, one that misses a hard truth of liberal posturing: that rhetoric, properly amplified, is a neat cover for inaction.
Western aid workers saw the costs of this in 2017, when they had to explain to Rohingya why the “international community” wasn’t coming to save them from the genocide. The disconnect between rhetoric and action was incomprehensible and devastating to Rohingya. One Myanmar development worker, Phyo Thet Tin, summarised the broader issue: “Some are hopeful at the potential for western action until they figure out the actual policies of these countries. Then no one is hopeful.”
Western actors can support Myanmar’s people – just not in the way their rhetoric suggests. They cannot promise accountability or any form of “intervention”. But they can reshape existing, poorly calibrated efforts to be more dynamic, tailored and grassroots-focused. Civil society partnerships must become more flexible and empowering. Dialogue with all opposition parties must deepen, including the self-designated Committee Representing Pyidaungsu Hluttaw and the General Strike Committee of Nationalities. Local activists must be seen and heard as expert advisers, not as beneficiaries. Rhetoric and action must be reconciliation-focused, to avoid incentivising further military crackdowns. Diplomatic engagement with Japan, Asean and others should be pursued with a willingness to make the unpalatable political and economic sacrifices that may be required in order to get these countries to pressure the military for change.
But the best chance for Myanmar’s future rests on the momentum of its own people, who have shown a capacity for effective organising. If western powers do indeed want to support Myanmar’s fight for democracy, they must do away with performative misrepresentations of their own influence, which misguide and undermine the movement for change. The abandonment felt by the Rohingya in 2017 must not be experienced by today’s protesters. Energy spent on lost causes, such as lobbying the UN, is energy wasted, and there is likely a long struggle ahead. The Myanmar people both deserve, and will be strengthened by, a reformed model of western solidarity founded on transparency and encouragement of the people’s own self-reliance.