It has been six months since Myanmar’s military, angered over a humiliating defeat in national elections, rejected the results and overthrew the government.
International condemnation has had no effect. The junta, led by Sr. Gen. Min Aung Hlaing, has dug in its heels, announcing that it will hold elections by August 2023 and that Min Aung Hlaing will remain as head of a caretaker government until then.
This is unacceptable. The military must restore the democratically elected government and return to the barracks. Half measures and prevarications cannot be accepted.
The military launched its coup on Feb. 1, alleging that massive fraud produced the overwhelming victory of the National League for Democracy (NLD) in the previous November’s ballot. While the national election commission and international observers concluded that the vote was fair, the military rejected results that showed the NLD won 83% of the parliamentary seats at stake.
Seizing power, the military declared a state of emergency and detained President Win Myint and State Counsellor Aung San Suu Kyi, the Nobel Peace Prize laureate and the real power behind the NLD. She has been charged with corruption, incitement and a variety of other offenses, with the first verdicts due later this month.
NLD officials and leaders that were not arrested have gone into hiding or exile, and declared the formation of a national unity government that is competing with the junta for international recognition. Meanwhile, thousands of protestors have taken to the streets. Confrontations with the military have left nearly 1,000 people dead, most of them civilians although casualties are increasing among the military and police as armed resistance spreads.
While the economy has reopened after the mass strikes that followed the coup, the outlook is bleak. The World Bank has forecast that GDP will shrink 18% in 2021; after a poor performance in 2020, Myanmar’s economy will be about 30% smaller than it would have been in the absence of COVID-19 and the coup.
As many as 1 million jobs could be lost and incomes will fall for those who remain employed. The share of Myanmar’s population living in poverty is likely to more than double by the beginning of 2022, compared to 2019 levels.
The COVID-19 pandemic is making things worse. Myanmar was one of the first countries to begin a vaccination campaign but it was derailed by the coup as health workers joined the protests and several dozen were detained or imprisoned. The country’s health care system has been overwhelmed as COVID-19 cases more than double each week: There have been nearly 250,000 cases and almost 6,000 deaths, although the World Health Organization believes those figures are low.
The military is reportedly hoarding vital medical supplies for its supporters as hospitals turn away ordinary citizens and bodies pile up in cemeteries and crematoriums. Common criminals are being released as infections spread through jails and prisons. The remaining political prisoners are at an increased risk of getting sick or dying. Tom Andrews, the U.N. special rapporteur for human rights in Myanmar, warned that the country was “at grave risk of becoming a COVID-19 superspreader state.”
The 10 members of ASEAN – the Association of Southeast Asian Nations — have the primary responsibility to deal with the coup. They have been slow to respond, issuing in April a five-point plan to commence a dialogue with the junta, but there has been little followup. The group only last week appointed Brunei Second Foreign Minister Erywan Yusof as its special envoy to Myanmar, who must “build trust and confidence with full access to all parties concerned.”
Doubts have intensified about his — and ASEAN’s — ability to do that. Erywan Yusof led a delegation to Myanmar in June but only met with junta members; his failure to meet the opposition heightened concerns about his readiness to support their interests. After their meeting last week. ASEAN foreign ministers did not even call for the release of political detainees, saying only they “heard calls” for their freedom.
ASEAN is guided by its core principle of noninterference in the domestic affairs of member states and the junta is betting that its willingness to accept someone other than its preferred candidate as special envoy, in combination with the organization’s reluctance to intervene will give it the upper hand in any negotiations. A first test will be whether Erywan Yusof can meet Suu Kyi on his next visit.
The rest of the world must maintain pressure on Myanmar and ASEAN to ensure that both cannot not hide behind such principles to accept the coup. Sanctions should be imposed on junta leaders and their families, as well as the business interests that are reportedly the real reason for the coup. ASEAN must be reminded, quietly but forcefully, that its credibility depends on its ability to deal with its own problems. The readiness to ignore military interventions reduces ASEAN to an enabler of authoritarianism.
Japan has condemned the coup and the violence, called for the release of Suu Kyi and other detainees and insisted on a return to democracy. It has suspended development assistance to Myanmar, but it has not imposed sanctions, fearing that doing so will give China more influence in the country. That logic ignores the fierce nationalism of the Myanmar military.
Japan should join with other countries and stand with Myanmar’s public. The junta’s mismanagement of the economy will ensure that it collapses eventually. Then, Japan’s support for the people will not be forgotten.
The Japan Times Editorial Board