“Engagement, not idealism”: Reacting to Myanmar’s coup to protect democratic gains
Updated: Jun 1
Building on an interview with Eurasia Group’s Global Macro associate Charles Dunst – a former foreign correspondent in Southeast Asia – this article reviews the causes and implications of Myanmar’s coup and calls for increased engagement by the international community to restore the democratically-elected government.
Photo Source: KBC
In the past fifteen years, democracy has been in decline worldwide. This trend has recently been exacerbated by the COVID-19 pandemic as governments used restrictions as pretexts to curtail parliamentary oversight, crackdown on opposition, harass independent media, and generally tighten their grip on power. A stark example of democratic reversal has been Myanmar, with the military announcing on 1 February 2021 that it had arrested senior government officials – including Aung San Suu Kyi – and transferred power to General Min Aung Hlaing. The coup was justified as constitutional and as necessary to counter alleged voter fraud in the November 2020 elections, in which the National League for Democracy (NLD) won 83% of votes. The military-affiliated Union Solidarity and Development Party (USDP) had immediately alleged irregularities, and the military claimed (without providing any evidence) to have found 10.5 million suspect votes.
Although the coup seems to have taken the world by surprise, it was actually “fairly foreseeable” according to Dunst. In fragile democracies, elections are typical triggers of political unrest and authoritarian manoeuvres. Clear red flags were present: days before the election, Ming Aung Hlaing had already urged everyone to remain “cautious” about the election results, accusing Aung San Suu Kyi’s government of “unacceptable mistakes”. In late January, the army spokesman warned that the armed forces would “take action” if the election dispute was not settled and the General threatened to repeal the constitution. Looking at underlying dynamics, the need to protect the military’s institutional interests seemed to have been the major driver behind the takeover.* According to Dunst, the tension between democracy and the military’s weight in politics – embodied in the legislature’s seating arrangement – means that “some confrontation of this sort was always possible, and arguably likely”. Indeed, the 2008 constitution reserved one-fourth of seats for the military in both legislative chambers. Although the political environment was far from a level playing field, the NLD started to play an increasingly prominent role, for example winning a large majority of seats during the 2015 parliamentary elections. As the NLD increased its share of seats in the November 2020 elections, the coup can be understood as an attempt to secure the military’s ability to block certain legislative processes amidst shifting power dynamics.
The coup’s impact on the country’s political and economic trajectory has been devastating. The military crackdown on protests has claimed over 700 deaths already, humanitarian aid to vulnerable populations has been increasingly difficult to disburse, and the arrest of political figures has raised concerns for the country’s democratic future. The disruption in public services has also significantly impacted the country’s ability to coordinate its response to the COVID-19 pandemic. Economic forecasts look bleak, as the World Bank revised its initial prediction and announced it now expected the country’s economy to contract by 10% in 2021. Military actions and popular protests have paralysed business and factory activity, led investments to plummet, and put a stranglehold on banking and internet services. But consequences also extend beyond Myanmar and threaten “to severely undermine” the Association of Southeast Asian Nations (ASEAN), argues Dunst. Member states’ initial responses to the coup highlighted the bloc’s lack of unity, calling into question its diplomatic weight and commitment to its own human rights charter. Whilst some states such as Singapore and Indonesia expressed concerns about recent developments, others including Thailand and Cambodia stated it was an internal matter that should not be commented upon. On the whole, however, “none are willing to truly stand up to the Tatmadaw [Myanmar’s military], or for the Suu Kyi government”, argues Dunst. By failing to do so, he contends that the bloc is ultimately undermining regional stability and “the region’s geopolitical ambitions more broadly”. Indeed, international partners such as the United States and the European Union have in the past been unwilling to fully engage with the bloc due to its poor performance in trying to tackle the human rights and rule of law record of its member states.
So far, international responses to the conflict have focused on targeted sanctions. Although these “are important and will have some effect”, says Dunst, they will probably not be enough to convince the Tatmadaw to restore the status quo, as Myanmar’s history of sanctions seems to indicate. Moving forward, Dunst contends that foreign powers – such as the United States and the European Union – “should prioritize pragmatism and engagement, rather than idealism and isolation”. Engagement is a necessity given the extent of the military’s grip on domestic politics, but negotiations should aim to “convince the military that they cannot run the country”, given the widespread popular opposition to the junta. Whilst re-entering a power-sharing agreement with the NLD is “far from an ideal or even democratic solution”, argues Dunst, it could at least “prevent a reversal of the last decade of progress” in terms of democracy and development.
Another crucial yet under-emphasized policy measure is the need to coordinate external actors’ responses, especially between Western and Asian governments. Very little cooperation has taken place so far – except in the form of the European block imposing common sanctions – despite the potential for coordinated moves to multiply pressure on the Tatmadaw. This would especially be the case if China and ASEAN members were to push for a resolution to the crisis. As the country’s top investors and trading partners, they hold more sway in steering the Tatmadaw towards a settlement to the crisis. And as Myanmar’s neighbours, they would benefit the most from a return to stability on the economic and security fronts. Quiet diplomacy to forge a common position will be difficult, but not impossible. Some key pressure points include China’s desire to have a predictable partner to negotiate large-scale infrastructure projects with, Bangladesh’s interest in reducing migration flows, and Southeast Asian countries’ desire to protect their investments and business ventures in Myanmar. In short, both China and ASEAN are unlikely to start imposing sanctions or become vocal critics of the junta, but international actors such as the United States and the European Union could nudge them towards economically pressuring the junta into negotiations with the NLD to restore the status quo ante.
In a nutshell, although there are currently no signs of the situation progressing, the determination of the pro-democracy movement in Myanmar has transpired throughout the last months of protests, and Min Aung Hlaing’s ability to remain in power is far from guaranteed. The combination of civilian protests and coordinated international action – including behind-the-scenes diplomatic pressuring and more overt targeted sanctions to undermine the Tatmadaw’s military and economic interests – could lead to a reversal in the months to come.
*Other drivers include Min Aung Hlaing’s presidential ambitions and business interests.
Anne-Eléonore Deleersnyder has completed a Dual Degree in International Affairs offered by Sciences Po Paris and the London School of Economics. Her studies reflect her interest in conflict prevention, peace-building, and the international relations of East and Southeast Asia. She has previously completed internships at the Konrad Adenauer Foundation, the Fund for Peace, the OECD and the Asia-Europe Foundation, acquiring experience in the field of policy analysis, crisis management, international cooperation, and sustainable development.
Special thanks to Charles Dunst for sharing his insights. Charles is an associate with the Eurasia Group’s Global Macro practice. He is also a visiting scholar at the East-West Center in Washington, an associate at LSE IDEAS, and a contributing editor of American Purpose, Francis Fukuyama’s new magasine. He focuses on Chinese foreign policy and the geopolitics of Southeast Asia and the Indo-Pacific. Visit his website for more information.