STRATEGIC ASSESSMENT. Protestors in Myanmar challenging the recent military coup faced a deadly crackdown, resulting in the deaths of at least 56 people at the hands of security forces. On February 1, 2021, the Myanmar military, known as the Tatmadaw, jettisoned the elected civilian government after a period of joint governance, retaking full control and imposing a one-year state of emergency. Facing tear gas, rubber bullets, snipers, and live ammunition, protestors have persevered in opposition to the coup despite the violence, arrests, and repression. On February 22, after three protestors had been killed, a large-scale, general strike took place without violence, with hundreds of thousands gathering. Anticipating the protests, the military threatened on state television that protestors were “inciting people… toward a path of confrontation where they will suffer a loss of life.” Thereafter, armed supporters of the Tatmadaw attacked pro-democracy demonstrators on February 24, resulting in the stabbing of at least two people. Since the arrest of the civilian leader and Nobel laureate Aung San Suu Kyi during the coup, an estimated 1,300 ‘dissenters’ have now been detained, according to the Assistance Association for Political Prisoners, with the prospect of indefinite detention. In a powerful show of solidarity with the protests, Myanmar’s Ambassador to the UN, U Kyaw Moe Tun, bravely addressed the UN General Assembly on February 26 with a statement critiquing the military coup and calling for action by the international community in support of the elected civilian leadership. During his speech, Mr. Kyaw Moe Tun held up a three-finger salute used by protestors. Reports indicate he was subsequently dismissed from his post; however, now that the junta has appointed a new envoy, the UN faces a unique debacle over Myanmar’s representation.
The Tatmadaw have repeatedly shut off the internet in Myanmar, also known as Burma, since the coup began and restricted social media access, in addition to suggesting legislation to criminalize online opposition. Constraining the internet has often been a common tactic used by the Tatmadaw, who had until recently limited internet access in parts of the majority Rohingya Rakhine state for over a year. The coup has added additional obstacles to the delivery of humanitarian operations in Myanmar – where 1 million people are in need of humanitarian assistance – particularly tied to bank closures and commodity price increases in an already challenging and politicized operating environment.
In 2017, the Tatmadaw responded to a few disparate attacks on local police in Rakhine state with a campaign of systematic repression under the guise of counterterrorism. The military subject the majority Muslim Rohingya community to brutal violence, including systematic rape and abuse of women and children and the destruction of entire villages and agriculture, resulting in an outflow of refugees to already overstretched Bangladesh. Rohingya refugees remain in the limbo of statelessness, denied citizenship by Myanmar; almost one million Rohingya now reside in Bangladesh, with little prospect of returning home in the near future. Suu Kyi defended the military-civilian government against accusations of genocide, even at the International Court of Justice. Despite international condemnation of her stance, her political party, the National League for Democracy, won 396 of 476 seats in parliament in the November 2019 election.
Since the coup, global leaders have issued statements calling for restoration of the civilian government, the release of Suu Kyi, and denunciation of violence against protestors, in addition to sanctions. President Biden condemned the coup, calling it, “a direct assault on Burma’s transition to democracy and the rule of law.” The U.S. has sanctioned ten military leaders, warning of more targeted sanctions if further violence against peaceful protestors materializes, and USAID redirected over $42 million from the Myanmar government to civil society initiatives. Similarly, the European Union, Canada, and United Kingdom have issued sanctions on military generals, with the UK additionally banning trade with the government. However, Myanmar has proved resistant to international pressure in the past, some arguing that the Western approach of isolating the military government via sanctions has reduced any leverage or opportunity to influence the junta.
The junta remains shielded by China in the UN Security Council, which will discuss the situation this week. U.S. Ambassador Linda Thomas-Greenfield, presiding over the Security Council this month, has issued a strong message of intent to “ramp up pressure” on the junta, though it is unlikely that the Permanent five members (i.e. China, France, Russia, the UK, and the U.S.) will be able to agree on a way forward. Myanmar’s neighbors in Asia have tread more carefully, in light of their traditional stance of non-interference in domestic matters. The Association of Southeast Asian Nations (ASEAN), of which Myanmar is a member, has focused diplomatic engagement on preventing further violence and potential new elections, given the military’s unfounded claim of electoral fraud as a prompt for its actions. Indonesia’s foreign minister, Retno Marsudi, met in Thailand for dialogue with Myanmar’s military-appointed foreign minister, prompting concerns of legitimizing the military’s control. Thus far, such global reactions have failed to move the needle in Myanmar.
On February 24, Facebook banned the accounts of the Tatmadaw, senior military leaders, and a state TV network. Reigniting a debate which gained ground in the United States following the storming of the Capitol on January 6, this move highlighted the power and reach of social media companies and the extent to which they can and should influence security and political developments. Earlier, Facebook received grave criticism for their role as a platform for military propaganda targeting the Muslim Rohingya and reportedly contributing to the ethnic cleansing campaign. The recent ban on government officials in Myanmar again raises the question of the role and responsibility of the private sector in managing public information and security, and drawing the line between incitement, hate speech, and freedom of expression. In the absence of more decisive global diplomatic leadership and effective multilateral cooperation, there may be few other options for now. With the protests sustaining momentum despite violent repression, eyes are on the international community and regional neighbors to influence the Tatmadaw to honor the democratic process and return to civilian governance as soon as possible (TSC).