The Coup in Myanmar: Internal Violence and International Reactions
Since the coup in February, violence committed by Tatmadaw, the armed forces of Myanmar, against the Burmese people has only escalated. The Young Diplomats Society has tracked the promising results of the November elections, despite their flawed rollout, and explored the underlying tension between civilian and military leadership in Myanmar. The coup is another tragedy in a country with a long history of violent ethnic conflict and a myriad of social issues that many developing countries experience. In the broader context of the international system, the geopolitical contest taking place in the Indo-Pacific has encouraged a range of responses from many actors.
The military junta was swift to suppress civil disobedience by imposing curfews and internet blackouts across the country. Despite this, civilians were quick to organise peaceful demonstrations in the streets. Civil servants, teachers, and doctors have joined in solidarity by stopping work and, in doing so, impairing the ability of the junta to govern the country. The international diaspora brought protests to their embassies, and Myanmar’s Permanent Representative to the UN elected before the coup, Kyaw Moe Tun, expressed his heartfelt support for the protests. He called for the return of democracy to his country and implored other countries to cut ties with the military junta until normalcy was restored.
As the preliminary efforts of the Tatmadaw failed to curb public outcry against their seizure of power, soldiers were sent into the streets to break up protestors and quell opposition. According to Human Rights Watch, over 700 people, including children, have been killed so far, and hundreds have been forcibly disappeared. Video footage has revealed soldiers beating medical staff, firing shotguns into crowds, and using grenades against barricades built by protestors. Complementing its physical suppression of the people, the junta has also recently charged the captive Aung San Suu Kyi with violations of the Secrets Act and has recalled over 100 staff from foreign postings. Among those recalled was Myanmar’s Ambassador to the UK, Kyaw Zwar Minn, who supported the protestors by calling for the release of Aung San Su Kyi and President U Win Myint, and has since been locked out of the London embassy compound.
As this unrest unfolds, discussions on the role of the various Ethnic Armed Organisations (EAOs) in Myanmar have begun to emerge. For decades, these groups have been fighting against the central government for recognition and self-governance. In order to dissuade these groups from collaborating against them, the junta has removed some of these organisations from terrorist organisation lists, declared ceasefires, and released prisoners related to the EAOs. However, the junta can only stall for so long.
The junta’s continued use of violence against civilians has not gone unnoticed by EAOs. The Arakan Army, a powerful EAO from within Rakhine state, has condemned the junta for this violence, and other EAOs have echoed a similar message. EAOs Karen and Kachin have also begun to engage the junta in small scale combat. Protestors fleeing the junta's violence have sought the protection of nearby EAOs, with some of these protestors having begun to receive military training from these organisations in order to fight against the Tatmadaw.
The National Unity Government (NUG) has been formed as a government in exile in the aftermath of this violence. The NUG comprises of members of the Committee Representing the Pyidaungsu Hluttaw (CRPH) and a group of democratically elected parliamentarians from the National League for Democracy (NLD), the party dissolved by the junta. The NUG also includes protest leaders and representatives of ethnic minority groups, with one exception. Troublingly, the NUG does not have any Rohygina representation. The NUG aims to restore democracy in Myanmar and divorce the military from political power. To do this, it is seeking international recognition as the legitimate government of Myanmar, a mission carried by Kyaw Moe Tun, who remains in the UN because of the NUG. In further servicing their aim, the NUG announced the formation of the People’s Defence Force, a military wing of their government to fight against the junta and as a precursor to a federated army that will incorporate EAOs. The Tatmadaw in response has since labelled this group a terrorist organisation.
International Reactions to the Coup
Beyond the domestic sphere, much of the international community has rallied against the coup. Both the United States and the European Union have deployed rigorous sanctions that target military officials and stymie the ability of different Burmese business entities to trade internationally. Despite being prominent voices in the Indo-Pacific, Australia, China, and Japan have all had subdued responses to the coup.
Sean Turnell, an Australian economist working as an advisor for the NLD, was arrested on February 1 by the Tatmadaw without cause. Subsequently, in April, Turnell was charged with violation of the secrets act. This has constrained Australia’s response to the coup, as Turnell has had limited consular access during his captivity, despite Canberra asking for his release. So far, Canberra has only made a statement to condemn the coup and has cancelled the limited military training programs between Australia and Myanmar.
For Japan, the seizure of power by the Tatmadaw is particularly problematic given Tokyo's significant investment in Myanmar. The major foreign policy themes of the previous Abe government was the promotion of democratic ideals and increasing aid development in the Indo-Pacific. The international community rallying against the military coup through sanctions, the cancelling of programs, and a direct statement from Kyaw Moe Tun is a clear message to the Suga government to wind down its aid and investments in Myanmar until order is restored. Currently, Japan has only issued a statement condemning the coup without any sanctions or other tangible coercive measures to encourage the restoration of democracy. The slowness and lack of severity in Tokyo’s reaction highlight its fear that a harsh response would impact their current role as a development partner, a role that can be usurped by Beijing.
Through the Belt and Road Initiative (BRI), China has become a major investor in Myanmar, fuelling many development projects. Unlike Japan, China has a clear policy of non-interference in domestic affairs. To this end, China has argued in international forums that the coup is an internal affair and has blocked sanctions from the UN. However, conflict is bad for business. Protestors in Myanmar have targeted Chinese owned factories with vandalism and arson. Amid this rising anti-Chinese sentiment in Myanmar, Beijing has made requests of the Tatmadaw to protect oil and gas infrastructure that has been developed as part of the BRI. In April, Chinese troops began to gather on the border, allegedly to protect these pipelines. Despite holding a position of non-interference and lack of support for sanctions, China has backed UN statements calling for the violence to end. It is in Chinese interests to see stability restored in Myanmar. However, it is unlikely to risk its investments in Myanmar by joining a larger international effort to stop the violence through sanctions. Harsher responses from China would greatly undermine its non-interference policy, affect the rollout of the BRI elsewhere, and result in cooperation with governments that have been vocal critics of Chinese human rights abuses.
With the growing importance of Southeast Asia to the geopolitical competition in the Indo-Pacific, the Association of Southeast Asian Nations (ASEAN) is an organisation the world is increasingly looking towards to be the leading voice on Southeast Asian interests and affairs. However, ASEAN is struggling to effectively deal with this crisis. The organisation is grappling with its own non-interference policy and the possibility of Myanmar’s conflict spilling over into other countries. To further complicate matters, ASEAN makes decisions through group consensus. Since Myanmar is a member nation, it can influence the output of the organisation, especially in responding to the coup.
In February, Indonesia and Malaysia were vocal in calling for an ASEAN Leaders Summit to discuss the situation in Myanmar. This Summit convened in Jakarta on April 24 and controversially invited Min Aung Hlaing, head of the Tatmadaw, to represent Myanmar and featured no representation from the NUG. The Summit is summarised in a comprehensive statement from the ASEAN Chairman that expressed ‘deep concern’ regarding the violence and called for the release of political prisoners. It also produced a ‘five point consensus’ with the consent of Hlaing to wind down the conflict. The first point calls for the immediate cessation of violence against civilians. The next points outline how ASEAN will facilitate the peace process through establishing dialogues between relevant parties and providing humanitarian assistance. Unfortunately, there were no mechanisms to force the Tatmadaw to comply with these statements. The junta has since commented that it will consider the consensus after it has stabilised the country.
Violence in Myanmar will likely only continue to escalate in intensity as the Tatmadaw will have to contend with armed resistance from EAOs and the NUG. As for the international responses, condemnations of violence are proving ineffective. For this civil conflict to end, there must be consistent international pressure applied to the regime so it can no longer benefit from its usurpation of power. It remains unclear whether economic concern will be enough or whether a stronger response such as military intervention is required. Additionally, it is uncertain whether there is enough international will to unify and commit to either of those actions as specific geopolitical concerns may outweigh a unified response.
Whatever the outcome, the effects of this coup will be felt in the long term. Confidence in Myanmar’s governance has been shattered. International development assistance will likely be a casualty of this event, with existing projects paused and future partners more hesitant to invest in Myanmar. This coup also prevents resolution to the Rohingya genocide as there is not a stable government that can be held accountable for those crimes. Ultimately, this violence is an impediment to improving the quality of life for the people of Myanmar.
Declan Hourd is a recent Master of International Relations graduate from the University of NSW. He is interested in exploring the geopolitics of the Indo-Pacific and what that means for the people who live there.