Longview: Myanmar and the democratic erosion in Southeast Asia

It has been a month since the Tatmadaw’s military junta staged a coup in response to the National League for Democracy’s landslide victory in the November 2020 elections. NLD leader Aung San Suu Kyi and other senior members of her government were arrested hours before forming the new executive. The Tatmadaw justified their actions alleging electoral fraud. Suu Kyi appeared in good health condition during her court trial on March 1, but its whereabouts remain unknown since the Tatmadaw took her to an undisclosed location on February 20.

Suu Kyi could face a sentence for up to eight years, making it impossible for her to be a candidate in the upcoming 2022 elections

She is accused of illegally purchasing walkie-talkies from abroad and violating natural disaster management laws during her electoral campaign. Despite being barred from contacting her attorney, court hearings were held in private on February 16 — one day before the military had previously been announced. Suu Kyi was accused of breaching COVID-19 rules and inciting public disorder during her trial on March 1, which adds to her other criminal charges. Suu Kyi could face a sentence for up to eight years, making it impossible for her to be a candidate in the upcoming 2022 elections. Given the NLD’s lack of alternative candidates due to Suu Kyi’s popularity and leadership, her imprisonment ensures the Tatmadaw’s electoral victory.

The opposition to the coup has been relentless since day one. Protests have taken place nationwide almost daily despite the fear of being arrested by the military. Burmese citizens have used Facebook to report arrests, organize themselves, and create the Civil Disobedience Movement. All age groups and ethnic minorities have joined the protests. Moreover, doctors, teachers, railway workers, and government employees have refused to work for the military government, starting the largest strike in Myanmar’s history. However, violence has escalated in the past weeks. The military and police forces have arrested 1,132 people. Violence used against protesters has ramped up: injured people are in the hundreds, and the death toll is around 307. On February 28, the bloodiest day of protests so far, dozens of protesters were injured, and 18 were killed.

The US, the UK, and the EU condemned the coup, asking for the arrested politicians’ release

There is a division in the international community’s response. The US, the UK, and the EU condemned the coup, asking for the arrested politicians’ release. While the US and the UK imposed targeted sanctions at the beginning of the month, the EU announced sanctions after the recent escalation in violence. Other G7 countries have condemned the coup as well. However, despite voicing their concern on the coup, ASEAN countries like Singapore, Malaysia, Indonesia, and the Philippines have not condemned the junta’s actions nor sanctioned the military. The same applies to ASEAN’s statement: it encourages both parties to engage in negotiations. ASEAN’s principle of non-intervention bars any interference in any of its members’ domestic affairs.

China blocked the UN Security Council’s condemnation of the coup alongside Russia

Conversely, some countries have avoided any condemnations by labeling it as an internal matter. China and its principle of non-interference are its main representatives. This same principle allows China to do business with any country of the world, whatever their political regime or international reputation. By referring to the coup as a “cabinet reshuffle”, China is hinting at their readiness to the Tatmadaw. Moreover, China blocked the UN Security Council’s condemnation of the coup alongside Russia. Countries like Pakistan, India, and Brazil have followed China’s steps and avoided taking a stance on the coup. ASEAN members Cambodia, Thailand, Vietnam, and Brunei, have also deemed it an internal affair.

International companies like the Japanese Kirin have done their part by ending joint ventures they had signed with military-linked companies

Despite the international division, the increasing turmoil and recent violence surge could lead to a more united response. In Myanmar, citizens have boycotted products linked to the military. International companies like the Japanese Kirin have done their part by ending joint ventures they had signed with military-linked companies. UN’s Myanmar envoy took a stand against the Tatmadaw and urged the international community to put an end to oust the coup government by “any means necessary“. Indonesia and Malaysia stated their wish to hold an ASEAN meeting to discuss a possible solution in line with its non-interference policy. Indonesian Foreign Minister is trying to rally all ASEAN countries so the association can intervene as a mediator. Its success, however, lies in reaching a consensus among all ASEAN’s member states. China, for its part, vowed its support to Indonesia’s quest. Beijing seeks the region’s stability to ensure the continuation of its businesses. Despite its rocky relationship with the Tatmadaw, China will not intervene for Aung San Suu Kyi’s government’s return.

Myanmar’s pre-coup government under Aung San Suu Kyi was controversial despite being democratically elected. Suu Kyi’s government denial of the abuses committed to the Rohingya minority led to an international outcry against the 1991 Nobel Peace laureate and the imposition of sanctions. However, the fragile democratic experiment that Myanmar initiated in 2011 outperforms the previous forty years of repressive military rule.

Democracy, as it is known in the West, is at stake in Southeast Asia, despite the international community’s best wishes

February’s coup is another example of the democratic erosion that is taking place in Southeast Asia. It is evident in the region’s anti-democratic regimes, where power converges in the upper echelons of the ruling communist party of Laos, and Vietnam. Similarly, prominent leaders have ruled Cambodia and Brunei’s governments for decades. In Thailand, the strong military presence suppresses dissent and has made it impossible for opposition parties to win the elections. Even the more democratic regional countries like Indonesia, Malaysia, Singapore, and the Philippines are considered “flawed democracies” by The Economist Democracy Index. These countries’ main issues are media freedom, power consolidated within a select few families, corruption, and Duterte’s government-authorized violence in the Philippines. Democracy, as it is known in the West, is at stake in Southeast Asia, despite the international community’s best wishes. International sanctions will prove insufficient unless they have clear targets and are collective. A crisis like the one in Myanmar will eventually affect Southeast Asia’s democracies and ASEAN’s stability unless regional members mediate. 

The Editor: Marta Nuevo Falguera

Barcelona, 1994. Marta holds a Master’s degree in International Relations and speaks six languages. Located in the Netherlands, she currently works as a political analyst for an intelligence company, and writes articles about East and Southeast Asian politics at El Orden Mundial.

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