Both coverage in the Asian press and statements by neighbouring Asian governments reported in the media on the grabbing of exclusive power by the military in Myanmar reflects the traditional Asian adage that democracy should go hand in hand with economic and political stability.
Thus, sanctions and external funding of protest groups (usually urban elites and the young) are discouraged.
Myanmar is a member of the Association of South East Nations (ASEAN) regional grouping, which was instrumental in guiding Myanmar to transit from military rule to civilian rule a decade ago.
The ASEAN secretariat issuing a statement through its current chair Brunei reiterated that “domestic political stability is essential to a peaceful, stable and prosperous ASEAN Community”.
Sharon Seah, coordinator at the ASEAN Studies Centre at the National University of Singapore noted that the ASEAN statement this week WAs a slight deviation from the one that ASEAN made after the 2014 coup d’etat in Thailand.
“What is new in this iteration is the fact that the grouping recognises that collective goals can be undermined by a member state’s political ructions,” she noted.
Seah, in a commentary published by Singapore’s TODAYOnline news portal, points out that the current ASEAN statement “sounds familiar except that this time, ASEAN is far further along the process of regional integration and community-building, since the ASEAN Community blueprint was launched in 2015”.
Pax Americana ‘is over’
Further, she wrote, “Pax Americana, as Southeast Asia knows it, is over and the global world order has changed irrevocably”, thus external pressure (from outside the region) is not the way to go.
Interestingly, China’s media – both Xinhua news agency and Global Times – have described the latest coup in Myanmar as a “reshuffle of Cabinet”. Their logic may have some substance.
“Myanmar military announced a major cabinet reshuffle hours after a state of emergency was declared on Monday,” February 1, reported Xinhua from Yangon.
It referred to a military statement that “new union ministers were appointed for 11 ministries, while 24 deputy ministers were removed from their posts”.
It added that Union chief justice and judges of the Supreme Court, chief justices and judges of regional or state High Courts are allowed to remain in office as well as members of the Anti-Corruption Commission, chairman, vice-chairman and members of the Myanmar National Human Rights Commission.
The military used sections of the 2008 constitution, to which Aung San Suu Kyi’s National League for Democracy (NLD) had agreed to when they took part in the 2015 elections and won on a landslide.
This constitution allows the military to take over the government in the event of an emergency that threatens Myanmar’s sovereignty leading to “disintegrating [of] the Union (or) national solidarity”.
It is debatable if such a situation exists and this could be the subject of argument in coming months.
Nine years ago Luv Puri, a member of UN Secretary-General’s good offices on Myanmar writing in Japan Times (as a private citizen) this week noted that nearly nine years ago, Aung San Suu Kyi reluctantly decided to participate in a byelection to the Parliament and after being elected she was resolute in her cautiousness as the Western leaders sought her advice on how to approach the then President Thein Sein’s government.
“She had earlier termed the whole process an instance of sham democracy,” recalls Puri, adding, “on February 1, 2021, she proved to be right as the military or Tatmadaw, as it is locally known, staged a coup in the wee hours”.
Puri noted that the military’s grouse is that at least 8.6 million irregularities were found in voter lists and the ruling NLD government and its appointed election commission failed to review the 2020 elections results, with the latter saying that there was no evidence to support the military’s claims.
The ruling NLD party won 396 out of 476 seats in the November 8 election, allowing the party to govern for another five years.
“The contesting positions are symptoms of a deeper institutional malaise.
“Constitutionally, three important ministries relating to national security, namely defence, home and border, are held by the military,” notes Puri.
“The military nominates 30 percent of the members of Parliament.
Existential battle ‘for political survival’
“In an environment in which the military is fighting an existential battle for political survival, after ruling the country directly or indirectly since the formation of the republic, a military coup was an imminent possibility.”
China and India, with Myanmar, sandwiched between them have reacted cautiously to the latest developments.
Myanmar is essential for the success of China’s BRI (Belt and Road Initiative) while for Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi’s “Look East” project Myanmar is an important lynchpin.
India has a 1468 km border with Myanmar that runs along 3 north-east Indian states – Nagaland, Manipur and Mizoram – all of which face ethnic and religious tensions.
China has taken issue with Western media reports that it supported the military takeover in Myanmar.
Global Times reported that China’s foreign ministry spokesman Wang Wenbin has refuted such claims at a media briefing.
“Such allegations are not factual,” he said in Beijing. He has also added that China was puzzled by a leaked document from the UN Security Council that China is supposed to have vetoed.
“Any action taken by the Security Council should contribute to Myanmar’s political and social stability, help Myanmar realize peace and reconciliation, and avoid intensifying contradictions,” he told the media.
“For India, which had cultivated a careful balance, between nudging along the democratic process by supporting Ms Suu Kyi, and working with the military to ensure its strategic interests to the North East and deny China a monopoly on Myanmar’s infrastructure and resources, the developments are unwelcome,” noted India’s The Hindu in an editorial.
“The government will need to craft its response taking into consideration the new geopolitical realities of the U.S. and China as well as its own standing as a South Asian power.”
‘Share of uncertainties’ The Indian Express also expressed similar sentiments in an editorial noting that new developments “will create its share of uncertainties” for India.
“It must continue its engagement with Myanmar and leverage its influence with the Army to persuade it to step back,” added the Express.
While Myanmar’s expat populations in places like Bangkok, Tokyo and Sydney have demonstrated calling for international intervention, within Myanmar people have taken a different strategy to confront the military takeover.
Myanmar Times (MT), that is locally owned and published from Yangon, carried a number of reports on how this is shaping up. They reported about various aspects of civil disobedience campaigns initiated by trade unions, leading artists and the medical profession.
MT reported that a movement, which urged Myanmar citizens to not buy and use products affiliated with the Tatmadaw has gone viral since February 3.
The military has been linked to a large number of businesses in various sectors. They have been associated with food and beverage products, cigarettes, the entertainment industry, internet service providers, banks, financial enterprises, hospitals, oil companies, and wholesale markets and retail businesses, among others, the newspaper pointed out.
MT also reported that “Myanmar celebrities, who usually make headlines for their latest albums, haircuts and fashion choices, have used their social media profiles for an entirely different purpose this week”.
Singers change from cosmetics to disobedience
Since the military seized power on February 1, “Myanmar’s singers, actors and artists changed their topic of interest from cosmetics to disobedience to the rule of the junta” noted MT.
Among the celebrities are Paing Takhon who started his modelling career in 2014 and has amassed over 1 million followers on Facebook and filmmaker Daung with 1.8 million.
Meanwhile, the Confederation of Trade Unions Myanmar (CTUM) and Myanmar Industry Craft and Service-Trade Unions Federation (MICS) announced that they had resigned and are no longer part of government, employers and workers’ groups.
The “Civil Disobedience Campaign” that was launched on February 2 is also joined by health-care workers in 40 townships, including doctors and nurses from 80 hospitals.
Meanwhile, Seah argues that this month’s events are a big setback for ASEAN community building and to help in any democratic retransformation, an ASEAN-led commission to investigate the military junta’s allegations of electoral fraud could be set up, headed by a mutually respected senior ASEAN personality trusted by all sides.
“For the commission’s findings to be accepted at the international level, support must come from ASEAN’s external stakeholders,” she argues.
“The selection of the commission members must be transparent from the get-go and may require consultations with key stakeholders both inside and outside Myanmar (while) ASEAN should secure the agreement of the military junta to dial down to a state of limited emergency, refrain from the use of force against civilians and allow the functioning of government with specified conditions between the NLD and the military”.