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How to End the Chaos in Myanmar Peacefully

On February 1, Myanmar’s military launched a sudden coup and regained control after detaining democratically elected leaders including Aung San Suu Kyi and President Win Myint, and transferring power to Min Aung Hlaing, a senior military leader.

Aung San Suu Kyi subsequently urged her supporters to “protest against the coup,” and since then, nationwide protests have been escalating across the country causing dozens of casualties with unknown numbers of demonstrators arrested.

The coup has drawn international condemnation. United Nations Secretary-General António Guterres expressed his “full support to the people of Myanmar” and emphasized “coups have no place in our modern world.”

It is still uncertain how the coup will evolve, but there are three critical aspects that may contribute to a peaceful solution.

First, promoting dialogue may be more effective than imposing sanctions. After the coup, the Biden administration quickly announced sanctions on Myanmar’s military, and the European Union agreed to follow suit.

In the article “Rethinking Sanctions” published in 2016, former UN Secretary-General Kofi Annan and former Singaporean diplomat Kishore Mahbubani said that imposing sanctions may feel good, but academic studies suggest that sanctions have had limited success.

Tommy Koh, Singapore’s former Permanent Representative to the United Nations, appealed to the U.S. and the EU not to impose economic sanctions on Myanmar, because the historical record shows that such sanctions hurt the people but not their rulers. Koh also suggested that ASEAN can play the role of a mediator to bring Myanmar’s military and the National League for Democracy back to the negotiating table and help them to arrive at a new compact for power-sharing.

Second, ASEAN should play a constructive role. ASEAN’s inherent goal as an institution is non-interference and consensus, but unfortunately, a formal consensus on how to deal with the Myanmar coup among its member states has not been formed so far, while Indonesia, Malaysia, and Singapore have taken relatively strong positions.

However, George Yeo, Singapore’s former foreign minister, highlighted in 2011 that “While ASEAN may work on the principle of consensus, ASEAN also works on the principle of peer pressure, and peer pressure can be very effective. And it is not easy for an ASEAN member country to take a rigid position when all the other nine countries are in opposition.”

Moreover, ASEAN also has other guiding principles, including adherence to democracy, the rule of law, good governance, and respect for human rights. In fact, ASEAN has always played a vital role in promoting the democratization of Myanmar. In 2005, ASEAN successfully forced Myanmar’s military government to give up its 2006 ASEAN chairmanship so as to focus on advancing Myanmar’s national reconciliation and democratization.

On March 2, an informal online meeting of ASEAN foreign ministers was convened to discuss the coup in Myanmar. In its meeting statement, ASEAN called for all parties in Myanmar to “exercise utmost restraint as well as flexibility” and expressed “ASEAN’s readiness to assist Myanmar in a positive, peaceful and constructive manner.” It is a positive step forward, although that is not enough.

Finally, China can play a constructive role. China and Myanmar have a long-standing and special “pauk-phaw” (“fraternal” in the Myanmar language) relationship. In a recent interview, Chen Hai, China’s ambassador to Myanmar, emphasized that China was not informed in advance of the political change in Myanmar and strongly rebutted rumors of so-called Chinese aircraft transporting technicians to Myanmar; China helping Myanmar build an Internet firewall; and Chinese soldiers appearing on the streets of Myanmar. However, he did admit that both the National League for Democracy and Myanmar’s military currently maintain friendly relations with China.

At present, Myanmar’s military has been largely condemned and isolated by the international community, so China’s attitude will have a special influence on it. China’s Foreign Minister Wang Yi stated that “China supports ASEAN in championing the principle of non-interference in internal affairs and consensus building, playing an active role in the ASEAN Way, and having engagement and communication with Myanmar as early as possible.”

ASEAN is the most important regional organization that Myanmar participates in, and China is Myanmar’s most important neighbor. If ASEAN and China can work together with Myanmar to solve the current crisis, it is possible for the chaos to be cooled down peacefully, although ultimately a long-term viable and sustainable solution lies within Myanmar itself.