Myanmar’s Return to Tragic Past, Set for a Long Haul
Prof Rajaram Panda

At a time when Myanmar was leapfrogging to give a sound footing to its nascent experiment of democracy after decades of military rule, the military takeover on 1 February put the clock back to where it was with debilitating consequences. The junta remains unmoved to the global outcry and killing of the civilian protestors. After the military takeover, the National League for Democracy (NLD) leader Aung San Suu Kyi was detained on spurious charges together with other democratically elected leaders. With this, the arrangement between the military and the elected representatives to run the government suddenly came to a nought.

From hopes for a fully functioning democracy, Myanmar is on the brink of disintegrating into a civil war. The brutal crackdown on peaceful protesters has been globally condemned. There are reports that a sizable segment of army personnel also have joined the protestors and, if such reports are true, a large-scale defection soon cannot be ruled out. If the military continues with its brutalities, a civil war could be a distinct possibility.1

Tightening its hold further, the junta imposed fresh criminal charges on Suu Kyi on 12 April, which could see her barred for life from office. The charges are under section 25 of the natural disaster management law. The most serious charge Suu Kyi faces falls under Myanmar’s official secrets law.2

Within three months since the coup, more than 750 civilians have been killed, according to the Assistance Association for Political Prisoners monitoring group, and more than 3,000 arrested. On one of the bloodiest days of the unrest, on a single day, more than 80 protesters were killed by security forces in the southern city of Bago. There is a fear of civil war. With a huge security apparatus consisting of an army of about 350,000-400,000, most of whom are ethnic Bamar Buddhists, supplemented further by 80,000 police and state intelligence service members, the junta is unlikely to be easily dislodged.

As expected, the immediate response of the world to this sudden development in Myanmar, where democracy was murdered, was to impose crippling sanctions as the coup entailed violation of human rights. The US was the first to react and slap sanctions against the military leaders, including the two adult children of junta Chief Min Aung Hlaing and other business entities controlled by the military. The US also persuaded other nations to punish the junta with sanctions by reconsidering their investments, both ongoing and planned, and deny the military the financial support so that it cannot sustain for long and therefore restore the government to the elected representatives.3 To expect that to happen is to put the cart before the horse as military juntas are rarely known to return power once it is seized.

If the desired response has been inadequate, what next can be expected? Which country has any clout or leverage to make the junta see reason? ASEAN’s muted response has not only put a question mark on its centrality but binds its member states to abide by the ASEAN Charter that stresses on the non-interference in the internal affairs of another member state. To an extent, the global inaction hampering a concerted action has only helped the junta. The 27-member states, the European Union, blames Moscow and Beijing for blocking tough measures such as a UN arms embargo. On its own, the EU offered more economic incentives if democracy is restored in Myanmar. 4

Indeed, geopolitical competition in Myanmar makes it very difficult for outside nations to find common ground. Besides its strategic stake in Myanmar vis-a-vis India, both China and Russia are the largest and second-largest suppliers of weapons to the country, respectively. The EU imposed sanctions on individuals and companies owned by the Myanmar military. However, economic leverage of the EU in Myanmar is relatively small and barring some sanctions, it cannot do much to punish the junta. For example, foreign direct investment of the EU in Myanmar totals $700 million in 2019, compared with $19 billion from China.5

Like the EU, South Korea is also thinking to punish the junta. South Korea’s POSCO Coated & Colour Steel decided to discontinue its partnership with Myanmar Economic Holdings Public Company Limited (MEHL), which is about 40 per cent owned by the Defense Ministry of Myanmar. However, the South Korean company is not thinking of pulling out of Myanmar completely.6 Human rights activists have been urging many companies worldwide to end any financial support for the military. POSCO C&C is an affiliate of South Korean steel giant POSCO that manufactures steel sheets. The company wishes to remain engaged and hopes the steel business will “continue to contribute in improving living environments in Myanmar and facilitate the country’s (Myanmar’s) economy". It remains to be seen if this offer of carrot is acceptable to the junta.

The US and Britain too blacklisted and imposed sanctions on conglomerates controlled by the military.7 The US sanctions targeted MEHL and Myanmar Economic Cooperation Ltd (MEC). Britain imposed similar sanctions on MEHL, citing serious human rights violations against Rohingya Muslims. The business interests of the military range from beer and cigarettes to telecommunications, tyres, mining and real estate.

The military junta seems to have learnt the wrong lessons from Indonesia’s experience of democratic transition. Both Indonesia and Myanmar are members of the ASEAN grouping and share similar historical experiences. The militaries in both countries had played important roles in the creation of their nation-states. After the transition to democracy and emerging as a modern state, Indonesia nurtured a flourishing civil society. The army was respected and earned the trust of the people. Indonesia is a model worthy of emulation for Myanmar. Unfortunately, the military learnt the wrong lessons from the experience of Indonesia.8

If the junta failed to learn any lessons from Indonesia’s experience, it could have looked at Thailand, another fellow ASEAN member, and could have followed Thai PM Prayuth-o-Cha’s example. Paul Chambers writes that the Tatmadaw could have built support within a pseudo-democratic system, as Thailand has done.9 Chambers sees similarity of motives for the 2006 and 2014 coups in Thailand and the 2021 Myanmar coup. In all three cases, the military reacted when it perceived that the civilians were trying to control the government. The military in both countries feared losing its economic stakes. Also, the coup came closer to the military Generals’ retirement period and would have surely faced the countries’ law and investigation into their corrupt practices. It was therefore that the coup was seen as a safe way to take control back and protect their interests.

What is the Way Out?

Given that the junta is unlikely to give up power anytime soon, what could be the realistic options for the world? Are sanctions enough? If one takes the example of North Korea, which has faced crippling sanctions for quite some time, there are ways to compensate for the loss caused by sanctions. Moreover, there are certain countries determined to foil sanction measures. As in the case of North Korea, China shall surely rescue the junta in Myanmar as it has deep strategic and economic interests in that country. Though China is expected to bail out and the junta’s own internal economic strength could help, it is still feared that crippling sanctions could worsen the humanitarian crisis and leading eventually to economic collapse.

While Myanmar’s economic base is not strong, with per capita GDP being the lowest among the ten-member ASEAN grouping, the country presents tremendous geopolitical problems. Between China and India, Myanmar is strategically located. China has its strategic interest in Myanmar and hopes to gain direct port access to the Indian Ocean. China is also Myanmar’s largest trading partner, accounting for 33.2 % of its total trade, making Myanmar the only country in the ASEAN grouping to have the highest dependence on China. This is the highest dependence on China among the ASEAN countries. If the junta continues to face sanctions from the West, it would inevitably increase its reliance on China. Here, the role of ASEAN becomes critical, as the development in Myanmar poses a serious threat to its collective legitimacy and interests.

Interestingly, Japan can have greater leverage on Myanmar than the US as it has successfully been engaging with the ASEAN grouping in economic and regional security matters. As a regional economic player even before China emerged muscular economically, Japan has engaged in the region by close economic ties and likely to remain engaged for a long time. Its development assistance to almost all ten member states of the grouping has earned Japan considerable admiration and, therefore, Japan’s voice is likely to be respected even by the military. Engaging Myanmar, rather than isolating, would be a more realistic strategy with a long-term view to bringing change to the junta. If the US and the West continue to publicly humiliate the junta, it would only toughen the junta’s position and, its reliance on China would further increase.

The ideal strategy seems to be a collective response by the regional stakeholders – India, China and the ten ASEAN members (minus Myanmar) – and by keeping the US in the loop, to speak with the junta with one voice and without any intimidating approach. This strategy might work and is worth exploring. Also, an unstable Myanmar would be detrimental to China’s economic and strategic interests. The same is true in the case of India. Chinese President Xi Jinping visited Myanmar in January 2021 and built a good understanding with Suu Kyi. They inked 33 memorandums of understanding, which included economic projects which were within the framework of the China-Myanmar Economic Corridor. Therefore, China may be favourably inclined to secure the release of Suu Kyi if its good offices are used congenially. Such an approach would also enhance Beijing’s image as not openly siding with the junta in the eyes of the Myanmar people. In the end, it could result in a win-win situation with the prospect of the country reverting back to where it was before the coup.

Russia has also strategic interests in Myanmar, particularly in the defence sector. As the second largest arms exporter to Myanmar after China, Russia is keen to engage with the junta. If both Russia and China continue to back the junta to protect their economic interests, the influence of the ASEAN to work for stability in Myanmar could considerably diminish.10

Will Intervention by ASEAN Work?

Even while the ASEAN chaired by Brunei is trying to seek a solution to the Myanmar conundrum, there is increasing clamour in the US where Senators are urging the Biden administration to slap more sanctions on the junta targeting the energy sector.11 While the ASEAN grouping’s centrality issue remains a question mark, the organisation did try to find a path for its fellow member. The ASEAN gambled to have a summit in Jakarta on 24 April 2021 and invited General Min Aung Hlaing, sans any civilian representative. General Hlaing did respond and attended the summit meeting but ended without any substantive outcome. Probably, the ASEAN was concerned that it has to take the lead in mediation effort, lest it would expose its limitation further in the eyes of the international community. The junta might have got a false of sense of legitimacy for receiving the invitation to attend the summit, which could further embolden the junta to consolidate its position in Myanmar. The summit organisers should have invited also the civilian representatives in order not to accord a sense of legitimacy to the junta as the sole representative of the government in Myanmar.

Regretfully, ASEAN seems to be divided. While Indonesia and Singapore were willing to mediate, Vietnam feels restrained to take any lead. Brunei, ASEAN chair for 2021, lost the plot as Indonesia took the initiative to host the summit. If the ASEAN wants to take a common position on Myanmar, the spirit of its centrality ought to get primacy of place.12 Whether the summit meeting signifies a measure of forward movement remains unclear as both sides skirted the core issue plaguing Myanmar. The five-point consensus reached at the summit included the visit of a special ASEAN envoy to keep the dialogue going and acceptance of aid but failed to mention political prisoners. Such a move leaves the effectiveness of the ASEAN under question.13

Regarding India, it has own interests and would not rejoice with the prospect of China consolidating its position in Myanmar, and therefore could remain unconvinced to accept the strategy mentioned above. The proposed above stakeholders need to talk with India before expecting any pro-active stance from India. Here, the role of the Quad could help. Since most of the stakeholders subscribe to the concept of Free and Open Indo-Pacific Vision, the foundation of the Quad, an intervention of the Quad to address the Myanmar issue may be relevant. Even here, there are bottlenecks. Since China perceives the Quad with suspicion and sees it as an ‘Asian NATO’, China needs to be convinced to see the larger picture in the interest of long-term regional peace and stability. If the junta wants help, it needs to be ready to accept help when available. If the junta remains stubborn and continues its brutality on its people to remain in power, the country will drift into an abyss. The ball is in the junta’s court.

  1. Natasha Lindstaedt, “Myanmar: Could Defecting Security Forces Bring Down the Military Regime?”, 19 April 2021,
  2. “Myanmar's Aung San Suu Kyi hit with new criminal charge”, 13 April 2021,
  3. Satohiro Akimoto, “Myanmar enters a rapid descent toward its tragic past”, The Japan Times, 19 April 2021,
  4. “China, Russia undermine international Myanmar response, EU’s top diplomat says”, 11 April 2021,
  5. Ibid.
  6. “South Korean steelmaker to end partnership with Myanmar military”, 16 April 2021,
  7. “US and Britain blacklist Myanmar military-controlled companies”, 25 March 2021,
  8. Nehginpao Kipgen, “Myanmar learnt the wrong lessons from Indonesia’s political transition”, 17 March 2021,
  9. Paul Chambers, “Thailand as a model? Why Myanmar military may follow Prayuth’s example”, 7 April 2021,
  10. Chris Cheang, “Russia and Myanmar: Moscow’s Expanding Influence?”, 26 April 2021,
  11. “US senators urge Biden administration to slap more sanctions on Myanmar junta”, The Telegraph, 29 April 2021,
  12. Huong Le Thu, “ASEAN risked too much in inviting Myanmar’s junta leader to summit”, 23 April 2021,
  13. “ASEAN & Myanmar”, The Statesman, editorial, 28 April 2021,

(The paper is the author’s individual scholastic articulation. The author certifies that the article/paper is original in content, unpublished and it has not been submitted for publication/web upload elsewhere, and that the facts and figures quoted are duly referenced, as needed, and are believed to be correct). (The paper does not necessarily represent the organisational stance... More >>

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