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Foreign Affairs, Defence and
On 1 February 2021 the Myanmar military (also known as the
Tatmataw) launched a coup against the civilian government, declaring the
results of the November 2020 general election invalid and instating a one-year
state of emergency. State Counsellor Aung San Suu Kyi and other senior officials
of the governing National League for Democracy (NLD) party were arrested on the
grounds of widespread fraud in the general election—which the NLD won with a
large majority— and mass communications were mostly cut.
The military takeover occurred just hours before the newly
elected parliament was scheduled to convene, destroying hopes of democratic
progress in the country.
Military authorities initially charged Suu Kyi with
illegally importing communication devices, among other charges, and President Win
Myint with violating pandemic-related protocols. Suu Kyi’s trial commenced in mid-June
over what observers believe are ‘bogus’ charges of sedition—an attempt by the
eliminate her as a political force, erase the country’s democratic gains
and cement the military’s power’.
Australian Sean Turnell, who was working as an adviser to
the Myanmar Government, has been detained since 6 February and will face
charges of breaching the Official State Secrets Act. Turnell, Suu Kyi and a
number of other defendants will face
court without legal representation.
The Myanmar military ruled the country between 1962 and
2011, when the military implemented some democratic reforms that began a
transition back to
civilian rule. Prior to the coup Myanmar was governed by a power-sharing
arrangement between the civilian government and the military, under the 2008
constitution. The arrangement ensured that the military never fell under
civilian control, reserving 25 per cent of parliamentary seats, three key
ministerial portfolios (defence,
interior and border security) and one of the vice-president posts for the
The military expected this arrangement to preserve its
dominance in politics, but the November 2020 elections showed that the
equilibrium had shifted. The ruling civilian National League for Democracy increased
its majority in the polls, while the military-aligned Union Solidarity and
Development Party (USDP)—formed in 2010 to contest the first elections under
the new constitution, which it duly won—had its worst-ever showing.
In the weeks leading to the coup, army chief Min Aung Hlaing
expressed growing support for the USDP’s claims of electoral fraud. The
electoral commission has found no
evidence to support these claims.
The military takeover sparked nationwide protests that saw
hundreds of thousands take to the streets. Peaceful demonstrations over the
first weeks quickly evolved into lethal clashes as the military began a brutal
crackdown, arresting elected leaders, civilian officials, protest leaders and
journalists, and firing live ammunition at unarmed protesters. As at June, at
least 887 people are estimated to have been killed and more than 6,000
arrested since the coup.
The army’s attacks have mobilised broad civil disobedience
and guerrilla-style armed resistance, while clashes between the military and newly
formed civilian armed groups threaten to engulf the country in ‘a
new kind of civil war’. Escalating violence has forced
an estimated 230,000 people to flee their homes. Humanitarian conditions
and food insecurity are worsening, the economy is deteriorating and internet
access is almost non-existent. The UN has warned that half
of Myanmar’s population, about 25 million people, could fall below
the national poverty line by 2022.
Observers believe the extent of the protests has taken the
army by surprise. While struggling to impose law and order the army is showing
no signs of retreating, however, and it is feared that further
crackdowns on civilian dissent will continue.
The military claims the coup was legal
under the constitution, which allows it to
assume emergency powers at a time of national crisis. Addressing the nation on
2 February, the junta used the election commission’s failure to resolve the electoral
disputes, which it argued ‘violated
the Constitution and could lead to a “disintegration of national solidarity”’,
as a pretext for the takeover. The military has said it will hold ‘free
and fair’ elections once the state of emergency is over.
The opposition National Unity Government (NUG) was created
in mid-April by former members of the National League for Democracy (NLD) government
and representatives of some ethnic minority parties to coordinate opposition to
the coup and create a point of focus for international
support and recognition against the junta. The NUG has been labelled
a terrorist organisation by the military government and on 22 April the
junta announced that all 24 of the group’s Cabinet ministers and deputy
ministers had been charged with treason and unlawful association.
The coup has drawn international condemnation and sanctions,
but Myanmar’s military has historically proven ‘remarkably
impervious to international influence’ and is likely to ignore this pressure.
The Tatmadaw views itself as the protector of the nation, with
both ‘an obligation and
entitlement’ to rule. The prospect of growing democratic control and
accountability as a result of the NLD’s sweeping victory in the November 2020
elections likely threatened
the military’s considerable business interests as well as its political
influence, convincing the army that the constitution was ‘no
longer a sufficient bulwark’. General Min Aung Hlaing was due to retire in
July this year, and the coup is thought to prolong his power and patronage
network, which include lucrative family businesses.
Fresh elections are also thought to provide Min Aung Hlaing a possible
route to the presidency—a long-held ambition of the army chief—if the USDP
were to win a third of the seats. Min Aung Hlaing has previously attracted
international condemnation for his alleged role in the military’s attacks on
Myanmar occupies a geographically
and politically strategic position in Southeast Asia, and its stability is
of international concern.
Most Western countries have condemned
the military takeover. The US,
and the EU
have imposed new sanctions on military officials, while the United
Nations Secretary-General António Guterres said the coup was a ‘serious
blow to democratic reforms’.
The United Nations 15-member Security Council has adopted several
on Myanmar, condemning the use of violence against peaceful protesters and
calling on the military to restore the democratic transition, but has yet to
explicitly condemn the coup or authorise an arms embargo. This is almost
certainly due to veto by China, among other countries.
On 18 June the UN General Assembly adopted a resolution
(non-binding, unlike the Security Council) condemning the army’s takeover and
excessive and lethal violence against protesters, and calling for an arms
embargo and the release of arbitrarily detained officials and politicians. A
total of 119 countries voted for the resolution and 36 abstained, reflecting
broad international consensus against the coup.
Nations is widely seen to have a poor record of engagement in Myanmar, with a number of failed missions in the decades after the
1988 uprising, ‘largely fruitless’ human rights rapporteurs, and silence over
the ‘repression of Rohingya leading up to the atrocities and mass exodus of
While China has adopted its traditional stance of
non-interference in regard to the coup, it has backed calls for the release of Aung
San Suu Kyi and called for a return to democratic norms, claiming it was not happy about the coup.
Myanmar shares its longest border with China, which holds considerable
influence over the ethnic armed organisations along Myanmar’s borders. China
is Myanmar’s largest trading partner and investor and has traditionally
defended Myanmar in the face of international pressure, particularly from the United
States. It is seen as playing a vital role in any resolution of the conflict.
East Asian countries have
taken a softer line than some Western countries
against the junta, mindful of the need
to deal with China in the region. Few countries in the region have imposed sanctions, preferring to allow
ASEAN’s non-confrontational diplomacy to take the lead on resolving the crisis.
Japan has called for democracy to be restored in
Myanmar, adopting an approach described as ‘a middle road between the “distant” Western states that
prioritise human rights and democracy and the “local” Asian states that
prioritise stability and development’.
ASEAN countries are gravely concerned
with the security, political and economic implications of Myanmar’s coup,
which has heightened the risk of humanitarian crises, transnational crime and
corruption, economic losses, and unstable international relations in the region.
Australia has joined a chorus of international
calls for ASEAN
to lead efforts to pressure the Tatmadaw
into ending the violence against protesters and to put Myanmar back on a
democratic track. As the primary forum for cooperation in Southeast Asia,
ASEAN’s actions regarding Myanmar are seen as a key test of its leadership in
Indonesia and Malaysia were leading forces behind ASEAN’s 24
April summit on the Myanmar situation—the first
coordinated international meeting to diffuse tensions in the country. The
summit reached agreement with Min Aung Hlaing on five points, although there
has been little
progress on the points to date:
- ending violence
- fostering constructive dialogue among all parties
- appointing a special ASEAN envoy
- delivering humanitarian aid and
facilitating the ASEAN special envoy’s visit to
Human rights groups and protest leaders were disappointed
with the outcome of the meeting, claiming that it legitimised the coup and
of the Myanmar people. Myanmar’s National Unity Group argued that ASEAN’s
principle of consensus decision-making ‘has
effectively allowed Myanmar’s military junta to veto any official contact
between ASEAN and opponents of the military’. Observers have also noted
that the five points did not include a call for the junta to honour the outcome
of the 2020 elections, nor the release of those arbitrarily detained. From
ASEAN’s point of view, however, insisting on a ‘space at the table’ for the NUG
would be ‘a
sure way to grind all diplomatic efforts to a halt’.
ASEAN’s consensus-based approach makes any unanimous action
against Myanmar difficult. The largely Muslim nations of Indonesia and Malaysia
have been the most willing to speak out against the Myanmar coup, but Thailand,
Cambodia, Laos and Vietnam have largely followed China’s lead in treating the
issue as internal to Myanmar. ASEAN’s public
criticism of Myanmar, mild as it is, and its call for a summit on what is
primarily a domestic political crisis has therefore been viewed as unusual for
Some commentators doubt ASEAN’s capacity to help restore
democracy in Myanmar. A New
York Times report noted that some ASEAN countries, including Singapore
and Thailand, ‘have close business ties with Myanmar and its military,[…] which
owns two of the country’s largest conglomerates’. ASEAN’s efforts to ‘gut’
a UN statement on Myanmar by demanding the General Assembly drop calls for
an arms embargo against the junta and remove references to human rights abuses
by the military were reportedly led by Singapore, which has argued that
hurt the Myanmar people.
The New York Times report also noted that Laos,
Thailand and Vietnam sent representatives to the Tatmadaw’s Armed Forces Day
celebration on 27 March—the day security forces killed at least 160 protesters
in the ‘largest
single-day killing spree since the coup’. Some
ASEAN members may be reluctant to speak out on human rights issues because of
their own violations, the report suggests, citing the Philippines’ killing
of thousands in its war on drugs and Vietnam’s practice of imprisoning
dissidents for long periods.
While ASEAN remains the key forum where channels of
communication remain open with senior Myanmar officials, its ongoing
failure to take action against the junta is eroding hopes that it can broker a
solution to the crisis. Asia-Pacific analyst Greg Earl contends that the time for international intervention on Myanmar is still some
way off, noting that ‘it
would be difficult to implement a no-fly zone or to stage an intervention – humanitarian
or otherwise – without the cooperation of neighbouring countries’.
its defence agreement with Myanmar in March in response to the mounting
violence, but has not announced any new sanctions following the 1 February coup.
an arms embargo and other restrictions against individuals in the ruling junta
in response to the failure of
the Myanmar Government to recognise the victory of the National League for
Democracy in the 1990 elections. Australia
lifted some sanctions in 2012 after democratic reforms were initiated by the
government of President Thein Sein, but retained an arms embargo due to
concerns about ongoing armed conflict, weapons proliferation and human rights.
In 2018 the Australian Government imposed new targeted financial sanctions
and travel bans on five members of the Myanmar military in response
to the UN Fact-Finding Mission on Myanmar report which documented human rights
abuses against ethnic minorities, committed primarily by Myanmar’s military.
The Government has so far rejected
calls to impose tougher sanctions on the military regime in response to the
February coup, despite the deteriorating situation in the country and the
ongoing detention of Australian adviser Sean Turnell. Foreign Minister Marise
Payne has argued that additional sanctions could
limit Australia’s influence on the military leaders, preferring to support
ASEAN-led solutions instead. Australia’s approach is consistent with all other
countries in the region, including Japan, India, South Korea and the ASEAN
Human rights advocates have pointed out that the US,
UK and EU have stronger sanctions than Australia on individuals and
organisations in Myanmar. Australia would normally be expected to follow
the lead of its friends and allies, which have ‘prohibited dealings with
businesses controlled by Myanmar’s military, and targeted key junta officials
and their families through asset freezes and travel bans’.
Nicholas Coppel, Australia’s Ambassador to Myanmar from
2015–2018, is one of a number of commentators who have questioned
the Government’s approach, arguing that although sanctions may have little
effect on the military leaders they have more than symbolic value, particularly
for the Myanmar people who are looking to the international community to articulate
norms of behaviour and support their struggle.
In a March
statement the Government confirmed that Australia’s aid program to Myanmar
would continue but would be re-directed to the ‘immediate humanitarian needs of
the most vulnerable and poor including the Rohingyas and other ethnic
minorities’, and delivered through non-government organisations.
On 23 June the Joint Standing Committee on Foreign Affairs,
Defence and Trade tabled an interim report, Australia’s
Response to the Coup in Myanmar. The report provides an overview of the
diplomatic options available to Australia to ‘positively influence developments
in Myanmar’. Among its recommendations are calls for Australian engagement with
the legitimately-elected representatives of Myanmar (the NUG); further consideration
of sanctions against senior figures in the Tatmadaw, as well as a global arms
embargo; and the exploration of pathways to permanent residency for Myanmar
nationals in Australia.
Conflict and ethnicity
Myanmar has endured similar crackdowns on civilian protests
inflicted by the Tatmadaw in the past, including the 1988 suppression of
student-led pro-democracy protests that resulted in at least
three thousand killed and the birth of the NLD opposition party. But
analysts fear that this time the ‘glue
that has long held the fractured country together is coming unstuck’. The coup
has unleashed a wave of violence across the country that the army has been
unable to bring under control. In the last few months fighting has flared
between the junta and ethnic minority armies as a ‘new
generation of pro-democracy fighters’ attacked military positions and
administrative offices across the country.
The International Crisis Group (ICG) has argued that Myanmar
at the brink of state collapse: the banking system is at a ‘virtual
standstill’; supply chains are broken and markets are no longer functioning as
they should; the health system has collapsed; and much of Myanmar’s natural
wealth ‘is in the hands of unregulated actors’, threatening an explosion of
criminal activity. Save the
Children has reported
that 103 schools and other education facilities were attacked and many
damaged by explosives in May this year, as armed forces occupied schools and
university campuses. In the Irrawaddy region, reports have emerged of military-appointed
administrators placing pressure on villagers to form a people’s army, or pay a
tax. With the military showing no sign of backing
down, observers fear that resistance
throughout the country may continue indefinitely, and that Myanmar may be headed
towards prolonged civil conflict.
The roots of this violence can be found in Myanmar’s
troubled history of political and ethnic conflict, and what the ICG has described as
Myanmar is home
to some of the longest-running armed conflicts in the
world, some of which date
back over 70 years. The country has more than 20 ethnic armed
organisations and hundreds, if not thousands, of armed militias, both for and
against the state. The conflicts are
based on ‘deeply engrained’ notions of ethnicity that have come to dominate
Myanmar’s political, economic and social life, driven by ‘a competitive, zero-sum dynamic among minority groups’.
Thant Myint-U reminds us that ‘Myanmar is a colonial creation’. The legacy of British rule was
a highly unequal system of governance that exploited the country’s immense
ethnic diversity through divide-and-rule policies. Since its independence in
1948 Myanmar’s leaders have perpetuated these divisions, building a national identity
based on the notion of a Burmese-speaking Buddhist race. The majority Burmans, who
comprise around two-thirds of the population, enjoy
a privileged position in society and hold the majority of government and
military positions. Ethnic minorities have been subjected to systemic
discrimination and exclusion from full participation in political and economic
life, lack of development in their regions, and suppression at the hands of the
failure to protect communities or address their grievances has increased
the mistrust of those in power and driven a large number of ethnic groups to
take up arms. These groups are ‘both for and against the state, and both allied with or acting against
armed groups representing rival ethnicities’:
As a result,
ethnically diverse areas of the country such as northern Shan State today
have a patchwork of ethnicity-based armed groups, each fighting both for their
communal rights and to protect their own economic rents. Ethno-nationalism is
at the core of all these groups, a characteristic that often sets them against
moves toward greater political liberalisation since 2011 have only reinforced
the links between ethnicity, conflict and national identity, and Myanmar now
has hundreds of powerful non-state armed groups around most of its periphery,
creating ‘a literal arms race among minority groups’.
The Tatmadaw has been the ‘self-appointed
guardian of this ethno-nationalism’. Its
ability to ‘blur the boundaries between civilian and military authority’ has ensured
the military has widespread powers even under civilian rule. Commentators argue
that the military has, moreover, successfully ‘indoctrinated
or intimidated its members into believing in their own privileged status within
Myanmar’s society’, and faced with widespread opposition, will ‘fall back on
the only strategy it knows: the use of violence with impunity’.
What comes next?
For Thant Myint-U, Myanmar is at ‘a
point of no return’: the army’s coup was meant to ‘surgically shift power’
within the existing constitutional framework, but it has instead ‘unleashed a
revolutionary energy that will be nearly impossible to contain’:
The junta could partially consolidate its rule over the
coming year, but that would not lead to stability. Myanmar’s pressing economic
and social challenges are too complex, and the depth of animosity toward the
military too great, for an isolated and anachronistic institution to manage. At
the same time, the revolutionaries will not be able to deal a knockout blow
Myint-U contends that Myanmar will inevitably become a
failed state, with a crumbling economy, ‘skyrocketing’ poverty, a collapsed
health care system, and intensifying transnational crime and armed violence. The
key task for Myanmar is to shorten this period as much as possible, protect the
most vulnerable, and begin building a fairer and more prosperous society.
The military’s brutal actions appear to be uniting
previously divided groups, with reports that ‘for the first time since some
students took up arms after the bloody suppression of an uprising in 1988,
Bamars [Burmans] are joining ethnic rebels in their war against the army’.
In a notable move, the NUG has extended eligibility for citizenship to the Rohingya,
removing ethnicity as a requirement for citizenship in Myanmar and overturning ‘decades of consensus on the Muslim ethnic minority’. Until this point, the NUG and its
leader Aung San Suu Kyi shared ‘a
similar ethnonationalist worldview’ with the military, both ‘believing that
the Western reaction to the Rohingya expulsions was unfair’.
Crisis Group’s Richard Horsey agrees that the coup has not succeeded, observing that the
army’s actions ‘may be creating a
situation where the country becomes ungovernable’. But he sees some hope in the
Myanmar people’s response:
… in the midst of
all this horror, the transformative nature of the resistance against the
military has to be acknowledged and applauded. A new generation of political
action has emerged that has transcended old divisions and old prejudices, and
gives great hope for a future Myanmar that embraces, and is at peace with, its
In his briefing
to the UN Security Council on the 1 February coup, Horsey acknowledged that
there are few courses of action likely to have much impact on the junta but
proposed a number of measures for the council to consider, with the aim of
signalling international opposition to the coup and supporting those resisting
- ‘Unequivocal Council backing’ for the role of the UN Special
Envoy, ASEAN and other regional actors, to express clear opposition to the coup
and subsequent state violence, and to warn ‘the military that the trajectory
they are on risks catastrophic state collapse’. These channels can help
identify opportunities for future diplomacy and mediation.
- Consideration of coercive measures such as an embargo on arms and
other agreed prohibited items (for example, technologies for surveillance), and
the imposition of targeted economic sanctions. In the absence of a UN embargo,
like-minded countries could agree on a framework for states to coordinate
restrictions on Myanmar.
Opinion is divided on whether sanctions could be effective
against the junta, with some arguing that they are at best worthless and others
contending that carefully applied, they can make a difference. It is unlikely
that countries in the region will respond with targeted sanctions or an
arms embargo. Even without the region’s support for sanctions there is much
that can be done to financially isolate Myanmar’s junta, it has been argued, including
putting pressure on multinational companies with links to military companies in
Myanmar and suspending all payments to the regime.
Joint Standing Committee on Foreign Affairs, Defence and Trade, Department
of Foreign Affairs and Trade annual report
2019–20, Myanmar, Official
Committee Hansard, 13 April 2021, p. 4.
R Goldman, ‘Myanmar’s
coup and violence, explained’, The New York Times, 24 April
A 2019 UN report concluded
that business revenues helped
the Myanmar military to carry out human rights abuses with impunity.
Australian Associated Press, ‘Military
returns fire over resolution’, The Canberra Times, 20 June
There is little evidence to suggest China had prior knowledge of the coup.
Commentators point out that China had a good
relationship with the civilian government that was overthrown in February
and that ‘geopolitically,
“China is the biggest loser from this coup”’, and is unlikely to welcome
the return of military rule in the country due to its destabilising effects,
including on major Chinese-backed projects.
Zeyar Oo, ‘Myanmar’s
five Ms: misunderstanding, mistrust, misinterpretation, misconception and
mistreatment’, The Strategist, 17 February 2020.
P Strefford, ‘Japan’s
response to the coup in Myanmar’, East Asia Forum, 17 April 2021.
Myanmar as a member in 1997, despite international pressure not to do so.
Becoming a member of ASEAN is seen by some to have contributed to the opening up
of the country.
Australia’s Defence Cooperation Program (DCP) with Myanmar included dialogue
on strategic priorities, assistance in aviation safety, peacekeeping, and a
range of non-combat related training. In 2020–21 its budget estimate
was $361,000. In comparison, the 2020–21 budget for Australia’s DCP with
Indonesia was $7.1 million, and for the Philippines around $9 million.
For further background on international sanctions against Myanmar, see C Hill,
domestic reforms and international responses’, Background note,
Parliamentary Library, Canberra, 22 May 2012.
International Crisis Group, Identity
crisis: ethnicity and conflict in Myanmar, report no. 312, 28 August
Thant Myint-U, ‘Myanmar’s
coming revolution’, Foreign Affairs, July/August 2021.
According to the US
Council for Foreign Relations, ‘Since independence, discrimination has
been ingrained in Myanmar’s laws and political system. For example,
citizenship is largely based on ethnicity. The 1982 Citizenship Law states that
only members of ethnic groups that lived in Myanmar before 1823, when the
British first occupied parts of the country, are full citizens. This has
rendered hundreds of thousands of lifelong Myanmar residents and members of
entire minority groups, particularly the Rohingya, effectively stateless’.
International Crisis Group, Identity crisis: ethnicity and conflict in
Myanmar, op. cit.
D Mitchell, ‘The
looming catastrophe in Myanmar’, Foreign Affairs Today,
15 April 2021.
Thant Myint-U, ‘Myanmar’s coming revolution’, op. cit.
A Hodge, ‘Civilian
armies take resistance to the streets’, The Australian, 22 June
Htwe Htwe Thein and M Gillan, ‘Sanctions
against Myanmar’s junta have been tried before. Can they work this time?’ The
Conversation, 22 June 2021.
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