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By Richard C. Paddock and Rick Gladstone
Western powers have imposed sanctions. Neighboring countries have pleaded with the military to restore democracy. More than 200 human rights groups have called for an arms embargo. And last week, the United Nations General Assembly passed a blunt reprimand aimed at isolating the generals.
Diplomatic pressure has done little to change the situation in Myanmar.
The military dictatorship that now rules the Southeast Asian nation has pushed the pleas and threats aside as the 54 million country races towards paralysis and possibly civil war that could destabilize the region. Confident of impunity following a February 1 coup, the coup plotters pushed diplomacy to the limit.
Not at first. Many people in Myanmar had hoped for intervention by the United Nations or perhaps the United States in the immediate aftermath of the coup, which overturned an election victory for the civilian leadership in November and escalated into brutal repression. Pro-democracy protesters carried signs reading “R2P” or “Responsibility to Protect,” referring to a 2005 United Nations doctrine that affirmed the responsibility of nations to protect the population from such outrageous crimes.
But diplomatic efforts at the United Nations and the Association of Southeast Asian Nations, the 10-nation regional association known as ASEAN, have largely failed.
The country formerly known as Burma was ruled by the military for decades after a coup in 1962, and the generals in charge never really embraced the idea of democracy. The constitution, passed in 2008, paved the way for the election of civilian leaders, but ensured the military’s full autonomy and the right to veto important constitutional changes.
Thant Myint-U, a US-born Burmese historian and grandson of U Thant, the former Secretary-General of the United Nations, wrote in a recent issue of Foreign Affairs that the Myanmar Army’s need for total power is deeply ingrained.
“It is led by an officer corps that Myanmar cannot imagine where the military is ultimately out of control,” he wrote.
The coup leader, Senior General Min Aung Hlaing, appears to have secured vital allies – China and Russia – who are isolating Myanmar from any intervention. The general also oversees a powerful patronage network built around two military-owned conglomerates and his family’s businesses. A democratic system could endanger them.
The United Nations Security Council, the 15-member body empowered to take coercive measures, has expressed only mild criticism since the coup, which at least in part reflects opposition to anything stronger in China and Russia. Chinese diplomats recently named General Min Aung Hlaing as the leader of Myanmar. He was also treated well on a visit to Russia this week.
Human rights defenders have expressed despair over the failure of the Security Council in Myanmar.
“The Council’s occasional expressions of concern about the military’s violent repression of largely peaceful protesters are the diplomatic equivalent of a shrug and walking away,” said Louis Charbonneau, UN director of Human Rights Watch, last month as he met more than 200 others Groups are calling for the Council to impose an arms embargo.
The General Assembly on Friday passed a resolution condemning the coup, an extremely rare gesture partly due to Security Council inaction, and was viewed as a success by Western diplomats who said Myanmar’s military was now outlawed.
But the language of the resolution was toned down to allow for more yes votes – and even then 36 countries abstained. Analysts said the vote would likely not encourage the junta to negotiate with their domestic opponents.
Nonetheless, Richard Gowan, the UN director of the International Crisis Group, said the resolution was “at least a clear signal of international disapproval of the coup and will make it difficult for the junta to normalize its relations with the outside world.”
ASEAN, which also includes Myanmar, has tried to mediate. But his efforts have served General Min Aung Hlaing more in consolidating his authority than in restoring democracy.
The military takeover forced ASEAN to call a meeting in April to which they invited General Min Aung Hlaing.
ASEAN does not interfere in the internal affairs of its members and has not officially recognized the general as the new leader of Myanmar. But his arrival on the red carpet for the meeting, held in Jakarta, the Indonesian capital, was repeatedly touted by the Myanmar state media in recognition of his leadership.
Strikingly, ASEAN has not invited anyone to represent the ousted leadership, which is now called the Government of National Unity, or anyone from the pro-democracy movement.
The heads of state and government agreed on a so-called “five-point consensus”, which includes an immediate end to the violence, a constructive dialogue to find a peaceful solution and the appointment of an ASEAN special envoy to facilitate the mediation.
While member states Indonesia, Malaysia and Singapore pushed for ASEAN to take decisive action, Thailand resisted tough measures, said Aaron Connelly, a research fellow at the International Institute for Strategic Studies in Singapore. (Thailand’s government is led by a former general who came to power in a 2014 coup.)
The consensus did not mention the release of political prisoners, now numbering over 5,000, including the country’s elected civilian leader, Daw Aung San Suu Kyi. Ordinarily, Ms. Aung San Suu Kyi would have attended such a meeting.
ASEAN has yet to name the special envoy. So far, the main result of ASEAN’s diplomatic efforts has been to damage its own credibility. Protesters in Myanmar burned the ASEAN flag during demonstrations.
The winners of the November elections were due to be sworn in on February 1st. But that morning soldiers swept through the capital, Naypyidaw, and arrested many of the elected officials. Some who have fled have since formed the National Unity Government, which declared itself the legitimate government of Myanmar.
Myanmar’s ambassador to the United Nations, U Kyaw Moe Tun, who refused to cooperate with the junta, now represents the government of national unity. While the world organization continues to regard him as Myanmar’s ambassador, no country has officially recognized the government of national unity.
In a departure from Ms. Aung San Suu Kyi’s position, the National Unity Government has forged alliances with armed ethnic groups that have long been fighting the Myanmar military. And in a move that could win the support of Western countries, the Government of National Unity has called for an end to discrimination in the country. and that the Rohingya receive full citizenship. The persecuted Muslim minority was targeted by the military in a ruthless ethnic cleansing campaign that forced more than 700,000 people to flee to Bangladesh.
Finding diplomacy pointless, the National Unity Government has also formed an army that has carried out small attacks on pro-military targets, increasing the prospect of a protracted civil war in Myanmar.
Christine Schraner Burgener, the UN special envoy for Myanmar, who was repeatedly banned from visiting, warned of increasing violence after the recent vote before the General Assembly. “Time is of the essence,” she said. “If we look back 10 years from now, we shouldn’t regret missing an opportunity to get this country back on the road to democracy.”