Myanmar: International community weighs up further action, 18 months after military coup

Rebecca L RootThursday 11 August 2022

Eighteen months after Myanmar’s military seized control and arrested then-leader Aung San Suu Kyi, alongside other members of the democratically-elected National Unity Government (NUG), the international community grapples with how to treat the country. As things stand, there’s no sign of an end to the junta’s bloody and contentious rule.

There’s a line between not wanting to legitimise the government and still needing to work with them, says Anjali Dayal, an assistant professor of international politics at Fordham University in New York. Thailand, for example, relies on Myanmar for 14 per cent of its piped gas supply.

Yet, reports of kidnappings and killings by the military have been rife since the coup in February 2021 – over 2,100 people are estimated to have been killed by security forces. In July, there was global outrage after the junta imposed an immediate death penalty for four democracy activists it accused of ‘terror acts’.

‘Rule of law has completely gone out the window with the revised criminal code [section] 505(a) being used to criminalise anyone that the junta wants to go after for whatever reasons, with cases heard before politically controlled courts,’ says Phil Robertson, Deputy Director of Human Rights Watch's Asia Division. He adds that the junta has arrested almost 15,000 people, and currently holds more than 10,000 in detention.

The military, says Melinda Taylor, Co-Chair of the IBA Human Rights Law Committee and counsel in human rights and international criminal law, is ‘amending or promulgating new rules to justify unlawful actions, and cherry picking from existing legislation to create a false veneer of legitimacy to hide their human rights abuses.’

When it comes to an international response, these actions are likely to be enough to prevent people from visiting the country, Dayal says. Myanmar reopened to tourists in April yet governments including Australia, Canada and the UK advise against travelling to the country. This is likely to impact Myanmar’s economic state, as the country generated $2.5bn in tourism revenue in 2019.

While the junta would want to normalise business by selectively promoting their own business community, this needs to be critically reviewed

Satyajit Gupta
Secretary, IBA Asia Pacific Regional Forum

But rather than ruling out travel to Myanmar altogether, Bertie Alexander Lawson, Managing Director of Myanmar-based boutique travel agency Sampan Travel, believes people should consider what impact a visit could have. While money spent on visa fees and the compulsory travel insurance would go to the authorities, hiring a local guide and eating locally would support locals at a time when 14.4 million people are in need of humanitarian assistance.

‘If you’re coming here and spending money on souvenirs, taxis, restaurants and tuk tuks as well as guides, that’s money that’s going to people who really need it,’ says Lawson, who adds that while there is a safety risk, tourists are not a target.

The same thinking around impact should also be applied to overseas business operations in Myanmar, Lawson says.

‘While the junta would want to normalise business by selectively promoting their own business community, this needs to be critically reviewed,’ says Satyajit Gupta, Secretary of the IBA Asia Pacific Regional Forum.

Businesses should assess who they’re working with in Myanmar, where their money is going and the impact they may be having before deciding how to proceed, Lawson says.

In 2021, the US banned business with three of the country’s gem dealers, and British American Tobacco ended its operations in the country. A number of other businesses have made similar moves.

‘No one should be doing business with the State Administration Council junta, its leaders and supporters, or any sort of company or business interest connected with the Myanmar military,’ says Robertson. He calls for renewed efforts that target junta leaders, the military and their business interests and sanction sectors like oil and gas, which the junta derives revenues from.

Aaron Connelly, Senior Fellow for Southeast Asian Politics and Foreign Policy at the International Institute for Strategic Studies, explains that Australia is currently deciding whether to further sanction individual generals, while the Association of Southeast Asian Nations (ASEAN) – of which Myanmar is a member – remains in discussion about further reducing Myanmar’s access to international institutions.

This follows little progress on ASEAN’s ‘Five Point Consensus’ – a plan agreed to by Myanmar's junta chief, Min Aung Hlaing, in April 2021 – which included commitments to end all violence in Myanmar and engage in dialogue to find a solution.

‘It is imperative that the international community does not abandon Myanmar’s people to this legal vacuum but ensures that international human rights and criminal fora are available as mechanisms to provide deterrence and accountability,’ says Taylor.

So far, governments have imposed various sanctions – such as the freezing of assets and banning of certain exports – on individuals within the junta as well as various state-owned and private companies, but this has spurred little change.

International isolation and sanctions aren’t new for Myanmar, explains Susannah Patton, Director of the Southeast Asia Program at the Lowy Institute in Sydney. The military previously ruled between 1962 and 2011, before the NUG came into power, and experienced similar treatment during their earlier rule.

‘The lesson the international community took from that period was that sanctions were largely an ineffective means of responding to the military rule and that created a sense of caution of how sanctions should be used in future,’ says Patton.

But things have changed now, she believes, explaining that the country is less autonomous – which provides an opportunity for leverage. ‘But the generals are generally unresponsive […] because they have a bunker mentality where they think they rode out previous waves of sanctions and isolations.’

However, Patton adds that it’s about sending a message to other countries that if you go down a political path of violence, oppression and overturning democracy these are the consequences.

In 1959, the international community boycotted South Africa diplomatically, politically, economically, tourism-wise and business-wise in response to the country’s apartheid regime. Dayal calls this response the ‘gold standard’ for shaping a country’s behaviour.

The same counter argument existed then, however, as it does now: the average citizen doesn’t have much to do with the operations of the government and sanctions could have an impact on them. But that concerted pressure ended up being a critical factor in changing South Africa’s behaviour, says Dayal.

Civil society, Gupta says, must assure the population of Myanmar that the international community has not abandoned them.

Image credit: mr.nutnuchit phutsawagung/EyeEm/AdobeStock.com

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