Are Myanmar’s generals open to persuasion? Depends who’s persuading.

Are Myanmar’s generals open to persuasion? Depends who’s persuading.

Why We Wrote This

Myanmar’s generals have cut short a fitful opening to the world that led to greater connectivity, which in turn offers potential leverage for foreign diplomats.

Soe Zeya Tun/Reuters

A woman cries as she shows the three-finger salute during a prayer ceremony for those who died in Myanmar during anti-coup protests, in front of the United Nations building in Bangkok, Thailand, March 4, 2021.


March 5, 2021

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Foreign powers seeking to rein in Myanmar’s military junta that seized power on Feb. 1 are hoping to leverage the country’s increased connectivity with the rest of Asia. So too are the pro-democracy protesters who braved live gunfire this week to oppose the junta and have built ties with activists across the region. 

For decades, Myanmar’s military rulers preferred isolation to outside engagement. Over the last decade, however, under a semi-civilian government, Myanmar slowly opened up its economy and society. This has created potential leverage points for diplomats who want to steer the country out of its current crisis. 

At the same time, experts caution that Myanmar’s regional integration may be working to stall collective action in the form of economic sanctions on the regime. Instead, Asian capitals want to keep channels open for diplomacy and persuasion; the Association of Southeast Asian Nations, to which Myanmar belongs, has declined to take a proactive stance on the crisis. 

Moreover, the mindset of Myanmar’s military may blunt the effectiveness of punitive measures by the Biden administration and its democratic allies. Targeted sanctions against the generals “can impose a little cost, but most of these guys have spent their entire lives as international pariahs. These are not cosmopolitan leaders,” says Gregory Poling at the Center for Strategic and International Studies.

As Myanmar’s pro-democracy protesters brave gunfire from security forces that killed scores of civilians this week alone, the international community is seeking ways to rein in the military junta that seized power last month.

Potential leverage points to help steer the Southeast Asian country out of the current crisis stem from 10 years of political, economic, and social opening under a semi-civilian government that abruptly ended on Feb 1. The decade of reform had begun to plug Myanmar and its 57 million people into Asia’s dynamic economies after decades of impoverished isolation.

But whether Myanmar’s new connectedness can translate into greater pressure on its military rulers remains an open question, experts say. In fact, resource-rich Myanmar’s regional integration may be working to prevent a tougher public stance toward the coup leaders, as Asian countries want to keep channels open for diplomacy and persuasion.

Regional powers in Southeast Asia, as well as China, Japan, and the United States, have widely differing levels of both influence and political will to persuade the military to return to the democratic path in Myanmar.

Equally if not more important are the ways in which Myanmar’s opening has created new connections between Myanmar’s people – especially the protest movement and civil society – and the rest of the world.       

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“The last 10 years have seen Myanmar open up to the outside world, and that’s created a boom both in incoming investment and trade,” says Gregory Poling, senior fellow for Southeast Asia at the Center for Strategic and International Studies.

“It’s also created a boom in information technology. Everybody now has internet-connected 4G phones; everybody’s on Facebook,” he says. “It’s certainly a different world in Myanmar than it was a decade ago, and the generals are finding that out the hard way as they try to clamp down on these protests, and find that they are much more adaptive and resilient.”

A young generation that came of age enjoying new freedoms and connectivity is now joining the ranks of protesters in Thailand, Hong Kong, and Taiwan, using social media to trade ideas and build solidarity.

A muted statement 

The 10-nation Association of Southeast Asian Nations (ASEAN), which promotes regional integration and diplomacy, has a major stake in ending the crisis in Myanmar, a member state. Yet hampered by internal divisions and institutional paralysis, the regional bloc could only muster a muted statement this week that called for “all parties” in Myanmar to halt violence and begin dialogue.  

“This is a huge headache for ASEAN,” says a Southeast Asia expert who spoke on condition of anonymity due to security concerns. “It’s very difficult for ASEAN to be in the driver’s seat [of the regional agenda] when one member is dragging it down.”

Moreover, ASEAN members oppose broad economic sanctions on Myanmar, arguing they would only hurt ordinary people – and push the regime further toward China, Myanmar’s largest trading partner and its second biggest investor, after Singapore. Japan and Thailand are also major investors.  

Despite growing connectivity, ASEAN “is between a rock and a hard place” on Myanmar, says Mr. Poling. “They worry that if it returns to full-on pariah status, it will become a weight around the neck of the organization,” he says. 

The fear is that sanctions would “back the generals into a corner and make them even more violent and less susceptible to international cajoling,” he says. Instead, ASEAN now seeks to establish itself as a conduit for outside parties to talk to the generals and urge them toward compromise, he says. 

Nevertheless, some investors may be reconsidering their ties to Myanmar. In Singapore, “investors … are beginning to re-evaluate their investments in Myanmar’s economy,” Singapore’s minister for foreign affairs, Vivian Balakrishnan, said in a statement.

Japan, another country with growing economic ties to Myanmar, is also a major aid donor. “Japan might be one of the few actors that has the economic incentives, the leverage on all sides, and the willingness to try to do something about the situation,” says a researcher in Thailand with extensive experience in Myanmar who requested anonymity for security reasons.

For example, Tokyo’s special envoy to Myanmar, Yohei Sasakawa, chairman of the Nippon Foundation, recently helped negotiate a cease-fire between the military and insurgents in the western state of Rakhine, even as political tensions built up after pro-democracy parties swept the November election. 

This level of trust with Myanmar’s generals, including with coup leader Gen. Min Aung Hlaing, offers a potential opening for Mr. Sasakawa and other Japanese envoys to urge the military to restore civilian rule, the researcher says.

Analysts say Japan prefers mediation over punitive economic measures that could isolate Myanmar and push it toward China.

A Chinese sphere of influence? 

For its part, Beijing’s sway in Myanmar is perhaps greater than that of any other country. But the historic mistrust of China among Myanmar’s military leaders and the public – as well as China’s doctrine of non-interference – make it unlikely that China will play a proactive role that goes beyond securing its strategic economic interests in Myanmar.

Beijing “is in a somewhat awkward position” as the result of the coup, said Derek Mitchell, president of the National Democratic Institute and former U.S. ambassador to Myanmar, in a recent podcast.

Above all, China seeks to maintain what it considers a privileged position and sphere of influence in Myanmar, while blunting the involvement of the United States and other Western countries, Ambassador Mitchell says.

Experts stress that a key source of leverage over Myanmar’s coup leaders are the financial interests of top generals who have profited from the country’s opening. “The leverage anyone has is around parochial issues of money and physical security,” says the Southeast Asia expert. “No one should lose sight of that.”

Toward that end, the United States, Britain, Canada, and the European Union have imposed new sanctions on Myanmar’s military leaders. U.S. officials last month blocked a move by Myanmar’s military rulers to move about $1 billion held at the Federal Reserve Bank of New York and put a freeze on the funds, Reuters reported Thursday.

Ultimately, however, the biggest obstacle to military rule is popular support for democratic rule that has flourished over a decade of opening.

Protesters in Myanmar have learned from similar pro-democracy movements in Thailand and Hong Kong, and have built ties with fellow activists – the “Milk Tea Alliance” – to help sustain their effort.

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Targeted sanctions against Myanmar’s military chiefs “can impose a little cost, but most of these guys have spent their entire lives as international pariahs. These are not cosmopolitan leaders,” says Mr. Poling.

“Any influence that the international community – whether it is the U.S. or Japan or Singapore – has is really going to be on the margins. If the protests in the streets get 99% of the way there, the U.S. and Europeans and Japanese can help push it the last 1%.” 

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Mark Sappenfield

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