Myanmar’s fatal deadlock

GS News
8 min readJun 29, 2021

The increasingly desperate situation triggered the UN General Assembly last week to formally condemn the coup in a resolution calling for an arms embargo against the country. “The risk of a large-scale civil war is real,” Christine Schraner Burgener, the UN special envoy on Myanmar, said after the vote.

Speaking to several diplomatic and humanitarian sources involved in the region, some who preferred not to be named, we have tried to understand the reasons behind the deadlock and the role Switzerland can play.

No end in sight. More than four months since the coup, Myanmar’s military junta still retain their hold on power. The country’s ousted civilian leader Aung San Suu Kyi remains imprisoned in the military town of Naypyidaw. But Myanmar’s citizens continue to take to the streets and protest against the regime, despite brutal crackdowns by security forces who have already killed over 880 civilians and arrested more than 5,000.

The Burmese economy, already weakened by the pandemic and a national health system on the verge of a third wave, has since been paralysed by recurrent strikes. Clashes between the army and ethnic factions have multiplied, undermining an already strained peace process. Locked in its logic and strengthened by its military and economic superiority, the army does not seem ready to compromise, even if it means leading the country to ruin.

“There is a great risk that the country will descend into chaos — a disaster for Myanmar, which has been gradually moving towards peace and democracy for the past 20 years,” laments Léon de Riedmatten, former head of ICRC’s Myanmar delegation for over 20 years.

While it is extremely difficult to make predictions, a series of factors can explain why the crisis persists and why it is likely to continue.

Ineffective sanctions. The international community and Western countries have limited room for manoeuvre in Myanmar, even if some of the population was naively hoping for a military intervention, or even UN peacekeepers.

The US and UK have adopted targeted sanctions to cut the military’s main sources of funding, revenues from its two main conglomerates, MEHL (Myanmar Economic Holding Public Company Ltd) and MEC (Myanmar Economic Corporation), which provide it with huge dividends in almost every sector of the economy. For its part, Bern has aligned itself with Brussels, freezing the assets of the eleven highest-ranking junta officials and sanctioning the two conglomerates. However, China, Russia, India and Vietnam have firmly rejected the sanctions.

A Myanmar-based political analyst who wished to remain anonymous told Geneva Solutions: “Sanctions are effective if they are universal and we are in a situation where some countries have decided not to vote for them.”

The weight of China. Although Yangon has undertaken to diversify its international partnerships since 2012 in order to limit its dependence on China, the two countries remain interdependent. Not only has Beijing invested in all sectors of the Myanmar economy, but it also wants to protect strategic access to the Indian Ocean via the China Myanmar Economic Corridor. The corridor linking Yunnan to the Bay of Bengal allows it to open up access to the Malacca Strait, which is controlled by Singapore and Malaysia.

“In its globalisation project, China cannot do without Myanmar and the military is playing on this,” explained another political observer who wished to remain anonymous.

Three per cent of Myanmar’s population are Chinese, or 1.5 to 2 million nationals. This immigration dates back to the eighteenth century and is coupled with a recent diaspora that is somewhat perceived as a “fifth column” by the Burmese, and which Xi Jin Ping has suggested he would not hesitate to intervene and protect if needed.

The army’s mentality. A true state within a state, the army benefits from 14 per cent of the budget, but also draws its income from a more or less known illicit economy, which is “substantial and necessarily underestimated”, according to the observer. As the head of the three key ministries — Defence, Border and Home Affairs — it also has its own independent financial system that is not very transparent.

“The military has its hands in all the country’s illegal trafficking: human beings, especially women, jade, wood — even if most of it has already been cut down — and drugs. Known to be the world’s opium production centre, Myanmar has more recently been producing met-amphetamine at industrial levels. “

Myanmar also demonstrated its ability to operate in autarky with no international trade from 1962 to 1988, before opening up to foreign investment in all sectors.

A volunteer force mainly recruited from the Bamar Buddhist ethnic group, the army cadres have a traditionalist and xenophobic view of the nation. They live with their families on large bases on the outskirts of the capital, away from the rest of society. Like much of Southeast Asia, they believe in astrology and numerology, which complicates the eventual terms of a dialogue.

“We have many examples of decisions that have been made on the basis of astrological predictions,” explains the observer. “A rather exemplary case is the ‘auspicious’ date of the 2015 elections chosen on the advice of astrologers who assured them of victory. This was completely ignoring the popularity of Aung San Suu Kyi. It shows how disconnected they live from the rest of society, behaving like a mafia that you don’t desert without consequences.”

In this unequal balance of power, however, the army seems to ignore certain changes in Burmese society.

Unexpected resistance. Not only has the population risen en masse and tens of thousands of civil servants and private sector employees gone on strike, but groups of fighters have begun to form using new methods of operation and all the weapons at their disposal.

**”**The military are surprised by the resistance they are facing,” explains Riedmatten. “They thought things would be much easier.”

Some semblance of ‘normal life’ has resumed in the capital, which is no longer shaken by huge protests following the army’s brutal crackdown on demonstrators and the imposition of strict curfews. But incidents of oppositions are still multiplying throughout the country, complicating the task of a junta that must fight on several fronts. The violence has spontaneously triggered the anger of some twenty resistance groups. In May, a real war broke out in the state of Kayah where the army sent in the air force to battle civilian resistance groups. Nearly 100,000 people were displaced by the fighting.

Rebel opportunism. While the Bamar majority has always ignored the struggle of minorities since independence, it is now trying to forge a rapprochement with armed ethnic rebel groups to fight against the military government. Riedmatten:

“A good part of the youth was unaware that there were conflicts in their country and how the army repressed these minorities. By becoming victims themselves, they suddenly realised the cruelty of the military, which makes no difference between an armed man, a civilian or even a child. “

The pro-independence and non-homogeneous minorities, however, are wary of this sudden empathy and are reluctant to join the ranks of the opponents who have always considered them as second-class citizens. The Shan, Karen, Kachin and Mon groups have suffered terrible repressive episodes since 1962 up until the beginning of the peace process in 2012. The ethnic cleansing of the Rohingya Muslims from 2016, led by some of the same figures who now head the military junta, has been widely condemned as genocide throughout the world.

A less docile youth. A little naïve and full of hope, the youth who demonstrated in such numbers seemingly without imagining the possibility of such brutal repression is revealing of the way society has changed. A quarter of the population is now between 15 and 30 years old and the scale of the resistance shows that it will take more than a coup and the arrest of Aung San Suu Kyi to make people accept a return to the past. Riedmatten:

“Thanks to the internet and social networks, young people have seen what is happening elsewhere. They are no longer willing to be governed by such a regime.”

The figure of Aung San Suu Kyi. Even though “The Lady” has failed to deliver on her promises of economic development, ensured a truce for the insurgent states and failed to condemn the massacre of the Rohingya, she remains a talisman for protesters. Dubbed the “foreign witch” by her enemies, Suu Kyi has an almost magical aura that the junta cannot shake off.

“The military can’t manage to kill her literally or figuratively. In fact, one might ask, why haven’t they done so? Do they consider her magic?,” says the observer.

But even if Suu Kyi were to end her days in prison , it could be an opportunity for her party to free itself from an ultra-dominant figure, criticized for her “micro-management”, and see younger profiles emerge like Dr Sasa , the new face of the Democratic camp abroad.

The Swiss position. Of the 150 Swiss citizens usually present in Myanmar, only 60 remain in the country, and most of them are planning to return after the summer, according to Swiss diplomats. Switzerland also has around 50 companies in Myanmar, the largest being Nestlé, Roche, Novartis, Buehler and ABB.

“The general environment with widespread corruption and insufficient rule of law was already unfavorable, but the situation has certainly deteriorated,” explains Tim Enderlin, the Swiss ambassador in Yangon, who has been stationed in the capital since February 2019.

Myanmar’s annual budget for development, humanitarian and peace process assistance amounts to about CHF 37 million per year. Switzerland is currently assessing the sustainability of its programs on the ground, but has stopped all payments to state structures and military authorities.

“This country has been experiencing armed conflicts for more than 70 years and in the current situation there is a real danger that they will escalate,” says Enderlin. “But we continue to provide aid to the most vulnerable populations and are analyzing how to do so without supporting the military authorities either technically or financially. Despite the difficulties, somehow a way must be found to establish a dialogue to stop the violence and find a political solution. “

Switzerland, which has been supporting the democratic process since 2012, shares its experience of federalism, which could be a way out of the impasse in Myanmar, whose population is made up of 68 per cent Bamar and 135 other ethnic groups.

Breaking the deadlock. For some observers, only an implosion within the junta could end the deadlock. Riedmatten:

“There should be doubts within the army about this strategy that is leading the country to economic and social disaster,” says Riedmatten. “The military institution is not homogeneous. But for the moment, we don’t see any signs of this.”

Fragmentation within the junta would not be inconceivable, with international disputes common in the army’s history — in 1988 the then army-general Soe Maung was dismissed out of hand after being branded a “mental patient” by a senior officer. But for now, the junta shows no sign of relinquishing its grip on the country, and the fate of its fragile democracy hangs in the balance.

“How do we get out of this crisis? That’s the million-dollar question, “says the observer. “All sorts of scenarios are possible, but whatever the case the military is part of the problem as well as the solution, because it will not magically disappear. “

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