How unified resistance efforts within and across borders can help restore democracy in Myanmar

The coup d’état that took place in Myanmar in February this year led to a global outcry as the junta took over the country’s government. But despite massive and enduring citizen-led protests and strong criticism by the international community with accompanying punitive measures, the junta remains in power and continues to arrest and kill citizens. Seohee Kwak in this article argues that resolving the situation requires the Burmese public and foreign actors to work together more concretely and coherently.

Photo: February 8, 2021. REUTERS/Stringer

More than four months have passed since a coup d’état took place in Myanmar on 1 February 2021. The political legitimacy of the junta that staged the coup has been challenged by not only millions of protesting citizens, but also by the international community. For instance, the Association of Southeast Asian Nations (ASEAN) had meetings with junta leaders on 24 April, reaching a so-called five-point consensus which includes the cessation of violence and arrangements for dialogues for a peaceful solution. However, little progress has been made since then, and the military still practices violent repression against the people. By 5 July 2021, more than 6,500 people have been arrested and 892 people have been killed by the junta forces. The number of casualties and detained or arrested people is still on the rise.

Are internal or external pressures insufficient to put an end to this crisis? This article shows that independent actions by citizens from Myanmar and the international community are less likely to have a substantive  effect and that collaboration may produce better outcomes.

Can Burmese citizens stop the violence?

Burmese citizens have taken individual and collective political action rather than choosing to submit to the junta, but they have neither the opportunity to hold the junta to account, nor the political leverage to make the junta yield to democratic principles. The military regime currently maintains control by force with uneven and illegitimate power. However, for the junta leaders, political legitimacy in the eyes of citizens is not currently a top priority, and it therefore does not fear retaliation by citizens through voting in future elections.

As heavy repression has continued, more people have started to resort to more direct confrontation. Pro-democracy and self-defense forces have been formed across the country, and armed resistance movements against the junta have resulted in casualties for the military and the police. Due to the pre-coup oppression of ethnic and religious minority groups lasting decades, armed conflicts between the military and civilian rebel groups have become more intense in several regions where these minorities reside, bringing the country to the brink of a humanitarian emergency. For instance, more than 100,000 inhabitants in Kayah State have had to flee due to military attacks and airstrikes.

Can foreign actors reverse the situation?

Foreign actors have also opposed the junta, but have not been very successful so far due to their fragmented actions. The months-long condemnation of the junta by the international community has reached a point of saturation, and more tangible measures have been implemented:

  • The World Bank and the Asian Development Bank froze their project fund disbursements and implementations in opposition to the junta.
  • Japan, another leading donor to Myanmar, placed development assistance on hold.
  • On 18 June, the United Nations General Assembly adopted a resolution calling for a moratorium on arms transfers to Myanmar.
  • On 21 June, the European Union announced another round of sanctions, mainly travel bans and an asset freeze against key junta leaders and organisations connected with the coup.
  • And in addition to punitive measures by bilateral and multilateral actors, the private sector has also mobilised. International firms, particularly those linked to oil and gas that are key sources of revenue for Myanmar, have suspended dividend payments by a joint venture to the state-owned Myanmar Oil and Gas Enterprise (MOGE) with which the military has allegedly close links.

Foreign actors that are key partners to Myanmar are resorting to a wide range of measures to attempt to sway the junta; these include dialogues, tightened conditions for foreign aid, the freezing of investments, resource/trades embargoes. Yet these actors are not unified. For example, China, despite condemning the current situation, is seemingly calling for stability for strategic and not moral reasons. Similarly, the Beijing-led Asian Infrastructure Investment Bank seems to focus more on how the coup is affecting its own interests and less on the consequences of this form of government for Burmese citizens. And Russia formally refuses to condemn the coup, stating the need to maintain its strategic links with Myanmar. External pressures are therefore fragmented and incoherent.

Unity for greater political leverage

Myanmar’s protesters and foreign actors need to act together to create greater political leverage. Without this, it is very likely that public protests and other forms of resistance will result in ongoing violent repression. Stronger networks with links to international organisations and concrete assistance to the Myanmar citizens fighting for democracy would resonate more strongly with the junta leaders to the extent that they would be hard to ignore. For instance, the provision of technical or financial assistance to Myanmar civil society organisations or groups of activists could encourage them to continue their activities and strengthen their capacities during such a political crisis. At the same time, foreign actors also need to work together more effectively to make a greater impact. When foreign actors shut financial and political doors to the military regime, a key for success is to ensure that there is no other door open for the junta to sneak through. It is not easy, but to prevent further violence and to restore democracy in Myanmar, unity is needed both between Burmese civilians and foreign actors, and among foreign actors.

Opinions expressed in Bliss posts reflect solely the views of the author of the post in question.

About the author:

Seohee Kwak

Seohee Kwak is a PhD candidate at the International Institute of Social Studies (ISS), Erasmus University Rotterdam (EUR). With a geographical interest in the Southeast and East Asian regions, her academic interests include political rights/freedom, political action, public protest, state repression, and state-society relations.


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