Nearly a month has passed since Myanmar’s army chief Min Aung Hlaing shocked the world by seizing power on February 1 from the democratically elected National League for Democracy and the country’s civilian leader, Aung San Suu Kyi. In this issue of Global Impact, we explore the road ahead for Myanmar as it once again stares down the abyss of autocratic rule.
Senior Asia Correspondent
Are the numbers telling? Myanmar’s surprise coup prompts speculation
It’s been reported that the Tatmadaw, as Myanmar’s military is known, picked the time and date of its coup on purpose, in keeping with Senior General Min Aung Hlaing’s supposed obsession with numerology.
The first members of the civilian National League for Democracy (NLD) government were detained from 3am onwards on February 1.
0300 on 02/01/21 adds up to nine – a number considered auspicious in Myanmar. Alas, much of the analysis of Min Aung Hlaing’s thinking is based on such speculation.
Nearly a full month since his shock seizure of power from the NLD’s civilian leader Aung San Suu Kyi, there are few clues on what lies ahead for the Southeast Asian country.
One thing is clear: demonstrators, numbering in the tens of thousands and largely made up of Generation Z citizens, are displaying enthusiasm and invention in their protest methods that have inspired admiration around the world. In Hong Kong, Thailand and Taiwan, pro-democracy activists have been more than happy to induct the Myanmar protesters into their exclusive “Milk Tea Alliance”.
Beyond the civil disobedience movement, much attention has also been on the various diplomatic manoeuvres by Myanmar’s neighbours as well as major powers. For now, Beijing appears to be playing it safe, as it stresses the need for stability without explicitly condemning or legitimising Min Aung Hlaing’s junta. In some ways, the coup is a cursory tale for Chinese firms that have expanded into Southeast Asia without conducting proper risk assessments.
In the United States, Myanmar’s crisis is shaping up to be a bellwether of President Joe Biden’s policy towards Asia, in particular Southeast Asia. Will he pay close attention, or keep his distance, given Myanmar’s relatively marginal importance to US foreign policy?
So far, his administration has indicated it takes a very dim view of the coup, and has unleashed fresh sanctions against Min Aung Hlaing and his top lieutenants. For Myanmar’s immediate neighbours, the diplomatic conundrum arising from the coup is a bit more complicated.
Countries like Singapore and Indonesia are balancing the need to take a tough stance against violence against unarmed protesters with keeping open communication channels with the junta. Singapore, which maintained ties with the former ruling junta from the 1990s until Myanmar’s opening up in 2010, has gone on record to say that widespread sanctions – as recommended by some rights groups – would have an adverse effect on ordinary Myanmar citizens.
Indonesia, meanwhile, has appeared to take a lead role in trying to cajole the Tatmadaw to restore the status quo ante and release Suu Kyi as well as President Win Myint.
It has been an arduous process, with Jakarta taking some flak from anti-coup protesters last week for purportedly suggesting that fresh elections be held. Observers are also paying attention to the actions of other players such as India and Japan, both of which have considerable clout with the Tatmadaw.
Ultimately, there is a growing consensus that the outside world’s influence in determining what comes next is limited. Bilahari Kausikan, the respected former Singaporean senior diplomat, told the Post “nobody regionally or internationally has much leverage and that includes Asean and China”. There was not much that the regional and community could do beyond expressions of concern and “diplomatic scurrying about to give the appearance of action,” he said.