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Can Myanmar break this cycle of tyranny? An Interview with former UN Assistant Secretary General Charles Petrie

Anna Tan

Alumnus, Department of War Studies

10 February 2021

Alumnus Anna Tan spoke with Charles Petrie regarding the recent developments in Myanmar. Charles Petrie OBE is a former Assistant Secretary General of the United Nations. From 2003-2007, he served as the UN Humanitarian and Resident Coordinator in Myanmar. He has had a long distinguished and decorated career in the United Nations in several fragile/failing states across the world in the field of peacebuilding, humanitarianism and human rights.

Anna Tan (AT): Could you give us a brief history of your career, and how it led to your role as a Resident Coordinator for the UN in Myanmar?

Charles Petrie (CP): Initially I worked with the UN on the humanitarian side of its interventions. I served as the Head of the UN emergency team in Sudan, then in Somalia as a senior humanitarian advisor, I was the Deputy UN Humanitarian Coordinator in Rwanda during the genocide, and later served as the senior UN official responsible for initiating and maintaining contacts with the different rebel movements in the Democratic Republic of the Congo. This came before I was named the Resident Coordinator for Myanmar in 2003. But my involvement on the humanitarian side of the UN has actually always been very political. Ultimately, everything is about politics. Humanitarian emergencies are many times a result of political crises. The attempt to separate politics from humanitarian needs is a false distinction. Since everything is about politics, it is only really a question of approaching the dilemma from different angles. The humanitarian angle is a needs-based perspective coming from the victim’s point of view and the political angle comes from trying to approach the problem from the perspective of the perpetrators. Granted a simplistic summation, but not too far from the truth.

AT: You have been in UN missions in many other fragile states and conflict zones. Which countries do you feel Myanmar’s democratic struggles do you feel are comparable to?

CP: There are very few contexts as complicated as Myanmar. It is an overlay of multiple dimensions. There is the economic development dimension (much of it under the control of cronies, warlords and international criminal networks), the xenophobic nation-building dimension (very strong anti-Muslim sentiments), the insurgency peace dimensions (ethnic armed organisations or EAOs, some even with strong economic interests), the democratic aspiration dimension (not always attuned to the aspirations of the ethnic groups), the elitist domination dimension (a Bamar-Buddhist elite with paternalistic tendencies towards the rest of the people) and they are all overlaid upon one another. There is a lack of general consensus about what should be the make-up of the country, or better put there have never been real opportunities to find one. It has been interesting to observe over time that the democratic dimension is not always atuned to the struggle of the ethnic groups; as seen by the mutual silence of each at different points of time, on the one hand the silence of the Ethnic Armed Organisations during the Saffron Revolution of 2007, and then the non-involvement of the democracy movement in the subsequent peace processes.

Myanmar today is a fundamentally different country. And the new dimension in Myanmar is the youth and their access to social media. These young people have followed what the rest of the world has been facing since 2012, places like Algeria, Belarus, Bolivia, Chili, Egypt, France, Georgia, Haiti, Hong Kong, Indonesia, Iraq, Lebanon, Sudan, Thailand, Ukraine and even the US - to name but a few. Many of these protests are led by the young and fueled by their use of social media and that is the new phenomenon that we are now seeing emerge clearly in the Myanmar equation. The chief General, Min Aung Hlaing, who staged the coup must have thought that he could go back to the 1990 playbook. He is wrong. The Myanmar of today no longer has much in common with the closed and isolated Myanmar of the 1990s.

The coup today is a clear overreach by the military. It is as if General Min Aung Hlaing was copying the Trump response to contesting elections. Though unsuccessful in staging one in the US, in Myanmar the coup was the result of the frustrated ambitions of one individual, General Min Aung Hlaing, who then perverted the system to achieve his goal. Rather than deal with the substance of any eventual electoral problems, an alternative narrative was fabricated and it was used to justify the coup. As already said, the Tatmadaw has gone back to the same old playbook believing that it can once again easily pull it off, but the young of today are not like the young yesterday. They have been inspired by the other peaceful revolts around the world.

AT: Myanmar has gone through so much since the democratic reforms in 2011. For most of the post-independence era, it has been under dictatorship than not. The recent coup reminds us about the brief democratic government in the 1950s that surrendered into a coup d’etat in 1962, while some say that this reminds us about the 1988 popular uprisings and the abrogation of the 1990 election results. Do you think there is ever a way out of this cycle of totalitarianism and democracy?

CP: As already mentioned, there are some significant differences between today and the 1990s. Myanmar went through a significant awakening under President Thein Sein. It wasn’t necessarily because he was such an enlightened leader, but he was a smart figure. He had seen the suffering of the Myanmar people during Nargis, it had affected him. And then he saw how much Myanmar could benefit by opening up and the good will that it could draw from doing so. I think Daw Aung San Suu Kyi (ASSK), the democracy icon who won the elections in 2015, by refusing to build on what Thein Sein had done, has to some extent ended up forfeiting the opportunity provided to the country by the President. Basically, all progress that had been achieved by that time ground to a halt when ASSK won the elections.

It may sound naïve, but I wouldn’t be surprised if the change comes from within the military itself. Sooner or later senior officers will realise that they had never had it so good before the coup, and they have now thrown it all away to satisfy the ambition of one individual.

Of course, I am absolutely not saying that the situation that existed before the elections was in any way satisfactory. Definitely not for the people, but clearly for the Tatmadaw. With their 25% veto presence in the Parliament, the Tatmadaw retained the ability to block any attempt to change the constitution. The way the international community was bound to the implementation of Nationwide Ceasefires provided the cover the Tatmadaw needed to continue reinforcing their positions in the areas under the control of the armed ethnic groups who had signed them. Large scale military operations were even launched against those groups that refused to sign the ceasefires, predominantly in Arakan, Kachin and Shan without it raising too much protest from the international community. Daw Aung San Suu Kyi had even defended the indefensible with the Tatmadaw’s campaign against the Rohingya. In the process the Lady was no longer the icon she once was. 

AT: When you say change in the military, do you mean like in Portugal with the Carnation Revolution in the 1970s?

CP: Yes, absolutely! Like Portugal with the Carnation Revolution! It is not inconceivable that the younger generation of officers in the Tatmadaw say that they have had enough of the fighting and the violence. It is what we should all be hoping for.

After all, the only person who has anything to gain from this coup is the chief general who hopes to be the president. Everybody else in the Tatmadaw loses. But this has to happen quickly. And initially the international community has to protect the space for this to happen. It would be a grave mistake for the international community to return to the old western playbook of sanctions. In any case, many individuals have already had sanctions applied to them in response to the Rohingya tragedy. It is difficult to see what new ones can be introduced that would have impact without ending up hurting the people and reinforcing General Min Aung Hlaing’s hold on the Tatmadaw.

AT: Is the majoritarian composition of the military part of the problem?

CP: Yes, you are right to notice that. The military is in control of this Bamar-Buddhist elite, a group with which Daw Aung San Suu Kyi has many affinities. It is the chief general of the military, with whom ASSK has problems. Their main difference is that the chief general wants to control the country with the army under his control, while Daw Aung San Suu Kyi wants to govern the country with the army under civilian (or her) control. But they do share this similar [majoritarian] vision of the domination of Myanmar by the same elites.

AT: If peace were to take shape, should the composition be reshuffled?

Yes, the military should be more diverse and should be representative of the national population. The problem now is that both the civilian state and the military are in the hands of the same, majoritarian elite. I think democracy were it to ever take shape has to be completely rethought and rejigged in a way that it is no longer completely in the hands of an elite.


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AT: In Congo, I have read that one of the gravest mistakes in international interventions in conflict resolution was that there was a misconception by the international community that democratization could resolve the conflict. Drawing from your experiences in Congo, do you think this was comparable in Myanmar’s case? Was democratisation also advocated by the international community as a means to resolve the conflict?

CP: I think there were two completely parallel tracks - the ceasefire tract and the democratisation tract – at play within the international donor community, and they remained distinct. I am not sure it was a planned strategy on the part of the international community, more a result of natural sequencing with the ceasefires basically being signed in 2012 and the first real elections being held in 2015. Was this sequencing detrimental? In some ways yes, but could both have been approached in any other way? I am not sure. Myanmar represented and represents an extraordinarily complicated situation.

In terms of the parallels to be drawn from the Democratic Republic of the Congo, I would look at the impact of the growing criminalization of economic activity for the future of the country. The generals in Myanmar believe that they can control the situation. But the very profile of Myanmar changed significantly after opening up in 2011. The domination of important parts the economy by ruthless individuals or groups has increased. The cronies, warlords and international criminal networks are far more independent in the way that they operate. They don’t need regional commanders anymore to “legitimize” their operations. Some warlords have even been legitimized by being part of the peace process.

Congo is an example of what Myanmar could turn into if the situation spirals out of control. Both countries are exceedingly rich in natural resources. Many of these resources are being exploited by economic criminals (warlords, individual Tatmadaw and some EAO commanders, with links to international criminal networks). Aside from the natural wealth of the country there is also the multibillion-dollar drug trade. A good portion of Myanmar’s economy is in the hands of criminal groups, and over the last years the civilian government has had little success in asserting its control. If the centre implodes as a result of the misguided heavy-handed Tatmadaw response to the protests, forces could be unleashed that would be impossible to contain. And that is the example that the Congo offers today.

AT: Should conflict resolution come before democracy or does democracy resolve conflict in heterogenous fragile states like Myanmar?

CP: That’s a false dichotomy: I think it’s about calibration. We need to have the ability to understand that at any one point one approach must take the lead over the other and then the reverse. Calibration is the challenge of the prioritization of one approach, while laying the foundation for the other. The international community ended up approaching the peace as a separate matter for the peripheries of the country and democratisation for the urban, and in so doing very much mirrored the evolution of each.

CP: On the 4th of February the UN Security Council, in a rare unanimous consensus without the vetoes of the authoritarian P5 China and Russia, and non-permanent members like India and Vietnam, expressed a “deep concern” to release the detained. This is also a time where governments are pre-occupied with Covid19. The Biden administration has a lot of domestic fires to put out. Will Myanmar face a similar fate like Hong Kong or even Cambodia? Is the UN likely to undertake any substantial intervention?

AT: The situation in Myanmar is much too complex for the UN. Over the last decade, the UN has demonstrated that it is not capable of dealing with complex political situations like Myanmar. You only need to look at the UN’s failure to protect the most vulnerable in Sri Lanka at the end of the civil war in 2008-2009, or its paralysis in 2016-2017 when dealing with the Rohingya crisis. Even the western community has very little leverage today. Most of it was spent in confronting the Government on the Rohingya tragedy. But the real risk for Myanmar today is that the Tatmadaw will trigger the implosion of the state. And in saying this I echo, the much-respected analyst and friend, Thant Myint-U’s dire warnings in his recent New York Times op-ed. The risks today go beyond the fear that there will be no return to a democratic process.

CP: There is a rise in authoritarian tide in the recent years. We’ve been seeing this rise of civil resistance, crush of dissent and rollback of democratic freedoms increasingly, e.g. in Hong Kong, Thailand, Mali, Chile, Algeria, even in Russia and now recently Myanmar, and the list goes on. Fundamental freedoms are the foundation of the United Nations but given the West is in decline, is it all doom and gloom at this point?

AT: The situation the world is confronting today is not new, we’ve been here before in the 1930s. I think for the West, the most visible watershed moments occurred in 2016, the election of Trump and Brexit, but that was only the tip of the iceberg. Over the last few years we have seen populist leaders - playing on xenophobic nationalistic sentiments - get elected to lead a number of governments. And as a result, has emerged a new almost Darwinian form of world order, where the strong either ignore the needs of others or even attempt to impose their will on all others; where the acceptance of international agreements previously committed to are now so easily disavowed and ignored; and more importantly; where the acceptance of collective thought and action - the very essence of multilateralism - has been severely weakened.

But unlike the 1930s, the world is unlikely to be given a second chance to rebirth something like the United Nations. Climate change, the peacetime war-footing of a number of our democracies, and now epidemics are global challenges that if inadequately confronted will condemn the future of our societies and even the existence of our very planet.

Fortunately, a fresh US Administration is attempting to inject a new dynamic in the unfolding international political and security landscape. But this new U.S. administration has massive challenges to confront to re-establish confidence in the democratic process within the United States of America.

Is it all “doom and gloom”? No, definitely not! Look at the young and the people in the streets of Myanmar. They are the forces for a better future. We need to support them. Myanmar needs to change from the inside too. The people need to be allowed to experience their Carnation Revolution.

Charles Petrie OBE is a former Assistant Secretary General of the United Nations. From 2003-2007, he served as the UN Humanitarian and Resident Coordinator in Myanmar; and subsequent to leaving the UN in 2010 led the Norwegian support to the peace process in Myanmar from 2012 to 2016.

Anna Tan is a graduate of King’s College London (MSc Global Affairs), with Distinction. She has previously worked for the United Nations Development Programme (UNDP) on youth policy, peacebuilding and human rights, as well as with the American Red Cross on multi-donor aid projects including the Rakhine crisis in Myanmar.

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