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Why non-interference risks another Syrian-style conflict in Myanmar

Anna Tan

Doctoral Student, Lau China Institute

08 June 2021

The current Myanmar crisis that has unfolded and escalated since the coup on the 1st of February has reached new heights of domestic turmoil and border instabilities across Sino-Burmese and Thai-Myanmar borders. The almost eight-decade long peripheral civil conflict has now metamorphosed to what we could be looking at a never-seen-before, new landscape of an urban guerrilla warfare, as a former senior UN official, Charles Petrie, pointed out recently.

The Tatmadaw is not aware of how much less control it has on the country than the former military regimes did in its days. Since 2011, war lords, cronies and international criminal networks are operating more independently. War-time capitalism will profit them, since they now have no legal standing as they used to. The coup has also put a halt to public health initiatives on fighting Covid-19 and the vaccination efforts. The public health system has collapsed as doctors, nurses and healthcare workers have joined the Civil Disobedience Movement (CDM) and the latest UN report notes that the country is on the brink of an economic collapse. Myanmar’s current crisis risks not just seismic political instability but also disaster in economic and public health terms whilst the region still battles the pandemic.

In terms of economic collapse, the main areas at risk are wet markets and the banking sector. Telenor, a Norwegian Telecommunications company, has written off its $782 million dollar investment in the country after reporting its first quarter loss, which many noted as the latest blow to business confidence for many foreign companies that have invested in the country for the past decade. This should be an alarming concern even for Chinese investors especially in the energy sector, as the Tatmadaw becomes preoccupied with the political situation.

Debates have been sparked amongst international observers and analysts since Michelle Bachelet, the current UN High Commissioner for Human Rights, released a statement that Myanmar is headed down a Syrian-style civil war. While such comparisons must never be taken too far, in this case the attitude and ability of Western governments to deliver on promises made does hold.

The mistake of many opposition groups in Myanmar is to take at their word promises of support made by the West, who do not necessarily have Myanmar as high on their agenda as those in the country would hope to, thereby further contributing to the desperation of the protesters and accentuating their inclination to take up arms and transform peaceful resistance into a large scale armed conflict.

While Western countries may be mildly pre-occupied with diplomatic fiascos vis-à-vis the who’s-who crises with its Myanmar ambassadors and ‘state-not-government’ recognition policies, ASEAN is facing an urgent emergency that presents itself as an ideological crisis on its beloved non-interference philosophy. This bloc of countries, with somewhat differential, individual relations to the West and China next door, is about to face what’s about to become the region’s first failed state in its midst, which ASEAN is neither prepared for nor has any significant diplomatic knowledge or experience in dealing with.

The insistence of keeping the borders shut and repatriating fleeing refugees, and the approach of responding to the current Myanmar crisis with a rush to deliver humanitarian aid as seen from its five-point consensus of the recent ASEAN summit, evidently shows that ASEAN is refusing to recognise the harsh reality - that humanitarian crises are often a result of political crises, and unless it plans to splurge on aid money for an indefinite period of time going forward (which one could realistically doubt that it does), the member states need to understand that human rights violations in their near abroad is a threat to their collective national security and requires constructive efforts to tackle the root causes of the crisis.

The comparisons to Syria with Myanmar should not be taken as a blueprint, says Charles Petrie, but an opportunity to prevent calamitous mistakes so as to prevent the disastrous consequences of what we have already seen with the Rohingya crisis, but magnified numerous times. This is a time for China to recognise that democracy and peace within its neighbours can be in its interests for the sake of border stability, and that disagreeing with the West on the UN Security Council just for the sake of political posturing and competition is a distraction that Myanmar will prove is a costly mistake.

The current crisis is different from any other that Myanmar has been through during its decades of struggle for peace and fundamental freedoms. The Tatmadaw has established stronger ties with Russia than it has before, risking Myanmar as a potential playground for a proxy war. The Myanmar opposition has begun its military training in several parts of the country by ethnic armed groups. The talk of a ‘federal army’, to counter the Tatmadaw, is garnering much more vocal domestic support. This crisis which involves a new dimension of an urban guerrilla war that can and will fuel a much higher scale of transnational criminal networks, is one that ASEAN has never seen before and thus is not used to in its history of relations with its troubled fellow member state.

First-hand consequences of a failed Myanmar state will obviously impact its neighbourhood than the West. Both China and ASEAN need to face the reality that ‘non-interference’ has no place in the present day and that we are now moving into a future, post-Covid19 world order that is multipolar. We have reached a turning point where non-interference or diplomatic passivity can ultimately serve against the individual interests of the states that hold it dear, and ultimately if mishandled could have disastrous regional repercussions compounded with the region’s vaccination deficiencies in handling outbreaks caused by new Covid variants.

ASEAN needs to take an active, leading role in this crisis, no matter how reluctant it may be, partnering with the UN and the West. It needs to seek lessons from what the Middle East and Europe learnt with the Syrian crisis, especially with regards to the political and socioeconomic impact from refugee flows, which could potentially have implications on ASEAN’s collective Human Development Index (HDI). This means preparing contingency plans liaising with the UN Country Team in Myanmar, involving agencies such as the UN Development Agency, UN Refugee Agency, International Labour Organisation (ILO) and the World Food Programme (WFP) to cater day labourers, farmers and factory workers that are most hit by the Civil Disobedience Movement (CDM) and Covid-related shutdowns, as well as Internally Displaced Persons especially in the Karen and Kachin states where air strikes are occurring.

Both China and ASEAN need to recognise that failing to produce a constructive and coordinated action against the Tatmadaw risks a failed state, and is against the interests of both powers. The current calamity must be clear to both parties involved that returning to status quo is not a viable possibility. They need to understand the current situation in Myanmar is one that is way past compromise and dialogue. Clinging on to soft diplomacy and the passivity that originates from its ‘non-interference’ philosophy is a poor judgement based on the clearly self-evident cost-benefit analysis that the Myanmar tragedy already warrants so far, and ultimately will be a losing bet for both parties. But instead, lobbying the UN General Assembly to block the draft resolution endorsing an arms embargo to the failing nation, is a move akin to ASEAN shooting itself in the foot. Whilst the fate of state failure and nation-wide armed conflict is near, unlike Syria, the idea of Western military intervention in Myanmar is too fanciful and almost absurd, given the distance of the country to the West and the relatively low level of threat the military poses to terror groups such as the former Islamic State. The true danger is that Myanmar will not be able to rebuild from state failure, and as conflict continues infinitely, the damages to the region will become far too irreversible.

Anna Tan is a doctoral student at the Lau China Institute of King’s College London. Her research is broadly focused on the impact of US-China relations on the dichotomy of human rights, democracy and peacebuilding in Southeast Asia. 

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