February 2022

Myanmar: on the ideological frontline

For the past year, Myanmar’s military has ruled the country with a scorched earth policy of brutality.

Aung San Suu Kyi, the figurehead of democratic reform, remains under arrest with fabricated charges piling up against her. Should the junta of corrupt generals prevail in the long-term, she is likely to die in confinement.

Myanmar is one of several countries that now sits on the frontline of rivalry between democracy and authoritarianism. By any count, the democracy camp is not doing well.

The challenge, therefore, is what it can or shoulddo to help the people of Myanmar, and to what extent its policies need to be a different from humanitarian and conflict-resolution methods used in the past.

Condemnation of the military regimeby the United States, the European Union and other Western governments is falling on deaf ears. The West is not the force it once was;it has lost its appetite for intervention. The Myanmar regime has a powerful ally in China and although it faces a breadth of opposition, the different groups are not integrated enough to form a serious threat.

The National Unity Government, made up of elected lawmakers, might present a legitimate platform, but not one that cuts ice in the hard-boiled horse trading of Southeast Asia’s politics.

While many of the insurgent groups campaign under a democracy banner, there is little evidence of adherence to these values,nor unity between them. The Kachin, Karen and Shan, for example, advocate a kind of federalism for Myanmar, while the United Wa State Army and the Arakan Army, with their close ties to Beijing, want independence. There are more than 20 such groups.

Myanmar, therefore, festers in a violent stalemate. Long- running insurgencies takejunta troops who carry out horrific retribution on civilian communities.

Into this impasse, amid a flurry of condemnation, has come Hun Sen,the prime minister of Cambodia, which currently holds the chairof the Association of Southeast Asian Nations, of which Myanmar is a member.

Without liaising with his ASEAN colleagues, Hun Sen flew to Myanmar last month and met junta leader General Min Aung Hlaing. He did so to see the imprisoned Aung San Suu Kyi.

On one side of the argument, Hun Sen is validating Myanmar’s military leaders and is regarded by many as being in the pay of Beijing. On the other side, he may be the exact political figure needed to break Myanmar’s deadlock.

As Cambodia’s leader for 37 years, Hun Senknows intimately the twists and turns of how largely non-democratic Southeast Asia operates. Once a member of the pro-China and genocidal Khmer Rouge, he switched sides to Vietnam in time for its 1979 invasion and took the top job in 1985. When Vietnam withdrew, he worked with the United Nations on its ambitious early 90s operation aimed at transforming Cambodia into a democracy.

The UN got part way there. War ended, elections were held. Hun Sen lost, but rejected the results and, after threats and negotiation, agreed to a power-sharing arrangement. That didn’t last. He staged a coup d’état in 1997.

Since then, he has created a strongman rule with rigged elections but has been wily enough to keep Cambodia open for business, tourism and foreign investment, even though it ranks as one of the world’s most corrupt countries.

He silences critics at home, ignores them abroad, and behaves in ways that offend Western standards of decency and liberalism.

Human Rights Watch described his recent visit as an ‘affront to the people of Myanmar’. The National Unity Government accused him of ‘shaking blood-stained hands’. Malaysia criticised him for legitimizing the military rule.

Yet, perhaps as a mark of shifting Asian sands, Japan praised the visit, saying it resulted in progress towards a ceasefire and helped humanitarian aid.

Hun Sen’s style of government is one on the spectrum among ASEAN members, none of which is a fully-developed democracy. The Thais run a military regime, the Singaporeans a one-party city state, the Indonesians a sprawling nation with countless tribes and ethnicities, the Vietnamese old-style communism, and so on.

A year on from the Myanmar coup, initiatives are in short supply and the West has been proven to offer values and goals that are far too big a leap for the country to achieve.

At this stage of its difficult development, Myanmar can learn far more from its own region, which has the grit of nation-building under its fingernails. Southeast Asia’s leaders know the hurdles and what is needed to get Myanmar back on its feet again.

Cambodia holds the current chair of the ASEAN regional grouping. Let us see what Hun Sen can do.