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Addressing the 2021 Myanmar Coup: A New Strategy for ASEAN

29 Apr 2024
By Dr Tun-Aung Shwe

ASEAN must shift away from its military-centric engagement with Myanmar. In doing so, it must embrace a process and posture that addresses underlying structural inequities.

The 2021 Myanmar coup differs markedly from those in 1988 and 1962, facing strong domestic resistance and international condemnation. The National Unity Government (NUG), seen as legitimate, counters the military’s authority, underscoring the coup’s failure to secure control or legitimacy, rendering it more an “attempted” than a successful takeover. To maintain and enhance peace, security, and stability, and to further strengthen peace-oriented values in the region is one of the purposes of the Association of Southeast Asia Nations (ASEAN). Presently, a pivotal concern for ASEAN leadership pertains to discerning strategies to mitigate protracted armed conflict and engender sustainable peace within Myanmar. Concurrently, they must grapple with elucidating the underlying reasons for the ineffective implementation of the 5 Points Consensus (5PC) in resolving the Myanmar issue.

The deficiency in realising the 5PC can be attributed to a myopic focus solely on the immediate conflict spurred by the attempted coup, as orchestrated by Myanmar’s military. This focus has hindered solutions addressing the key requisites for enduring peace in Myanmar. In order to adhere to a coherent course of action, ASEAN leaders are compelled to address three fundamental inquiries: Can the Myanmar military engender genuine peace within the nation? Does the Myanmar military singularly possess the requisite capacity to stabilise and uphold the integrity of Myanmar? What are the underlying catalysts precipitating Myanmar’s protracted conflicts?

Can the Myanmar military engender genuine peace within the nation?

The basic premise that the Myanmar military has the capacity to establish sustainable peace within the nation is questionable. The longstanding pattern of armed conflict in Myanmar, exacerbated by military coups and subsequent insurgencies, underscores the ineffectiveness of military rule in being genuine partners in fostering lasting peace. Since assuming power in 1958, and subsequently in 1962 and 1988, successive military regimes have failed to engage, let alone quell, armed resistance movements, leading to the proliferation of ethnic armed groups and protracted conflict over the past six decades.

Despite sporadic attempts at peacemaking initiatives, such as ceasefires and negotiations, these efforts have largely been superficial and have failed to address the root causes of the conflicts. According to Bertil Litner, a prominent expert on the Myanmar Civil War, these peacemaking endeavours have primarily served to provide armed groups with temporary respite and economic opportunities for military leaders, rather than addressing underlying political grievances.

A few weeks ago, renowned conflict scholar Johan Galtung passed away. Galtung long advocated for approaches that deepen understanding and generate creative, integrative solutions to the most complex of conflicts. For example, Galtung’s conflict triangle theory outlines the limitations of ceasefire agreements in achieving sustainable peace. Merely halting hostilities without addressing structural and cultural conflicts, this theory suggests, can only yield negative peace at best. The point here is that the Myanmar military’s historical approach to peacemaking has not fostered enduring stability and does not include peacebuilding approaches for longer-term transformative change to address the drivers of conflicts.

To attain sustainable peace and justice in Myanmar, ASEAN leaders must listen to and engage with a range of Myanmar’s leaders, and work to adopt a comprehensive approach addressing direct, structural, and cultural aspects of the conflict. By acknowledging and addressing the multifaceted nature of the crisis, ASEAN can support and foster a conducive environment for lasting peace and stability in Myanmar.

Is the Myanmar military one entity with enough strength to stabilise and preserve Myanmar?

The assertion that the Myanmar military is the sole entity possessing sufficient capability to stabilise and safeguard the nation is unfounded. That the people of Myanmar have shown their rejection and resistance to military rule is well documented. Since 1 February 2021, during attempted military seizures of power, the nation witnessed annual widespread participation in silent strikes, underscoring public aversion towards military rule and its political entrenchment. Observable trends, such as dwindling enrolment rates at military academies and reports of coerced conscription among Myanmar’s youth further affirm the peoples’ disapproval of military involvement in governance.

Recent events, notably the coordinated offensive launched in Northern Shan State on 27 October, 2024, have unveiled the true limitations of the Myanmar military’s capabilities and morale. Contrary to prior perceptions of invincibility, these events have exposed vulnerabilities within the military apparatus. Assertions propagated by the Myanmar military regarding its indispensable role in maintaining stability within the nation are now recognised as baseless bravado.

The causes of Myanmar’s armed conflicts started from the era of the Burmese kings.

The genesis of armed conflict in Myanmar can be traced back to several historical antecedents, beginning with the era of the Burmese monarchs. The entrenched autocratic system, characterised by its phenotypical brutality, instigated protracted wars between the Burmese kingdom and various ethnic groups such as the Mon, Shan, and Rakhine. These conflicts have endured across generations, perpetuating a cycle of violence and discord. The colonial period and the upheavals of the Second World War exacerbated pre-existing cultural tensions, further exacerbating interethnic hostilities, and entrenching exclusionary governance systems for inequitable recognition and power sharing.

The journey towards Independence, marred by distrust between the dominant Burman ethnic group and minority ethnic communities, laid the groundwork for post-independence conflict. Today, Myanmar’s armed revolution is rooted in entrenched social conflicts, exacerbated by structural disparities. These encompass issues such as perceptions of federalism, resource allocation, territorial delineation, and the protection of ethnic and minority rights. The protracted armed conflicts spanning over 70 years, coupled with the oppressive, divisive tactics employed by the Myanmar military, perpetuate deep cultural and structural fault lines within the nation.

Achieving sustainable peace in Myanmar necessitates addressing not only ceasefires but also the underlying structural and social conflicts. As this line of analysis suggests, giving primacy for peace leadership to the military is not going to be effectual for lasting peace. Engaging with Myanmar entails a multifaceted approach aimed at resolving chronic social tensions and fostering social cohesion across diverse ethnic and cultural divides.

ASEAN leaders and the international community can look to the notable shifts in the dynamics of the situation in Myanmar led by a range of civil society, elected leaders, and EROs (ethnic revolutionary organisations) to help end the conflict. Contemporary Myanmar society exhibits distinct signs of transformation, such as a diminished reliance on the military apparatus, and a profound aversion to the divisive tactics of Burmanisation employed by the Myanmar military. This heightened awareness among the majority Burman populace, coupled with an increasing recognition of the suffering endured by ethnic minority communities residing in border regions, has catalysed a burgeoning sense of mutual understanding and empathy among Myanmar’s diverse ethnic groups.

Notably, the ongoing Myanmar Spring Revolution underscores a positive trajectory towards social cohesion, characterised by widespread sympathy and solidarity among the populace. Leaders of armed resistance factions, including the National Unity Government, evince a nuanced understanding of Myanmar’s structural conflicts and espouse a steadfast commitment to pursuing peaceful resolutions through dialogue.

Myanmar’s protracted peace process stands firmly rooted, with concerted efforts directed towards addressing underlying structural inequities. At the forefront of the revolution’s objectives lies the imperative to dismantle the entrenched authoritarian grip of the Myanmar military, thereby paving the way for the establishment of a new federal democratic state. In this context, the responsibility falls upon ASEAN leaders and the international community to re-assess its military-centric engagement, where no durable solutions can be found, and engage meaningfully in the transformative processes for peace and justice in Myanmar.

Dr Tun-Aung Shwe is the Representative of the National Unity Government of Myanmar to the Commonwealth of Australia.

This article is published under a Creative Commons Licence and may be republished with attribution.